Ensuring Information Integrity in Electoral Processes in the Americas
On June 20, 2023, the permanent Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States, in partnership with its counterparts from the United States and Chile, organized an ad hoc expert discussion titled “Ensuring Information Integrity and Countering Disinformation in Electoral Processes” to discuss the challenges presented by disinformation in electoral processes. The conference was organized pursuant to the Inter-American Action Plan on Democratic Governance, which signaled a concern over the effect of disinformation on democracy in the Western Hemisphere. With mounting evidence of foreign influence in elections, the conference concluded that disinformation poses a direct threat to key elements of democratic institutions in the Western Hemisphere.
The Weaponization of Public Discourse
Disinformation has been identified by the UN secretary general António Guterres as a “precursor to atrocity crimes, including genocide.” This is due to the fact that vulnerable populations, such as women and minority groups, are disproportionally targeted by disinformation. According to the Integrity Institute, social media content that contains false information drives engagement—more likes, views, comments, and shares—and it is rewarded and promoted more than average content.
Latin America’s use of social media as the primary channel for political engagement makes the region especially vulnerable to disinformation. In 2022, Latin America reached 392.6 million social network users, second only to the Asia-Pacific region, with Facebook and TikTok as the top-performing platforms. Furthermore, it is estimated that over 90 percent of Latin American internet users use WhatsApp, which are known to disseminate disinformation. The popularization of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram presents a great challenge in monitoring and curtailing disinformation campaigns, since there are very few fact-checking mechanisms that can break the encryption barrier.
False or misleading information can be categorized into misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation. Misinformation is false information that is not intended to cause harm. Malinformation is factual information that is used out of context to manipulate or harm. Disinformation is false information that is intended to manipulate, cause damage, and mislead people, organizations, and countries. Those who generate false information can have a wide range of incentives, including political and monetary, while those who amplify these narratives are typically unaware or part of the same initial efforts. Intent, therefore, is key when creating tailored solutions to counter the spread of false information.
Disinformation and Electoral Integrity
Disinformation can be most corrosive to democracies when it is deployed to disenfranchise, disinform, or demobilize voters and obstruct civic engagement. For example, malign actors can use disinformation to promote false election dates, dissuade specific groups of people from voting, and at times energize groups around their biases and fears. Disinformation can also erode trust in institutions by creating false narratives about election results. A recent case of disinformation used during elections was the 2016 presidential election in the United States. During the political campaign, Russia’s Internet Research Agency created 3,841 accounts on Twitter alone with the sole purpose of sowing dissent among the electorate, and promoting false election dates and polling locations. These attacks did not subside after the 2016 elections. In fact, new actors entered the disinformation space in 2020. In its 2021 report, the Directorate of National Intelligence determined Iran attempted to influence the 2020 presidential election by spreading disinformation about U.S. election officials.
In 2022, Chile underwent a revision of its constitution after 78 percent of Chileans voted for a constitutional overhaul in 2020. The 50 elected members of the constitutional council drafted what was set to be one of the region’s most progressive constitutions, incorporating extensive provisions enshrining environmental protections, social welfare, and gender parity. As the referendum approached, misinformation soared across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and WhatsApp claiming falsely that the new constitution would ban private property, allow abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy, remove national symbols, and allow prisoners and migrants to vote. While broader social forces ultimately brought about the new constitution's defeat at the polls, misinformation likely contributed to a souring of public opinion, with 62 percent of Chileans voting to reject the new constitution.
In Colombia, after more than 50 years of conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian state had reached an agreement to end the bloodshed. The agreement was expected to be approved in a plebiscite, but by the narrowest of margins, 50.2 percent of voters rejected the agreement, forcing both sides to return to the negotiation table. The unlikely outcome was the result of low turnout and disinformation campaigns by both supporters and detractors of the peace agreement. During the 2018 presidential election, disinformation and misinformation were common on social media platforms in Colombia, leading a number of Colombian media outlets as well as fact-checking organizations to actively debunk lies about the electoral process.
