Latin America: Social media and fake news loom large in election super-cycle

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

By November 2019, 12 of Latin America’s 18 countries will have held presidential elections in a remarkable and potentially transformational two year period for the continent. Corruption scandals have already eroded public trust in political and democratic institutions. Now experts suggest social media and fake news are likely to have an increasingly strong influence on electorates.

‘Most people are unaware that Latin America is rapidly growing in the social media field,’ says David Gutierrez, a partner at BLP Abogados in Costa Rica and Co-Chair of the Latin American Regional Forum. ‘Latin America has a population of more than 639 million people, with around 418 million internet users – much more than the United States – and an internet penetration of 66.1%. Curiously, countries perceived as stronger democracies, such as Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, have a higher internet penetration than those who don’t, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Mexico has a penetration of 65% and Brazil 70%.’

Access to social media and digital information are expected to play an important role in Mexico’s election in July. ‘Not only is there greater access to online media than any time before,’ says Brian Weihs, Head of Kroll’s Mexico office, ‘but a whole new generation of Mexicans will be eligible to vote in the next election – an estimated 14 million people who have grown up in the digital age will be eligible to vote for the first time.’

In light of foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and the growing threat of cyber-attacks, some have questioned the region’s ability to cope with such challenges. ‘While there’s been some speculation about the likelihood of attempts to influence the election through non-legitimate digital means, says Weihs, ‘most of that speculation has focused on misleading information rather than direct cyber-attacks.’

Social media is a very powerful tool for citizens to inform each other, to have access to information, but it’s not the place to define policies and a campaign shouldn’t be defined by social media

Juan Carlos Varela
President of Panama

Carlos Braga, Associate Professor at the Fundação Dom Cabral believes the most significant problem facing Brazil and other countries in the region will be how to regulate the information that is shared on social media platforms. ‘Fake news produced by interested parties is being propagated by sites actively involved in “information wars” and that present themselves as conventional journalistic platforms,’ says Braga. ‘Although some countries have legal instruments against the propagation of fake news, the reality is that the ability of most governments to monitor and minimise their impact is limited. The slow motion of related legal procedures contrasts with the rapid dissemination of biased information via social platforms and mobile device messaging technologies, such as WhatsApp, which is extremely popular in Brazil.’

Fernanda Barroso, Managing Director and Head of Kroll’s São Paulo office, says Brazil’s laws in this area are outdated and unlikely to improve before the election in October. ‘The current legal framework for dealing with this problem is decades old and is much more related to slander and defamation than to the effects of misleading information in a presidential election,’ she says. ‘One additional challenge here is that the 2004 internet law stipulated strong privacy and freedom of expression protections to internet users. There is a bill being discussed in the Congress to make intentional spreading of false information punishable by up to two years in prison, but the discussion is still incipient and the bill will probably not be approved before the elections.’

Other countries in the region are also considering such an idea. In November 2017 Venezuela’s government approved a law that punishes anyone who instigates hate or violence on radio, television, in print or via social media with a prison sentence of up to 20 years. However, human rights groups have raised concerns that the law, rather than curbing the spread of misleading or intolerant information, risks stifling freedom of expression and criminalising social media users opposed to the government.

Indeed, Braga believes any laws that criminalise the dissemination of fake news require careful consideration. ‘Such an approach raises difficult questions about who would be the arbiter for the identification of these infractions,’ he says. ‘The approach being followed by the European Commission – with its emphasis on transparency and the recognition that diversity in the sources of information is an inevitable by-product of the expansion of social networks – merits more attention in Latin American countries.’

Gutierrez says recent events in the US and Europe have highlighted the need to bring in tougher regulation in this area across Latin America. ‘More than regulating the possibility of manipulating votes, Latin America needs more regulation on fake news – such as the EU is planning to do – and the use of big data to manipulate the electorate,’ he says. ‘Political campaign strategies that appeal to emotions, rather than fact-based, objective communications, are increasingly driving the agenda across the region and this needs to stop.’

In May, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela spoke on these themes during a visit to London. ‘In the end people need to vote and how they get that information is very important,’ he tells Global Insight. ‘You cannot be influenced just by social media. You cannot make decisions simply based on social media. It can be done from Russia or from other countries, but in the end somebody from another country can also open one hundred accounts and start sending messages.’

Varela, who himself is an active Twitter user, added that politicians and political parties must use social media constructively. ‘If political leaders start paying [too much] attention to social media or start using social media to take decisions, it is very dangerous,’ he says. ‘Social media is a very powerful tool for citizens to inform each other, to have access to information, but it’s not the place to define policies and a campaign shouldn’t be defined by social media.’