Russia’s rebound in international politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union has roused many in America’s foreign policy establishment. Longtime Russian experts are warning Washington about Moscow’s growing threat to democracies around the world—including democracies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Russia’s limited capacity to exercise influence in the international community using traditional instruments of power—such as diplomatic, economic, and military—has forced it to rely more heavily on its ability to seek to influence populations through an insidious mix of state-directed activities designed to use propaganda, misinformation and disinformation to shape the way people think. Propaganda, misinformation and disinformation are a few of many components of what Russians term propaganda.
For decades, Russian propaganda has been a key feature of Russian foreign policy in its “near abroad”—that is, former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact countries in close geographic proximity to Russia. However, in recent years Moscow has stepped up efforts to reorganize and engage in persistent propaganda activities in its “far abroad,”—that is regions as far away as Latin America and the Caribbean. Moscow’s goal is to weaken western sources of information, democratic institutions, and reduce the overall influence of the western-led international system.
Russian propaganda is weakening confidence in western sources of information
The objective of Russian propaganda operations in Latin America is not to convince audiences as to the merits of Russian policy, to boost the image of Russia, or to promote a Russian world view, but rather to erode confidence in western institutions such as democracy and free trade, as well as western-dominated sources of information. In today’s information space, the responsibility of finding truth has shifted from media outlets to individuals, and this is complicating individuals’ ability to sift through the oversaturated media environment to find truth. According to the National Endowment for Democracy, propaganda is used by Moscow to pursue its “foreign policy goals through a ‘4D’ offensive: dismiss an opponent’s claims or allegations, distort events to serve political purposes, distract from one’s own activities, and dismay those who might otherwise oppose one’s goals.”
In Latin America, Russian media works to create enough confusion that it challenges support for U.S. and western-based media narratives and undermines the efficacy of democratic institutions throughout the region. Public support for democracy has declined from 61% in support for democracy to 53% in 2017, according to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project. Perhaps the persistent decline in support for democracy in Latin America is an indicator of the success of Russia‘s propaganda. Russian-controlled media does this by exploiting long held suspicions about U.S. policy towards the region and exaggerating, distorting, or fabricating falsehoods regarding U.S. and western activities in the region.
Russian use of information lacks any real parallel in the West. The growing ability to manipulate narratives is key to Russian strategy – Moscow strives to fragment and dismantle the perceived dominance of Western media narratives by providing alternative perspectives that are built on the predisposed suspicions of its audiences. Russian propaganda can be categorized into three forms—black, white, and grey. Black information campaigns are factually incorrect narratives with a false originator. White information campaigns are based on the truth and open identification of the source. Grey information campaigns are narratives that distort truths or alter context and can conceal the originator.
Moscow continues adapting those operations to emerging technologies such as internet-based programming, social media platforms, and bots; the latter being a software application designed to automate tasks over the internet. According to the researcher for the U.S. Institute for National Strategies Studies, Dr. G. Alexander Crowther, there are three types of accounts promoting Russian perspectives. The first are accounts like RT and Sputnik Mundo that openly acknowledge that they are affiliated with the Russian government. The second are accounts like those established under Russia’s Internet Research Agency that use trolls and bots to spread disinformation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The third are accounts “run by people around the world who amplify pro-Russian themes either knowingly or unknowingly, after being influenced by the efforts described above.”
Continuity from the old Soviet handbook
Russia’s use of propaganda to aid Russia in achieving its foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Moscow has been engaging in propaganda for nearly a century. In the 1920s, Russian information campaigns worked to discredit dissident communities in Europe. During the Soviet period, Moscow institutionalized the use of propaganda in Russian security and intelligence services, establishing a disinformation unit within the First Chief Directorate of the Soviet Intelligence Agency. Russian propaganda surged in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In the 1980s, Russian propagandists attempted to pin the origins of AIDS to a U.S. biological weapons experiment being conducted at Ft. Detrick, Md. This operation, named Operation Infektion, was one among many aimed at discrediting the U.S. around the world.
Russian propaganda is not entirely new to Latin America either. In the early 1980s, Russia used misinformation to discredit the U.S. in its “near abroad.” Russia used misinformation in an effort to discredit Salvadoran support for U.S. policy in Central America. According to declassified CIA assessments, in December 1980, the Soviet Union Communist Party’s official newspaper Pravda published a false story claiming that the U.S. was involved in using napalm and herbicides against non-combatants in El Salvador. In January 1981, the weekly Russian newspaper Literaturnagya Gazeta published an article falsely claiming that the U.S. was preparing to eliminate thousands of Salvadorans—in a sense reminding Salvadorans, and the region, about El Salvador’s dark history when its elites attempted to purge the country of its indigenous communities.