In the Caribbean, social media becomes increasingly the information provider of choice during elections and in times of heightened political engagement. A 2022 survey on media literacy, disinformation, and misinformation in the Caribbean found that those questioned wondered if they are getting the real story or just a side of the story that benefits the media house’s political connection. In the 2016 and 2022 elections in Grenada, messages of disinformation were spread about each political party.
In Venezuela, the Maduro regime has weaponized disinformation and used it to polarize Venezuelans and sow distrust and confusion among them even as they faced a humanitarian and economic crisis. Maduro has been an early adopter of artificial intelligence (AI) to drive regime propaganda on Twitter. In early 2023, the regime aired AI-generated videos, on Venezolana de Televisión, the regime’s main broadcasting mouthpiece. These AI-generated characters were created to speak favorably of the country’s economy and tourist industry. Additionally, following the resumption of the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into gross human rights violations in the country, the government distorted a resolution from the ICC falsely claiming that the court “had confirmed that no crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela” (authors’ translation). With opposition primaries scheduled for October 2023 and general elections that should take place in 2024, the work of a coalition of independent digital media and civil society organizations formed in late 2022 to fight government disinformation will be particularly relevant.
Given the political nature of elections, exposing false information oftentimes leaves journalists vulnerable to attacks by those who benefit from the spread of disinformation. The threats to journalists, particularly from groups who believe the disinformation to be true, combined with a precarious security situation in parts of the region, put journalists in the crosshairs of false information. While pro-regime disinformation has run roughshod over civil discourse in other autocratic regimes such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, democracies in Latin America should continue to look for ways to combat the weaponization of information.
Foreign Actors in the Disinformation Space
While the information landscape varies throughout the Western Hemisphere, the geopolitical agenda of foreign governments in the region transcends borders. Foreign actors have taken advantage of the vacuum of credible information, the reliance on social media, and the increased polarization in Latin America to sow division and distrust. The main players in disinformation campaigns throughout the region are Russia and China. In 2021, Meta identified Russia as the country with the highest originator of global disinformation operations on Facebook in 2021, and China’s disinformation strategy focused primarily on positively shaping global opinions about Beijing.
The Soviet Union first deployed “dezinformatsiya” campaigns to influence public opinion and cultivate ideological animosity against the West during the Cold War. In modern-day Latin America and the Caribbean, Russia’s propaganda ecosystem seeks the same. Through its state-owned news agencies, Russia Today and Sputnik, Moscow disseminates disinformation via bots—automated accounts that boost content in order to attract online engagement from real users—in order to undermine democratic institutions. Russia conducts disinformation campaigns in Latin America in conjunction with authoritarian regimes like Venezuela and Cuba. In 2020 analysts at the U.S. Department of State concluded that a Russian influence campaign was underway in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia (under President Jeanine Añez), Colombia, and Chile to stir dissent in countries that disapproved of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. During the antigovernment protests in Cuba in 2021, false headlines arguing that protesters had kidnapped a provincial Communist Party chief, and that Caracas was sending in troops, spread during the height of the protests. While no forensic analysis has been conducted on these posts, government critics speculated the Cuban regime, with the help of Russian-backed media, spread disinformation to sow confusion among protesters and dissuade them from taking the streets.
China is also rapidly emerging in the disinformation space throughout Latin America. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China actively amplified Russian disinformation about Ukraine by quoting, retweeting, and paraphrasing statements made by Russian government about the war. Much like Russia, China also uses disinformation to promote its policy agenda, such as the One China Policy, and to promote a positive view of China around the world. In Latin America, China has increased its media presence through Xinhua, a state-backed news agency, and through it, it seeks to discredit the United States as an ally of the region. It remains unclear whether China has used bots as part of its disinformation campaigns in Latin America in particular, but there is ample evidence that Beijing has used bots and social media influencers in China during high-stakes events, such as the Olympics, to present a positive version of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Lastly, China’s disinformation in the region presents other cybersecurity threats. One of the Twitter accounts used to spread disinformation linked to the PRC listed a domain in its bio that prompted the user to download an app that collected personally identifiable information. China’s record of social media control and surveillance of dissidents may serve as a model for authoritarian regimes in Latin America seeking to deploy surveillance technologies. Coupled with the rise of misinformation and disinformation, this transformation of the communication landscape will only heighten the threat against journalists, who already experience violence and mistrust from communities they cover.
