Buenos Aires Weather | The militarization of information in Latin America

It’s easy to dismiss the issue of “fake news” as something innocuous, like the spread of certain memes that only have the power to truly influence a small and probably already radicalized part 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 via social media and messaging apps offer a range of actors a vast theater of action on which to wage information warfare. This is already happening and affecting all of us, whether we care or not, and Latin America has become fertile ground for the use of different disinformation techniques at all levels of the ecosystem of the world. ‘information. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised the stakes of an already contested geopolitical battleground that, beyond Vladimir Putin, includes the United States and Western Europe, as well as China as a main actors. It is also a hotly contested arena for regional and national players, with the rise of right-wing populists like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and ultra-libertarians in Argentina who have become important players in the realm of power – largely in because of their online presence. presence. In a few countries where dictatorships have taken hold, such as Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Ortegas’ Nicaragua, the information ecosystem is tightly controlled by the authorities, but it is also a space where activists try to fight back. . It would therefore be a mistake to dismiss the threat of digital disinformation.

According to political strategy expert Daniel Arbol, our information ecosystem is contaminated and disordered, making it ripe for a loss of trust, leaving the doors wide open to what are mistakenly called “fakes”. news”. Speaking alongside Juan Battaleme (also a strategy and security expert) at the recent Digital Communication Network (DCN) event in Costa Rica, he noted that Latin America is one of the regions of the world where the perception the risk of misinformation is the highest (74.2% of Internet users according to the Misinformation Review of the Harvard Kennedy School). Accessing information and being informed about news are two of the top three reasons people use the internet around the world, meaning the ability to generate digital harm – which can range from political and economic to physical and psychological – is huge. Space actors can be characterized by their motivation, whether political or financial, centralized or decentralized. State actors, for example, are politically driven and centralized, while grassroots trolls seek to influence the political ecosystem from decentralized systems. Two other examples are private influencers (centralized and finance-driven actors) and pure rent seekers (finance-driven and decentralized). Eventually, the information ecosystem could find itself caught in a “narrative war” by malicious actors “identified by strategies to deceive, intent to cause harm, generation of disruptive impacts, and interference in the socio-political functioning”.

Misinformation 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 human history. This ecosystem is controlled by a group of gatekeepers, all private sector companies with their own financial interests. A majority of them come from the United States. Google’s parent Alphabet, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp) and Twitter make up the American triumvirate, joined by China’s ByteDance (TikTok) as the main information warfare platforms. All of these companies use ad-based models that seek to maximize engagement through powerful AI-powered algorithms. Together, they reach almost all Internet users in most Latin American countries.

A study by First Draft News, a recently discontinued nonprofit, noted the spread of misinformation among American Hispanics during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only were American Latinos twice as likely to be infected with Covid and 2.3 times more likely to die from it, but they were also more likely to believe misinformation about the virus. Spanish as a language has had an impact, as automated moderation of content on 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 communication channel, and the outsized influence of religious leaders fueling misinformation have all played their part. Dark social platforms like WhatsApp are key to understanding the spread of misinformation, especially given their reach and heavy usage. During the same DCN talk, Paula Bravo Medina of CNN en Español explained what she dubbed the “theory of the tia(“the aunt theory”). Our archetypal Latino aunt is well-meaning and beloved by her family members, but also a heavy user of WhatsApp and Facebook to spread fake news. Typically, she’s an older lady who spends many hours glued to her smartphone while consuming memes and whatever happens to her. Then she spreads this content through social media to her family members, friends, community groups, and anyone else she finds in her contacts. She is the type of user most easily targeted by misinformation, and probably one of the hardest to inoculate against her.

From a distance, it is easy to comment on the weaponization of information in the war between Ukraine (and the West) and Russia. Both Putin and Volodymr Zelensky have sought to dominate the narrative of the conflict. Russia relied on state-backed news outlets such as Sputnik News and RT, banned major Western platforms from its internet space and engaged in offensive campaigns on these platforms in an attempt to form an opinion. abroad. Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians were capable communicators and effective users of social media, countering Russia’s “Nazi narrative” and positioning themselves as one of the last bricks in the wall between Europe and Putin’s expansionist ambitions. As on the battlefield, the Ukrainians seem to have grown in size.

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 is present through the Xinghua news agency. Much more is happening behind the scenes as both countries have interests in the region, particularly China. The United States, of course, is wary of the presence of its geopolitical rivals in what it has historically considered its backyard, a categorization that we Latin Americans should firmly reject. At the Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles a few months ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia and China of spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic in an attempt to discredit western democracies.

“We have seen how these falsehoods polarize 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 so dangerous for journalists [as Latin America, where] crimes like these persist, in large part because those who order and carry them out are not held accountable,” he noted, announcing the U.S. commitment to increased funding to combat misinformation in the region.

Beyond the geopolitical struggle, the digital space has become locally contested. The right seems more effective in gaining ground at the expense of traditional political actors in Argentina and Brazil. Across the continent, politicians and other actors have built digital communications networks, troll farms and all sorts of capacities to influence the political sphere. Big media companies have tried to follow, usually several steps behind social media influencers.

It’s a new world out there.

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