Since 2016, US-based scholars, policymakers, and journalists have exhaustively documented the rise and spread of disinformation engineered to polarize public opinion. From the conspiracy of “pizzagate” during the 2016 US presidential election to more recent fictions such as how 5G towers are responsible for spreading the novel coronavirus, fake stories have proliferated at an accelerated pace in the last four years around the world. Politicians have contributed to this fast spread through deliberate false statements and calculated disinformation campaigns. However, the United States has not been the only country where the onslaught of disinformation has increased. Another equally serious case is that of Colombia.
What Colombia experienced during the 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement between the state and FARC rebels and the lead-up to the 2018 presidential election illustrates the corrosive effects of disinformation on democratic principles and institutions, especially when politicians weaponize the information space for political gain. It provides an example of how political competition carried to the extreme disregards the damage disinformation has on democracy itself.“Those boycotting included former president and sitting senator Álvaro Uribe, who, in a tweet shortly after the vote, claimed the revised agreement was ‘an attempt to replace a popular mandate’.”
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 state, the two sides had reached an agreement to end the conflict. Polls leading up to the plebiscite to finalize the agreement predicted that approximately 66 percent of Colombians would vote “Yes.” Instead, the peace deal was shot down by the slimmest of margins: The “No” vote prevailed with 50.5 percent, a margin that amounted to 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, which was approved by congress with opposition parties boycotting the vote in protest. Those boycotting included former president and sitting senator Álvaro Uribe, who, in a tweet shortly after the vote, claimed the revised agreement was “an attempt to replace a popular mandate.” Thus, the peace deal was passed with a cloud of uncertainty, making it all the more difficult to implement the promises made before the 2018 election, when Uribe’s protége ran for president.
The unlikely result of the peace deal plebiscite had a main culprit: disinformation. Disinformation is best understood as “a rhetorical strategy that produces and disseminates false or misleading information in a deliberate effort to confuse, influence, harm, mobilize, or demobilize a target audience.” Furthermore, disinformation is not simply a single, erroneous comment made by a politician during a press conference or debate. Rather, it is an attack on the “systemic features” of the information space. These attacks occur through the manipulation of confirmation biases and the repetition of false narratives to make them more persuasive; all with the aim to further polarize citizens. Both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns spread “distorted messages” on social media to push Colombians to vote favorably for their desired outcomes in the plebiscite.1Pablo Medina Uribe, “In Colombia, A WhatsApp Campaign against Posverdad,” Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2018.
Former President Uribe was among those spreading disinformation in his condemnation of the peace process. Uribe’s false statements included claims that 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 had been illegally taken from displaced farmers during the civil war. Uribe and his disinformation campaign managers chose to exaggerate the scale of this provision and demonize the “Yes” group as full-fledged communists in order to play into some citizens’ fears of the country devolving into the chaos of neighboring Venezuela. Using disinformation in this manner would polarize the public enough and secure them the outcome they wanted, and they were successful. Moreover, Juan Carlos Vélez, the manager of the “No” campaign, said the campaign’s messaging was designed to mobilize people “to vote angry” and with “indignation” through the “viral power of social networks.”2Uribe, “A WhatsApp Campaign.” Vélez admitted that it was the goal of their political campaign to use social media to spread disparaging claims about the peace deal.“While a viral tweet or Facebook post is often viewed by millions of people and can be fact-checked by the company or individual users for others to see, WhatsApp groups are exclusive and encrypted.”
A key vector for the spread was through the popular messaging platform WhatsApp. Both campaigns created WhatsApp groups and sent messages to create “chains” of disinformation that would be shared by friends and family members.3Luiza Bandeira et al., Disinformation in Democracies: Strengthening Digital Resilience in Latin America (Washington, DC, Atlantic Council, 2019), 37. WhatsApp has a wide reach, with an estimated 87 percent of Colombians with access to the internet using the messaging app.4Uribe, “A WhatsApp Campaign.” Unlike Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp is “a private communication network made up of one-to-one connections and small groups” where users can create echo chambers of disinformation with little to no objection. While a viral tweet or Facebook post is often viewed by millions of people and can be fact-checked by the company or individual users for others to see, WhatsApp groups are exclusive and encrypted. Consequently, even if a member of a WhatsApp group were to fact check a claim, that new information likely would not jump to the next group where someone would share the false claim again. This makes it nearly impossible for fact-checkers to interrupt or intervene in the communication channel and correct false information. Thus, WhatsApp users are more vulnerable to “consuming—and believing—misinformation.”
This was only the beginning. The spread of disinformation in Colombia accelerated during the 2018 presidential election between Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro. The narratives during the presidential election were even more polarizing than in the 2016 referendum. Duque’s supporters continued to follow Uribe’s earlier anticommunism narrative by photoshopping FARC leaders wearing Petro shirts and warning that a Petro presidency would “turn Colombia into another Venezuela.”5Bandeira et al., Disinformation in Democracies, 39.
Meanwhile, Petro’s supporters focused on Duque’s ties to corrupt criminals, and the unfair electoral advantages he may have gained because of these relationships. However, Petro entered dangerous territory when he cited misleading “evidence” of supposed ballot tampering, a claim that risked undermining the fragile democratic practice of voting by questioning the validity of a result that favored Duque. The Colombian electoral agency was quick to provide full transparency and explain that Petro’s followers had misunderstood how ballots are processed. Nevertheless, the damage was done as over 288,000 posts using the hashtag #fraudeelectoral (electoral fraud) were tweeted, which trended on Twitter the day after Petro’s original tweet. This quick spread was dangerous because even when false claims like Petro’s were refuted, researchers found, “it is highly unlikely that [the debunking] gets to the community that viralized it in the first place.”6Bandeira et al., Disinformation in Democracies, 35. The ability for these false claims to spread uninhibited risked undermining the electorate’s faith in competitive elections, a key piece of a functioning democracy.7Ellen Lust and David Waldner, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding (Washington, DC: USAID, 2015).
Since 2018, evidence of backsliding through the erosion of confidence in competitive elections has continued. In 2017, only 24 percent of Colombians trusted electoral procedures.8Bandeira et al., Disinformation in Democracies, 32. By 2018, almost 70 percent of Colombians were not satisfied with how democracy was functioning in the country.9Data obtained from Latinobarómetro for the year 2018 in Colombia. Moreover, researchers suggested that, “polarization and disinformation are mutually reinforcing.”10Bandeira et al., Disinformation in Democracies, 39. They determined that, “the main vectors of false or misleading claims were not bots or “dark” entities, but high-profile and well-known partisans or politicians.” These claims were often strategically disseminated to fall into echo chambers like WhatsApp, which led to further polarization. Polarization through disinformation is further evidence of backsliding, because these deep cleavages can lead to voters valuing their chosen candidates over democratic principles, even if these candidates exhibit authoritarian behavior.11Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 3 (2019): 20–32.
As election officials and news organizations continue to have difficulty tracking and halting disinformation at the source, new forms of disinformation from foreign actors building on the false rhetoric Colombian politicians started have emerged in the last year. Whether these politicians will continue to use disinformation to their advantage and ignore the consequences to electoral integrity remains to be seen.
Banner photo: Niek van Son/Flickr.