How Governments and Civil Society Can Combat Disinformation
Governments and civil society in Latin America are trying a number of different approaches to fight misinformation and disinformation with varying levels of success. The most common response in Latin America is government legislation. Most notable is Brazil’s Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Bill, which holds social media platforms accountable for combating disinformation. Because this type of legislation, when deployed with limited oversight, can be abused by whoever is in power, critics of the legislative approach argue that this type of legislation threatens free speech and jeopardizes the work of journalists covering sensitive topics such as corruption.
The second approach includes government-run fact-checking and monitoring websites. In June 2019, Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched Verificado, a fact-checking operation designated to debunk disinformation on social media and traditional media outlets. Similarly, the Public Defender’s Office in Argentina launched the Observatory of Disinformation and Symbolic Violence on Digital Media and Platforms (NODIO) to protect citizens from misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation. While fact-checking and monitoring services can promote accountability, challenge misinformation, and foster media literacy, it is limited in its scope and ability to influence people’s existing prejudices.
Third, governments are working with social media companies to limit the dissemination of disinformation on their platforms. Prior to the 2018 elections, Mexico’s National Institute of Elections (INE) signed collaboration agreements with Facebook, Google, and YouTube to train relevant INE staff and disseminate informational materials to the public on identifying trustworthy information. Similarly, Argentina’s electoral authority has also collaborated with Facebook to amplify official electoral information and curb the visibility of disinformation posts. Additionally, Uruguay’s congress signed an Ethical Pact Against Disinformation in April 2019, in which political parties pledged not to share disinformation or promote false narratives about their political adversaries during the campaign season.
Fourth, civil society initiatives have created independent fact-checking organizations that not only provide accurate information, but also try to provide digital literacy for social media consumers. For example, organizations such as Chequado, Latin America’s first fact-checking organization, offer public resources on how to spot disinformation and accept submissions to verify information. Other fact-checking projects in the region, such as ColombiaCheck, also publish journalistic investigations or political reports on disinformation. However, correcting the insurmountable amount of disinformation present online takes time, staff, and resources. To get ahead of disinformation’s virality effect, these organizations can engage in “prebunking”—preemptively exposing and warning people of false information that will circulate around social media. This initiative has already been piloted on Twitter surrounding the U.S. midterm elections in 2022, and it can become an important pillar of how governments, tech companies and civil society collaborate and respond to false and misleading claims about elections.
Fifth, organizations like the Organization of American States (OAS) can join efforts with countries fighting disinformation and provide a platform for building strong data regulation laws in the region. Creating something similar to the European Union’s Digital Services Act or the Digital Market Act would require social media companies to be transparent with the way they collect data to use in monetized ads. The OAS’s convening power can provide stakeholders with an opportunity to discuss best practices in a politically neutral space, increasing buy in form member states. Lastly, the OAS’s electoral observation missions should include “disinformation observation,” that is, a capacity to track common disinformation trends across social media platforms. These missions of tech-savvy observers could be deployed to countries that lack a fact-checking mechanism within the fabric of civil society.
Given the vital role that technology plays in the current context and its rapid evolution, it is imperative that countries in the region take concrete measures to implement the commitments they made in the Inter-American Action Plan on Democratic Governance to safeguard democratic institutions from disinformation. Yet striking the balance between freedom of expression while safeguarding information integrity is a major challenge governments and civil society organizations need to grapple with. A multifaceted approach that involves partnerships between civil society and the private sector, as well as proactive media and community outreach practices, are some of the first steps in preventing the hollowing out of democratic institutions.
Christopher Hernandez-Roy is the deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rubi Bledsoe is a program coordinator with the Americas Program at CSIS. Gabriela Marma-Gutierrez is an intern with the Americas Program at CSIS.