Russian propaganda is surging in Latin America and the Caribbean
Russian propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation have all increased substantially over the last decade. Russian media outlets like RT, Sputnik Mundo, TASS and Voices of Russia are all actively broadcasting in Latin America. Unlike mainstream western outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, FOX and BBC, Russian outlets are not operating as independent media. Rather these media outlets are directly supporting Russian foreign policy objectives. Russian media leverages the growing platforms to deliver information—television broadcasting, social media, and the internet—in order to reach and influence Latin American audiences, often in Spanish.
Russian investment in Russian media outlets around the world totaled about $323 million in 2017, although there is no statistical evidence regarding Russian media penetration in Latin America. It is estimated that RT and Sputnik alone can reach nearly the entire region. RT has agreements with about 320 cable providers throughout the region. Its tag line is “question more,” illustrating its intention to challenge western narratives and promote conspiracy theories. Initially, Russian messaging seemed opportunistic and not well coordinated among the various Russian-controlled media outlets in the region. However, in recent years that has changed, and Russian media appears far more coordinated in their messaging efforts.
Additionally, Russian propaganda often exploits underfunded and under-resourced media outlets, including many in Latin American, in order to amplify their message. These are known as proxy media outlets. Latin American outlets have limited capacity to fact check everything, and in the race to ensure fresh content, find themselves re-publishing Russia media narratives. This gives the impression that Russia’s message is consistent with Latin America’s message. In fact, Moscow much prefers the message to come from Latin American media outlets because it carries more credibility.
One of the false narratives that Russia is pushing hard in Latin America deals with U.S. military presence in the region. Moscow understands the historical legacy of U.S. military interventions in the region and is attempting to leverage that history to spread misinformation. In 2016, Sputnik Mundo published a false story claiming that the U.S. was standing up two military bases in Argentina—one in Patagonia and the other in the Tri-border area. In early 2017, RT Actualidad published another false story claiming that the U.S. was establishing a new military base in the Peruvian Amazon. The timing of both messaging campaigns corresponded with ongoing U.S. military equipment sales in Argentina and Peru. This illustrates intentionality in the use of Russia propaganda to achieve specific gains. In the cases of Peru and Argentina it was to undermine U.S. military equipment sales in the region.
In 2017, former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Congressman Marco Rubio asserted that Russian misinformation campaigns were being used to shape outcomes in several upcoming Latin American elections, including Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican elections. Altering the political landscapes among critical U.S. allies from friendly to more adversarial environments would be a huge victory for Moscow.
In late 2017, RT published a piece insinuating the UK was responsible for the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan, claiming the Argentine submarine was being “chased” by a British helicopter. In reality, a Royal Airforce C-130 based in the Falklands was among the first on the scene to support search and rescue missions. These are the kinds of baseless and distorted claims consistent with Russian misinformation and disinformation efforts in the region.
In addition to media platforms, Russia is strengthening its ties with Russian diaspora across Latin America through NGOs, businesses, and the Russian Orthodox Church in an effort to leverage these communities to amplify Moscow’s messaging, similar to the way Moscow leveraged Russian-speaking communities in Estonia and the Ukraine. However, in the near-term, Russian-speaking communities will remain an available but limited tool in advancing Moscow’s interests in Latin America. Russian diaspora have not gained any significant political influence to shaping Latin America and Caribbean politics or advance Russian political influence. The diaspora will continue serving as an instrument to promote Russian views and close the gap between Latin American and Caribbean societies and Moscow, if persistent, over the long term.
Still, Russian media is among dozens of media outlets, representing countries all over the world. This saturation of information likely dilutes the impact that Russian media has in the region, although there is still no scientific way to measure the impact of Russian propaganda. However, it is the online programming and social media where Russian media outlets like RT or Sputnik have the biggest opportunity for growth. This is the medium that most middle class, younger audiences turn to for their information, offering the Kremlin an opportunity to effectively and efficiently reach the most influential sectors of society.
To effectively mitigate the threat of Russian propaganda, the U.S. and its Latin American allies should continue reinforcing the importance of democratic institutions and principles through practice and help create resilience among communities in the region. Finally, the U.S. and its allies should continue to expose the falsehoods of Russian messaging and expose Moscow’s authoritarian practices, which run counter to the emerging political culture among Latin American societies.
*Brian Fonseca also serves as an Adjunct Professor at FIU’s Department of Politics and International Relations and is a Cybersecurity Policy Fellow at the Washington D.C.-think tank New America.