Disinformation is everywhere, originates from anywhere, and threatens everyone. From Hillary Clinton’s “pizzagate”during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election to 5G radio towers spreading the coronavirus, fake stories have proliferated in the last 4 years. In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin directly ordered influence campaigns “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” Yet, the U.S. has not been the only country confronted with an onslaught of disinformation. Democracies around the globe, including Colombia, have faced similar challenges in combating fake stories that corrode democratic principles and institutions. Instead of working to stop the spread, Colombian politicians have weaponized disinformation for their own political gain. Colombia’s experiences leading up to their Presidential vote in 2018 is a glaring signal of what is to come in the latter stages of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election if disinformation continues to spread unabatedly.
October 2, 2016 was meant to be a historic day in Colombia. After more than 50 years of bloody war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, the two sides had reached an agreement to end the conflict. Polls leading up to the plebiscite vote to secure the agreement predicted that approximately 66% of the Colombian people would vote “Yes.” Instead, the Peace Deal was shot down by the slimmest of margins: the “No” vote prevailed with 50.5%, a margin that was fewer than 60,000 votes. The two sides were forced to return to the negotiating table, and the following agreement would bypass the Colombian people. Over 50 changes were made to the original peace deal and voted on in Congress, with opposition parties boycotting the vote in protest.
The unlikely result of the peace deal plebiscite had a main culprit: disinformation. Political parties and interest groups in Colombia used data analytics to target distinct groups. Both the “Yes” and “No” camps spread disinformation with the intent to polarize and prey upon nationalistic tendencies. In particular, former President Alvaro Uribe brought great political clout into the game when he publicly denounced the peace deal. Among other false statements, Uribe claimed the backers of the deal were attempting to collectivize the countryside and nationalize private property. In reality, some people who owned large swaths of land would be forced to return portions of that land because it was taken from displaced farmers during the civil war. This was only the beginning.
The spread of disinformation accelerated during the 2018 Presidential Election between Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro through the popular messaging platform WhatsApp. Unlike in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election when autonomous Russian “bots” circulated false stories on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Colombian politicians spread their own fake narratives. Both campaigns created WhatsApp groups and sent messages to create “chains” of disinformation that would be shared by friends and family members. WhatsApp is more effective than traditional forms of social media because messages are encrypted, making it nearly impossible for fact-checkers to correct false information.
Moreover, the narratives were more polarizing than in 2016. Duque, a right wing protégé of former President Uribe, was framed as a corrupt establishment member who cozied up to criminals. As part of his anti-establishment platform, Petro even claimed there was election fraud, citing misleading “evidence” that the Colombian electoral agency immediately shut down. Nevertheless, the damage was done as over 288,000 tweets using the hashtag #fraudeelectoral trended on Twitter the day after Petro’s tweet. Meanwhile, Petro’s opponents continued to follow the anti-communist narrative by photoshopping FARC leaders wearing Petro shirts and warning that a Petro Presidency would “turn Colombia into another Venezuela”.
After Duque won in 2018, the situation became even messier. In late 2019, country-wide protests involving various sectors of society overtook Colombia. The protests were focused on a number of different political and economic issues, including Duque’s implementation of the 2016 Peace Deal. As the protests progressed, the U.S. State Department found an eerie trend of Russian-linked accounts posting analogous messages less than 90 minutes after previous ones. They were found in five different Latin American countries, including Colombia. The Russian disinformation campaigns targeted countries that opposed the Russian-backed Maduro regime in Venezuela and aimed at creating confusion among citizens. Like in the U.S., Russia began overtly engaging in disinformation campaigns to undercut Colombia’s democratic processes.
The Vice President of Colombia, Marta Lucia Ramírez, accused Russian and Venezuelan social media campaigns of encouraging protests within the country and deflected her response away from the demonstrators’ demands. Ramirez cited a need for a strong defense to thwart the threat with public force. It was unclear if the public force she was referring to was the same police accused of excessive force throughout the protests. Human Rights Watch is currently investigating over 70 cases of possible police abuse, and HRW reported that 61 foreign nationals had been expelled since the start of the protests, 60 of whom were Venezuelans.
The peace deal process, the 2018 Election, and the 2019 protests proved that “polarization and disinformation are mutually reinforcing.” With an electorate already dissatisfied with the election process (only 24% of Colombians trusted electoral procedures in 2017), disinformation only reduced Colombians’ faith in one of democracy’s key pillars. Moreover, the spread of disinformation in 2019 by Russia and Venezuela allowed the Colombian government to blame foreigners for the mass protests, rather than addressing the administration’s own failings.
Colombian democracy is quickly eroding. Understanding how Colombian politicians utilized disinformation to their advantage is integral to maintaining the integrity of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. In the U.S., much attention was given to foreign disinformation distorting the public’s view of the truth after 2016. Colombia’s experience shows that the true danger lies from within. The Trump re-election campaign planned to spend $1 billion on disinformation campaigns in the 2020 election cycle. The campaign’s playbook is aimed to divide Americans and delegitimize any journalism that does not originate directly from Trump or his allies. While this poses an unprecedented threat to American democracy, there is still time to stop irreparable damage to U.S. democratic institutions.
Contrary to Colombia, not all prominent U.S. politicians have embraced disinformation as a tool for success. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee made promising recommendations to counter the threat of foreign interference in 2020. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 “requires political advertisements on television, radio and satellite”to disclose who sponsored the advertisement. A bill to extend the requirements to online advertisements passed the House in late 2019, but died in the Republican-majority Senate. Such an extension would have generated more transparency for voters and better exposed foreign and domestic disinformation. Moreover, the bill would have avoided forcing fact-checking, which is known to be counterproductive and often increases the salience of false information .
If America wants to avoid the same fate as Colombia, lawmakers must choose the future health of democracy over the short-term, partisan benefits of weaponizing disinformation. New laws safeguarding the American public from foreign and domestic disinformation need to be implemented. Barrera, O., Guriev, S., Henry, E., & Zhuravskaya, E. (2020). Facts, alternative facts, and fact checking in times of post-truth politics. Journal of Public Economics, 182, 104123. doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2019.104123