Russia, China, and other external actors have been actively spreading disinformation in Latin America through official government communications, state-sponsored media, as well as willing proliferators of false narratives (via social media and other means) to influence the populations and shape the way people think. Among the chief concerns is the use of disinformation to manipulate outcomes in the democratic process — a concern cast to the forefront in a year that will see presidential and legislative votes in Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
As election campaigns ramp up in Colombia, fake news, which already played a significant role in the country’s 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections, is undoubtedly set to increase in the coming months as well, compelling the Colombian government; human rights, democracy, and global policy think tanks; media experts; and partner nations alike to keep a close eye on the information disseminated and the general process.
Electoral meddling through disinformation and fake news in Colombia, a longstanding and key ally of the United States, is of particular concern to the White House, as Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. National Security Council, indicated in a December 2, 2021 briefing.
“There’s been increasing concern as Colombia goes into its own electoral cycle…the increasing amount of disinformation that is coming from outside of the country that is intended to disrupt the democratic process,” Gonzalez told the press. “For a key ally, that’s an area where, for example, we’re going to really take a look to try to make sure in Colombia we’re supporting an environment where it’s the Colombians that decide who votes and that they’re not manipulated by external forces.”
In the October 2021 study Measuring the Impact of Misinformation, Disinformation, and Propaganda in Latin America, the Washington D.C.-based think tank Global Americans sought to identify the sources, patterns, and networks propagating foreign disinformation campaigns in the region. According to the study, although Russian and Chinese disinformation operations have similarities, there are key differences, namely: “While the Russian government generally tries to disrupt, the Chinese government’s disinformation strategy tries to position China as the new benevolent hegemon […].”
The study’s research on Colombia looked at more than 86,000 Twitter posts in Spanish by nine news outlets, between September 1, 2019 and September 30, 2020, to review the disinformation process and dissemination of messages. According to its findings, 184 accounts spread posts created by Chinese media agencies, 247 accounts disseminated information from Russian outlets, while 225 accounts propagated information created by Venezuelan and Cuban outlets.
“Russian state media in Colombia has engaged most actively during moments of social discontent, with that messaging largely centered around anti-government talking point,” the study says. “Colombia’s role as a U.S. ally has made its way into Russian messaging. Our research indicates that Venezuelan political actors have also engaged in aggressive misinformation efforts against the Colombian government,” the study adds, singling out the role of the Venezuelan regime, an ally of Russia and among its entry point to Latin America.
During the 2021 spring and summer protests in Colombia, a Miami-based data-mining company found that more than 7,000 active troll accounts on social media aimed at bolstering Colombians’ discontent by amplifying specific narratives, while blocking or spamming content that went against this objective, Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure and Free Society, said in his May 2021 paper, Asymmetric Assault on Colombia.
“Most concerning is that forensic analysis reveals that these 7,000-plus troll accounts are run by bot farms in Bangladesh, Mexico, and Venezuela, possibly managed by servers in Russia and China,” Humire said.
In the research paper, Divergent Axes of Russian Influence in Colombia and Latin America, published in 2019, lead author and national security specialist Barnett Koven posits that Russia’s interest in exerting influence in Colombia is not only due to the country’s close relationship with the United States, but also to a desire to “retaliate against the U.S. for its perceived meddling in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence (e.g. Ukraine).”
According to the study, Russia’s inability to entice the Colombian government into a closer partnership in the defense field, drives Moscow to look into alternative approaches to influence the South American country. “Electoral meddling offers Russia an inexpensive way to do just that,” the study says.
Recognizing that Russia, China, and other external actors have strong incentives to continue to attempt to influence Colombia’s political landscape is key, researchers say. “The price for non-engagement and apathy toward disinformation networks is too high,” Global Americans warned. “The best long-term strategy against disinformation is to foster robust traditional media and credible government organizations that have the authority to debunk disinformation,” Koven concluded.