Pope sharesJoint with a Bolivian President Drinking bleachCoronavirus is curable by vaccination. Vaccinations increase your chance of developing AIDS. A 1960s sci-fi movie predicted the arrival of the Omicron variant.
Viral disinformation straddles the spectrum from comically absurd to dangerously misleading: it’s a tsunami of online content which has hit Latin America hard, and with dire consequences – both personal and political.
Latin America hosts over 20,000 people. 430 million internet usersA number that has been doubled in the last decade) and has one of the world’s highest rates of social media use – as well as a young population. The country’s residents are more likely to access their information via social media or messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Information is vital in a pandemic. WhatsApp and social media groups were flooded with home remedies for the virus. These included lemon juice and bananas. agua panela (sugarcane water) – or even bleach – as well as disinformation about vaccines, including conspiracies about mind control chips, satanismYou can also call it: fetal cells.
As dangerous as pandemic pseudoscience are conspiracy theories. ethnic minorities spreading the diseaseHate speech that has been translated into real world violence – though this type of content pre-dates the health crisis.
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”
The idea of a ‘post-truth era’ has emerged, but propaganda and lies are nothing new to any region of the world, it’s just that internet access and a barely-regulated online world have made it more infectious than at any time in history. Social media has been a more popular option than traditional media due to the falling trust level.
‘Fake News’ is an expression popularized by former US President Donald TrumpIt has resonated around the globe. Across a multitude of themes and almost all social media platforms, the problem is ubiquitous – but tackling it has proven to be like fighting smoke.
The new wave of ‘strongman’ populist leaders on the continent are big on social media. Lopez Obrador, Bolsonaro, and El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele tend to speak directly to their followers via Facebook Lives and YouTube, often with little accountability for what they publish or broadcast.
“It has attacked the credibility of journalism.”
Nearly four out of every ten verifiable statements President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made during his second year in office were not true, according to Mexico’s Verificado group. Many of his statements were made in the morning, which were streamed live to YouTube by millions. All this while accusing journalists of ‘fake news’ during the very same broadcasts, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had to step in and ask him to stop doing.
In a speech in September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said, “Who never told a little lie to their girlfriend? If you didn’t, the night wouldn’t end well,” he said, to laughs from an audience of his supporters, continuing, “Fake news is part of our lives.”
There is evidence of large-scale, professional pro-government disinformation operationIt has been seen in Brazil. Supreme Court lawsuits nor being suspended from YouTube can hamper Bolsonaro’s appetite for the ‘little lie’.
Guilherme Amado, political journalist and Deputy Director of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, tells Latin America Reports that Bolonsaro attacks journalists – including himself – every week on his social media broadcasts, and lies with no accountability. In Brazil, disinformation and its sources have gained more trust than journalists amid Bolsonaro’s open disdain for the profession, making life harder for those trying to inform.
“It has attacked the credibility of journalism. Even when we do everything the best we can, the article is right, it’s fact-checked, based on documents, trustworthy sources, readers maybe still don’t believe us – maybe because they are so biased, inside their bubble of disinformation, that they simply don’t trust journalism any more – it is the worst thing.”
Sensationalist disinformation is wielded for political gain – rumors spread about opposition politicians can do real damage at the polls – either by getting people to vote based on lies or anger, or by dissuading them from voting at all. The use of disinformation in the biggest referendum in Colombia’s history gave birth to one of Latin America’s biggest fact checking groups:
“Colombiacheck started five years ago after the referendum on the peace deal with the FARC – the ‘No’ campaign won by a small margin – their strategy was to get people to vote in anger, and they’d achieved that anger with disinformation,” Jeanfreddy Gutierrez, Director of Colombiacheck, told Latin America Reports.
“It’s important to note that 2016 was also the election of Trump after his comparable campaign – what was happening in the world arrived in Colombia – it was something urgent. With the pandemic, we were yet again passing through the same thing.”
