According to the United States, Russia is using disinformation to influence Latin America and Spanish-speaking communities in general, as a political weapon amid the war in Ukraine and three months before the U.S. mid-term elections.
In a country with more than 62 million Hispanics, in the last three months, congressmen wrote to digital giants, such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and instant messaging apps such as Telegram to demand them to prevent Russian media such as RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo from “spreading and exporting lies abroad” that “directly harm national interests.”
While China, U.S. President Joe Biden’s other big headache, funds infrastructure and creates financial ties, Russia “has to be more creative to accumulate influence and one of its strategies has been to spread false information,” Democratic Congressman Albio Sires recently stated during a congressional hearing on Russian influence in Latin America.
Russia “conducts, as necessary, information warfare activities aimed at increasing polarization and decreasing confidence in democratic institutions,” Evan Ellis, a professor and researcher at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, said during the hearing.
To achieve this, it uses social networks that “complement the activities of its state-run disinformation platforms RT and Sputnik,” he explains.
But it is possible to counter its effects with investment, opined Candace Rondeaux, director of New America’s Future Frontlines, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
“During the Cold War Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were certainly extremely important in getting results in Eastern Europe and Europe,” she said, referring to the U.S. government-funded broadcasting organization. “You don’t see anything comparable to that today” for Latin America and “it’s a shortfall that probably should be addressed.”
Kimberly Marten, a professor in the Political Science Department at Barnard College, a New York university, agrees on the need to combat this strategy.
“What we need to do is respond” and “tell people through Spanish and Portuguese programs exactly what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his regime have done in terms of corruption and violence,” she said.
Disinformation has reached a “staggering” level in Latin America, lamented U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Summit of the Americas in June.
And behind closed doors, the political class is alarmed by the possibility of a repeat of the alleged interference in its elections of which Russia has been accused in recent years.
Truth and lies
Especially with just over three months to go before the November elections, when one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives are up for renewal, right in the middle of the four-year presidential term.
At least 11.6 million Latinos will vote in those elections, predicts the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund. That is nearly one in 10 voters (9.8 percent) will be Latino.
And misinformation can have a devastating effect on these voters, who are highly coveted by both Democrats and Republicans.
According to an August 23 study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, “when there are information gaps, they tend to affect new voters and newly naturalized citizens much more,” and “they are overwhelmingly Latino.”
The phenomenon is not new
During the 2020 presidential election, “there were many, many examples of confused citizens and malicious actors spreading misinformation directly to Latino communities,” the study recalls, although without singling out any country.
It cites as an example the “misleading rumors that Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] was going to patrol” the polling places to “intimidate voters.”
In Biden’s words, “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and profit.”