It is commonly understood that the internet age has meant a significant shift in how citizens get their information, and that the social media era has generated more opportunity for disinformation and misinformation to flourish. While this may be true, it overlooks that the same opportunity bad actors exploit is also available to legitimate sources to fill the information void.
Disinformation both thrives where institutions are weak and public trust is low, and perpetuates this reality. Government institutions and other authorities must lean into the public’s demand for information to proactively provide timely, useful, and transparent information. Otherwise, others will take that opportunity and the repercussions are grave.
Observations of recent history
Disinformation has indeed been growing online over the last decade in Latin America. Citizens rely heavily on social media for their news, due both to a matter of preference as well as concrete policies that drive traffic to Facebook, WhatsApp, or other platforms (such as a practice known as zero-pricing data for these apps). The nature of these social media platforms as private ventures seeking a profit has led to the use of algorithms that reward sensational and clickbait stories, often full of misinformation or disinformation; and citizens feel more confident believing a story shared by their family or friends through social media, than they would if it were presented to them outside of social attachments.
In late 2019, before the pandemic hit the world and shut down the region, Latin American citizens were on the cusp of what seemed to be a growing wave of public demand for transparency, reforms to economic systems that left millions suffering, and a more equitable future. The U.S. State Department noted an uptick in disinformation originating from outside the region as the protests swept the hemisphere, though at the time it only represented a small fraction of the entire universe of content. In fact, most social media posts were legitimately shared by genuine people reflecting on the events unfolding across the region.
Disinformation thrives in weak institutions and low public trust, particularly where corruption is entrenched and has festered for decades, disrupted on occasions by public outcry and demands for change. Electoral institutions are consistently underfunded, which has become even more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic; when government resources are stretched and safe, in-person voting requires significant adaptations to normal electoral proceedings and infrastructure. Because these institutions lack resources, their communications strategies are weak. In a vacuum of information, disinformation proliferates. When electoral institutions are reacting to individual false stories and attempt to beat them back one by one, public trust only dwindles.
The electoral crisis in Bolivia from 2019 to 2020 is a good case to consider. Following the annulled vote in 2019 and the paradigm shift marked by Evo Morales’ departure, the 2020 re-do of the presidential elections were necessarily going to be a dramatic and emotional electoral moment. On top of the political landscape, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic created more opportunities for disinformation. Election day was rescheduled three times because of the pandemic, which many in the country viewed with suspicion. The country’s electoral body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE, in Spanish), did not have a comprehensive communications strategy and ultimately failed to provide timely or useful information, opening the door for bad actors to fill the information void with rumors, accusations of electoral negligence, and fraud. Experts have concluded that it was the political parties and civil society that ultimately provided voters with the information they required to exercise their civic duties.
The medicine: stronger, more transparent institutions
Across the region, friends of democracy and stability must invest in strengthening democratic institutions by:
— Improving institutional communications. A focus on more effective and transparent communications strategies must be a central component of any effort to counter disinformation campaigns. Strong communications strategies and effective public awareness campaigns may not be the most exciting use of resources, but they are one of the most effective at combating disinformation and ensuring that citizens have accurate and timely information. When government institutions share transparent information on a consistent basis, the space for a disinformation campaign to spread is reduced considerably.
— Strengthening the rapport between stakeholders and their commitment to addressing the problem. When government, justice sector, security forces, political parties, civil society, private sector (including telecommunications), and media know and trust each other, it is easier to figure out the imposter. When polarization and distrust abound within a society, bad actors will take advantage. A holistic approach to problem solving through collective efforts, supported by evidence, spells wisdom for a multi-stakeholder.
— Reforming or clarifying laws and regulations. Unclear laws and regulations allow for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. In the 2021 Ecuadorian general elections, a dispute created by the rejection of an opposition leader’s candidacy, due to a technicality, led to further polarization in the country, stoked by disinformation campaigns claiming that the electoral authorities were in cahoots with specific candidates. In El Salvador, unnecessarily complicated electoral processes ahead of the 2021 legislative elections have generated uncertainty about how to vote, opening the door to disinformation seeking to increase invalid voting.
— Committing to ethical behavior. Playing by the rules should be the bare minimum for government officials, but they miss the mark all too often. Ecuadorian and Panamanian civil society have had some success in securing commitments from politicians in electoral periods through an ethical pact, including a digital ethics pact that they will not promote false information even if they may benefit from it.
— And empowering citizens to be informed consumers of media. Countries across the region must focus on reforming their educational systems to prioritize media literacy and civics classes to ensure that their citizens are equipped to be critical information consumers.