Latin America is witness to disinformation, which has come from everywhere in the world. Some countries invest enormous resources in cross-border propaganda and disinformation. It is possible to add A new study from the Global Americans found that the governments of China and Russia (and to a lesser extent, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran) actively and intentionally provide disinformation to audiences in Latin America through state-run outlets which publish in Spanish – like Sputnik Mundo, RT en Español, and Xinhua, as well as social media and YouTube channels.
These campaigns are carried out with a range of diplomatic, economic, and political aims – often seeking to discredit the USA and posit their own regimes as preferable allies.
Many Latin American nations are making efforts to criminalize fake news dissemination. In some cases, the sentences can be as long as 10 years. Critics say these laws are often just tools for political persecution, and it hasn’t taken long for that to prove itself true.
In preparation for this year’s elections, incumbent President Daniel Ortega weaponized ‘fake news’ laws to imprison journalists in Nicaragua, while his own regime was running ‘troll farms’ – thousands of fake accounts spreading disinformation across numerous social media platforms.
Other proposals for making ‘fake news’ a criminal offense are in process in Chile, Colombia, Panama, and El Salvador. There were a total of 78 fake news cases last year. at least 17 new laws on disinformation and ‘fake news’ worldwide: some are criminal laws, some impose fines on media, others grant authorities power to force social media platforms to remove content.
Yet, lies and good intentions are not the same thing Wrongness can be hard to distinguish – differentiating honest mistakes from malicious lies and sanctioning the latter is a knotty business. If ‘misinformation’ (false information) and ‘disinformation’ (false information intentionally spread to cause harm) are problematically vague for policy-makers, ‘fake news’ is disastrously so.
Good faith attempts at law-making have been weak (poorly-defined, broad, vague, or all three, leaving laws wide open to abuse), but much worse is the wave of the not-so-good faith attempts: authoritarian leaders have started branding critical voices as ‘fake news’ in attempts to silence, stigmatize, and criminalize journalists.
Whether social media corporations are a better option than state regulation is up for debate – both approaches have people up in arms, from human rights campaigns to international bodies like the UN.
The pandemic saw a new mix of policies emerge: trustworthy institutions were connected, disinformation was flagged and removed, while some topics were de-monetized. Twitter also deleted tweets sent by major political figures, including BolsonaroAnd Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
After years of civil society campaigning against hate speech and fake information, the engagement seemed to be a positive step. But the abrupt and large-scale disappearances of content, often without notifying authors or explaining, started to feel sinister.
With more removals than ever – a higher proportion of which than ever now carried out by AI – the mass disappearance of content is cause for concern for freedom of expression, and until we break the equation of ‘clicks equals profit’, it’s hard to see that much will really change – much less when profits look like Facebook’s doEven during a global recession.
At least ten are available right now 24 fact checker initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, but they’ve got their work cut out. Government fact checking bodies lack funds and often independenceSo independent think tanks are facing this current tide. Fact checkers like Colombiacheck or Argentina’s ChequeadoYou will be available to correct and verify rumors, as well as official statements.
“We are using the strategies of the Bad Guys”
“This year, the amount of political disinformation during the national protests overwhelmed our institutional capacity– we couldn’t handle it. During those months, we just couldn’t verify everything we found” Gutierrez, Director of Colombiacheck, said.
“For next year, for the election, we are doubling our team, we are going to create a national network with 50 communications media, but disinformation continues to grow. Political and religious groups have also adopted it as a strategy, particularly around anti-vaccination campaigns.”
And in a polarized environment, even fact checks become politicized, says Gutierrez, “When we publish a political correction, half the country says thank you, the other half calls us traitors. The audience is so polarized.”
Some even face abuse and threats for their work – Brazilian fact checking organization Lupa received as many as 56,000 threats per month in 2018 – from across the ideological spectrum, though the majority are Bolsonaro supporters, and around 20% are bot-generated. Brazil also has another fact checker. TrucoClosed amid threats
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” (ironically, nobody even seems to be able to agree who to attribute the quote toHowever, we have now scientific evidence that lies spread faster than truths. three times faster on Twitter. Fake news – much like extremist content – is more exciting, more outrageous – it garners more clicks and makes more money for advertisers.
