In December 2019, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez told the press that Colombia was suffering a wave of disinformation attacks from Russia and Venezuela. Ramírez said that social media trolls (people who disrupt online communities) encouraged violent protests, in an attempt to destabilize Iván Duque’s government.
These complaints coincide with a report from the U.S. Department of State that The New York Times disclosed on January 20. The report confirmed that Colombia is one of the main targets of Russian disinformation in the region, and that the Kremlin seeks to “sow confusion” through social media.
“Russia’s interest is to breed distrust among the democratic governments in the western world, and Latin America is no exception. Since Vladimir Putin took office as president, Russia has embarked on a large and surprisingly effective campaign to expand its outreach in our region,” Hugo San Martín, an expert in strategic studies and international security at the University of Granada, Spain, told Diálogo. “In the case of Colombia, the proximity to one of its regional partners, Venezuela, encourages Moscow to take aggressive measures.”
Colombia’s strategic position in Latin America is another reason for the country to become a target of Russian disinformation attacks. “Colombia is a power with a dual role: It is the only South American country with coasts off the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Plus, it has influence in Central America,” Carlos Murillo, an expert in international relations at the University of Costa Rica, told Diálogo. “This puts Bogotá in a favorable position. Moscow knows that and needs to have a larger presence.”
Both San Martín and Murillo said that the main Russian activities detected have to do with the dissemination of fake news, generated for the region by Russian disinformation networks.
“There is evidence published that the Russian media, reinforced by bots [programs that simulate human behavior] and fake accounts on social media, carry out deception campaigns, advance the Kremlin’s agenda, and act as key actors in disinformation operations,” Murillo added.
This phenomenon is not limited to Colombia, but it extends to other nations in the region. “Disinformation is an asymmetrical and indirect military method that Russia uses in different countries. It is one of the main instruments of Russian strategy for political influence, which it executes through conventional mass media and social media. The defense of Bolivia’s electoral fraud, and the attacks against the democratic governments of Ecuador and Chile are evidence of Russian influence,” said San Martín.
“Analyzing the images and footage of protesters in those countries, we can see that they mobilize in groups, with military skills, using protection and tubes to throw projectiles at the police, similar to those used in some Colombian cities in previous months. Hatred is injected in society, and [the Russians] wait for the right moment to make it blow up,” San Martín concluded. “Russia sees influence operations as normal business, because they use them inside the country to repress dissidence and control different thinking. It is not only political, but also digital authoritarianism.”