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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-10-2022 06:00

The weaponisation of information in Latin America

Disinformation is not new and has been used for millennia. Yet its digital iteration harnesses the power of the Internet which has brought together the largest and most interconnected communications network in the history of humanity.

It’s easy to dismiss the issue of “fake news” as something trivial, like the spread of certain memes that only have the power to truly influence a small and probably already radicalised portion of society. Yet, we know very little about the lasting impacts of misinformation in the digital age, where low barriers to entry and massive access to the majority of the population through social media and messaging applications give an array of actors a huge theatre of action on which to wage information warfare. This is already going on, and it affects every single one of us, whether we care about it or not, and Latin America has become a fertile breeding- ground for the use of different disinformation techniques across every level of the information ecosystem. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upped the stakes for an already contested geo-political battleground, which, beyond Vladimir Putin, includes the United States and Western Europe, as well as China as primary actors. It is also a hotly contested arena for regional and domestic actors, with the rise of right-wing populists like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the ultra-libertarians in Argentina having become significant players in the field of power — in great part due to their online presence. In a few countries where dictatorships have taken hold, such as Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and the Ortegas’ Nicaragua, the information ecosystem is closely controlled by the authorities, but it is also a space for activists to try to fight back. Thus, it would be a mistake to brush off the threat of digital disinformation.

According to political strategy expert Daniel Arbol, our information ecosystem is contaminated and disorderly, making it ripe for a loss of trust, thereby leaving the doors wide open for what’s erroneously dubbed “fake news.” Speaking alongside Juan Battaleme (also a strategy and security expert) at the Digital Communication Network’s (DCN) recent event in Costa Rica, he noted that Latin America is one of the regions of the world with the highest risk perception regarding misinformation (74.2 percent of Internet users according to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review). Accessing information and being informed about news are two of the top three reasons people use the Internet worldwide, meaning the capacity to generate digital harm — which can range from political and economic to physical and psychological — is huge. Actors in the space can be characterised by their motivation, be it political or financial, centralised or decentralised. State actors, for example, are politically motivated and centralised, while grassroots trolls are looking to influence the political ecosystem from decentralised systems. Two other examples are private influence operators (financially-driven, centralised actors) and pure rent-seekers (financially driven and decentralised). Ultimately, the information ecosystem could find itself caught up in a “narrative war” by malicious actors “identified by strategies aimed at deceit, the intention to provoke harm, the generation of disruptive impacts and interference in socio-political functioning.”

Disinformation is not new and has been used for millennia. Yet its digital iteration harnesses the power of the Internet which has brought together the largest and most interconnected communications network in the history of humanity. This ecosystem is controlled by a group of gatekeepers, all of them private-sector companies with their own financial interests. A majority of them are from the United States. Google parent Alphabet, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), and Twitter make up the US-triumvirate, which has been joined by China’s ByteDance (TikTok) as the major platforms of the information war. All of these companies run advertising-based models which seek to maximise engagement through powerful algorithms powered by artificial intelligence. Together, they reach almost all internet users in most Latin American countries.

A study by the recently discontinued non-profit First Draft News picked up on the spread of disinformation among US Hispanics during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only were US Latinos twice as likely to be infected with Covid and 2.3 times as likely to die from it, they were also more likely to believe disinformation about the virus. Spanish as a language had an impact, as automated content moderation in platforms like Facebook and Twitter is much weaker in languages other than English. Yet, a lack of media literacy, the prevalence of WhatsApp as a communications channel and the oversized influence of religious leaders feeding misinformation all played their part. Dark social platforms like WhatsApp are key in understanding the spread of misinformation, especially given their reach and heavy use. During the same DCN conference, CNN en Español’s Paula Bravo Medina explained what she dubbed as the “teoría de la tía” (“the aunt theory”). Our archetypical Latin American aunt is well-intentioned and loved by her family members, but also a heavy user of WhatsApp and Facebook to spread fake news. Generally, she is an older lady who spends many hours glued to her smartphone while consuming memes and whatever else comes her way. Then, she disseminates that content through social media to her family members, friends, community groups and whoever else she finds in her contacts. She is the kind of user that is most easily targeted by misinformation, and probably one of the most difficult to inoculate against it.

From a distance, it’s easy to comment on the weaponisation of information in the war between Ukraine (and the West) and Russia. Both Putin and Volodymr Zelenskyy sought to dominate the narrative regarding the conflict. Russia counted on state-backed news outlets such as Sputnik News and RT, banned major Western platforms from its Internet space, and engaged in offensive campaigns across those platforms to try to form opinions abroad. Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians were capable communicators and effective social media users, countering Russia’s “Nazi narrative” and positioning themselves as one of the last bricks in the wall between Europe and Putin’s expansionist ambitions. Like in the battleground, the Ukrainians appear to have gained momentum.

Yet we are also part of the global information war in Latin America, even if we have no skin in the war in Europe. Russia has expanded throughout the region with Sputnik and RT, while China has a presence through the Xinghua news agency. There’s much more going on behind the scenes as both countries have interests in the region, particularly China. The US, of course, is suspicious of its geopolitical rivals’ presence in what it has historically considered its backyard, a categorisation we Latin Americans should strongly reject. During the Americas Summit held in Los Angeles a few months ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia and China of spreading disinformation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic in an attempt to discredit Western democracies.

“We’ve seen how these falsities polarise communities, intoxicate public debate and undermine people’s trust in health systems, government institutions, and democracy,” he said, according to France24. “No region in the world is as dangerous to journalists [as Latin America, where] crimes like these persist, in great part because those ordering and executing them aren’t held accountable,” he noted, announcing the United States’ commitment to increasing funding to fight misinformation in the region.

Beyond the geopolitical struggle, the digital arena has become contested locally. Right-wingers appear to be more effective at gaining ground at the expense of traditional political actors in Argentina and Brazil. Throughout the continent, politicians and other players have built digital communications networks, troll farms, and all sorts of capacities to influence the political sphere. Major media companies have tried to keep up, generally several steps behind social media influencers.

It’s a new world out there.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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