(Adds more from CLS statement)
SANTIAGO, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Bolivia’s interim presidency said on Thursday it had hired a Washington-based lobbying firm that Facebook Inc accuses of launching fake news campaigns to skew democratic debate.
Bolivia’s interim government, which assumed power in a vacuum after the resignation of longtime leftist leader Evo Morales late last year, said it hired CLS Strategies in December in an effort to shore up its international support.
In a statement, the government said CLS’ mandate was to “carry out lobbying in search of backing for Bolivian democracy after fraudulent elections and in support of the holding of new presidential polls.”
CLS introduced Bolivian officials to members of the U.S. executive branch and legislature, the government said, adding that it had not asked CLS to conduct any other service or activity.
Facebook said in a report here on Tuesday that it had removed fake social media accounts linked to CLS that had posted content in support of caretaker Bolivia's President Jeanine Anez and the political opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The company had also posted negative content about the party of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Facebook said.
In the same report, Facebook said it has also dismantled a Russian influence operation posing as an independent news outlet to target left-wing voters in the United States and Britain.
Anez, a conservative former senator, assumed the presidency in Bolivia in November after Morales stepped down when an international audit of elections he won claimed to have found evidence of fraud.
She later threw her hat into the ring for Bolivia’s presidential elections due to take place in October.
Facebook said CLS violated its policy against foreign interference - which it defines as “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity” - by using fake Facebook and Instagram profiles to amplify content it created including mocked-up local news, civic organizations and political supporters’ sites.
The U.S. social media giant said the fake accounts posted about news and current events, including politics and political figures, elections and political crises in Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia.
It removed a total of 55 fake Facebook accounts, 42 pages and 36 Instagram accounts, it added.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said in a tweet that CLS’ activity “continues a trend we have seen of PR firms around the world making a business out of this type of deception.”
“If we see networks like this, we will continue to remove them and attribute them publicly,” he added.
In a statement sent to Reuters, CLS Strategies highlighted what it called Facebook’s recognition, during a call with journalists about its report, that CLS had “a large portion of legitimate activity that isn’t designed for this purpose.”
It rejected Facebook´s claim of foreign interference, saying: “Our work was funded and directed by clients inside each of the countries. None of this work was conducted on behalf of foreign entities.”
“CLS has a long tradition of doing international work, including on social media, to promote free and open elections and to oppose oppressive regimes, and we take seriously our commitment to adhering to the fast-evolving policies of Facebook and other social media platforms,” the statement added.
Morales, who ran Bolivia for 14 years before leaving the country, has accused Anez and others of leading a U.S.-backed coup against him.
He said in a tweet on Wednesday that the Facebook report provided evidence of a “dirty war” against MAS - his party. “Today, Facebook took a step by eliminating a network hired by the de facto government to spread its lies,” he said.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Reporting by Aislinn Laing, additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)
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