Latin America and the Caribbean are often overlooked in discussions on the phenomenon of fake news, and disinformation. The Washingon DC-based Global Americans, of which I’m a member, joined forces with Centro para la Apertura y Desarrollo de América Latina, Medianálisis, Universidad del Rosario and Escuela de Gobierno y Transformación Pública Tecnológico de Monterrey to gain a region-wide perspective on disinformation1. Additionally, the geopolitical motivations and strategies deployed by non-democratic regimes—whether Russia, China, or Venezuela—in our region which in recent decades has emerged as a battleground between democracy and autocracy2.
While the disinformation landscape varies, there is a sustained effort by non-democratic governments—like China and Russia, and to a lesser extent, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran—to increase their global presence, including in local language media sites, YouTube channels, news bureaus, and on social media in our region. These efforts are construed to influence public perception of these non-democratic states and their policies and tilt local media coverage and sow disinformation and discord. This poses a threat to democratic norms, transparency, tolerance, and human rights.
We need to understand the sources, methods, targets, and themes of this state-based propaganda and disinformation campaign. The rigorous quantitative and qualitative research done, covering Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela has examined the use of “sharp power” which is defined as effectively creating a positive image of the perpetrator via disinformation campaigns, often orchestrated by media affiliated with these countries.
The study has evaluated misleading and propagandistic media stories in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, which has allowed Global Americans and partners to identify the modalities and sources of international and domestic disinformation campaigns throughout the region. The extent, nature, and objectives of foreign state-media disinformation campaigns, the targets of those efforts across population sub-groups, and across select topics of choice were covered by the study as well as the social media landscape to determine the affiliated but undeclared partners of foreign state media.
The research revealed the following important findings:
1. China, Russia, and other undemocratic actors are actively promoting disinformation and propaganda in Latin America through their state-sponsored media channels, though the degree and scope of these efforts vary from country to country. The most active of these are Russia Today, Telesur, Sputnik Mundo, and Xinhua Español as well as Twitter and Facebook.
2. Chinese and Russian disinformation and propaganda are disproportionately concentrated on thematic targets that lie at the intersection of democratic fault lines, inflaming local political rifts, promoting like-minded and often non-democratic local forces, and portraying China and Russia as benevolent partners and alternatives to the U.S. throughout the region.
3. While Chinese and Russian government disinformation operations are often similar, there are key differences. Russia lacks the means to properly court deeper commercial opportunities and its disinformation strategy is focused on disrupting social order and political stability as seen in Colombia and Chile, two known U.S. allies. Russia also seeks to gain new friends that are preferably disinclined to the U.S. in the hope of expanding their political influence. In contrast, China is the world’s second-largest economy, a major trading partner throughout the region, and an important foreign investor. While the Russian government generally attempts to disrupt, the Chinese government’s disinformation strategy tries to position China as the new benevolent hegemon and the dominant international power in the current international system.
4. Venezuela lies at the other end of the disinformation extreme, home to overt and direct disinformation from China, Russia, and the Venezuelan authorities themselves, all undermining democratic forces in the country.
5. Research on Peru revealed that Chinese state media is the most active in the Andean country, likely due to Peru’s wealth of mineral resources and oil, and the existence of a relatively sizable community of Chinese descent. Chinese influence is most felt through the local media, academic circles, and government officials, many of whom have visited China. In Peru, Russian engagement is far less of a factor, particularly compared to Russian engagement in countries, such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina.
6. Research indicates considerable Russian and Chinese engagement in Argentina in the media and information space. For China, Argentina is a significant source of key commodities, including soybeans, meat, and seafood, while for Russia, the Argentine government’s lukewarm relationship with the U.S. is of keen interest, as it allows Moscow to cast its influence there.
7. The research found that Chinese efforts largely centered around promoting the Chinese economic model and narratives of solidarity, while Russian propaganda was particularly active in positively portraying its vaccine, Sputnik V, with its disinformation operations seeking to tarnish U.S. and European vaccines.
8. In Colombia foreign state media was present but to varying degrees. The study looked at 86,615 Twitter posts published in Spanish by nine news agencies between September 1, 2019, through September 30, 2020; a total of 1,464 profiles were manually reviewed to report on the disinformation process, including the creation, production, and dissemination of messages, and found that 184 accounts spread posts created by Chinese media outlets, including alleged cyborgs (18) mainly located in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay and highly suspicious users (3) located in Venezuela (2) and Mexico (1); 247 accounts propagated information created by Russian media outlets, including alleged cyborgs (40) and highly suspicious users (10) mainly located in Colombia, and 225 accounts propagated information created by Cuban and Venezuelan media outlets, including cyborgs (18) located in Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba, as well as highly suspicious users (10) located in Colombia.
9. Chinese messaging in Colombia centers on its role as an important trade partner and therefore the narrative projected is one of a mutually beneficial partnership between the two countries. In contrast, Russian state media in Colombia has engaged most actively during moments of social discontent, with that messaging largely centered around anti-government talking points.
10. Colombia’s role as a U.S. ally has made its way into Russian messaging. The research indicates that Venezuelan political actors have also engaged in aggressive misinformation efforts against the Colombian government, due in part to Bogotá’s willingness to host large numbers of Venezuelan refugees and members of the Venezuelan opposition.
I believe these findings underscore the importance of better understanding foreign state media, their activities, their counterparts, their preferred themes, and their preferred tactics. It’s an indication that maybe we should commission a study, be it stand-alone or with our Caribbean neighbors so we can better detect and counteract non-democratic foreign state media campaigns. It also indicates how important it is to invest in promoting a more politically conscious citizenry that is more understanding and even skeptical. The price for non-engagement and apathy toward disinformation networks is too high and not confronting this challenge risks perpetuating ongoing anti-democratic trends and further eroding democratic institutions in our region.
Willemstad, Curaçao/Global America