What is the best way to ensure that corrections and checks reach the same people who are consuming disinformation? Barrientos and Gutierrez both say that ‘viral tactics’ are the key.
“We are using the strategies of the ‘Bad Guys’. We are using memes, infographics – viral techniques. Fact checkers need to learn to be ‘sexy’ – so it’s TikTok, memes, WhatsApp audios done by actors,” says Guttierez.
There are also grassroots initiatives popping up, such as ‘Under the Magnifying Glass’,Radio Sonica is a Guatemalan youth radio station. The station’s listeners share their rumors and they discuss them. This allows the radio station to reach young people directly in a country that is often neglected by the main media.
“We rank trending stories – true, false, or impossible to verify – we have also created a verification guide to help people do it themselves. Young people need to not believe the first thing they read, to compare sources and media,” says Gilda Barrientos, founder of Under the Magnifying Glass.
“In a country like Guatemala, it’s so important – we need youth to understand that media have economic and political interests – even personal interests – and with the pandemic, the problem has grown a lot: media prioritize immediacy over quality.”
The team even translates content into Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan languages, as 40% of Guatemalans do not speak Spanish as a first language, making information access even harder in a country whose mainstream media do not take those communities into account.
“There is a demand for verification among young people here – it gets their attention, we have a lot of reach. We can see that they are being viewed and shared – some are even saving that content to their phones,” says Barrientos.
The problem is too large for one organisation to handle, and it’s not possible to track all the details. Colombiacheck is one of the larger groups that collaborate with Facebook and Twitter. part of joint initiatives, and still only feel they’re scratching the surface.
“We barely check one part of the amount of disinformation out there: there’s so much we can’t see – Telegram, private Facebook groups, alternative social media – WhatsApp doesn’t allow us to monitor what content is being most shared,” says Gutierrez.
Disinformation can pose serious threats to our health, but they are not imaginary. just as real are the threats posed by cries of ‘fake news’ which open the doors to state-controlled information or to huge social media corporations deciding what content we see, or silently disappearing thousands of posts without explanation.
So it seems like we, the readers, have to be on our guard, checking multiple sources, questioning the origins of our information, checking before we share – but do people have the time? Do you have the time?
“We are going to start seeing deep fakes in Latin America”
Amado states that journalist must also do their job and show readers they are worth it.
“I’m sure that disinformation has a responsibility in this crisis of credibility, but we journalists also have a responsibility. We have to develop ways to win the trust of readers again, start the conversation again, maybe develop ways of listening to them better, hearing their criticism and paying attention to what they say.”
In some areas, the value of media literacy has finally been recognized. The state of São Paulo in Brazil included media literacy as an elective class in schools to help students recognize what is news and how to check sources. Argentina’s fact-checking group Chequeado put together a handbook with UNESCO to help train others to spot disinformation.
Radio Sonica also runs ‘House of Lies’ – pop-up media literacy workshops for young people. It’s easier said than done, though, in a region where basic literacy is lacking in many places.
“We also have a big population here who don’t even have primary education, so how are they going to have media literacy training? They can’t be expected to critically read media. It’s much harder in those cases.” says Barrientos.
It’s slow stuff, and time is not a luxury the region has, with key elections over the next year in Chile, Colombia and Brazil. Guttierrez warns that worse lies ahead.
“We are going to start seeing deep fakes in Latin America – we suspect they’ll be manipulated videos which seem to show politicians saying controversial things. We already have false tweets or sites which imitate newspapers, but they’re easy to spot – with deep fakes we confront a more difficult issue.”
Fake news flourishes in darkness, and as societies across the continent – and the world – become more polarized, fake news proliferates, and people retreat ever-deeper into their dingy online echo chambers. If sunshine is the best disinfectant, we’ll need to come out into the light soon – but it’s all of our jobs, says Gutierrez:
“Nobody can afford to hang back from this issue in our new digital ecosystem.”
Emily Hart, a Latin American journalist and researcher. She has had her stories published in The Times, The Telegraph, Sky News and Pitchfork.
Colombia Calling’s newsreader, she is also her.