Today’s headlines are dominated by the role of misinformation campaigns or “fake news” in undermining democracy in the West. From ongoing accusations of Russian meddling in Trump’s election to Russian efforts to sway the Brexit and French Presidential election votes, these countries are confronting “fake news” as an ongoing and urgent threat to democracy. Yet in Latin America, where misinformation campaigns have prevailed throughout the twentieth century, concerns over “fake news” are hardly new. Latin American media concentration, disinformation campaigns, and biased coverage have long undermined informed civic discourse.
“Fake News” as a pretext for curbing free expression in Latin America
In 2018, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica, among others, will undergo electoral processes involving their respective presidencies. These governments are beginning to exploit concerns over “fake news,” as though it were a novel phenomenon, in order to adopt proposals to increase state control over online communications and expand censorship and Internet surveillance. Such rhetoric glosses over the fact that propaganda from traditional Latin American media monopolies has long been the norm in the region, and that Internet companies have played a critical role in counterbalancing this power dynamic. Frank La Rue, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, remarked at the 2017 Internet Governance Forum on the inherent risks of importing the term “fake news” to Latin America:
I don’t like the term “fake news” because I think there is a bit of a trap in it. We are confronting campaigns of misinformation. So we should talk about information and disinformation.
La Rue believes that when distinctions between fake and real news are drawn, they are done ultimately to dissuade the public from reading news or thinking independently. He argues that “the problem again is that fake news becomes a perfect excuse to just silence or shut down any alternative or any dissident voice.” To respond to this threat, EFF co-signed an open letter along with other 34 Latin American NGOs at the end of last year.
When Brazil set up a council to counter fake news, the Army and the Brazilian intelligence agency–entities with a long track record of crushing minority or dissenting voices–were invited to join. The specter of “fake news” has also been a pretext for draconian bills in Brazilian parliament. The latest one, a recent proposal of unknown authorship, led to a great controversy when it was submitted to the Communication Council of National Congress’ analysis without prior notice. The text defined as a crime the creation or sharing of false news, imposing detention penalties for those who propagate information the government deemed false. It also sought to modify a key component of Brazilian civil rights framework, the Marco Civil da Internet, by making companies liable for failing to remove or block reported posts within 24 hours or for not providing an easy tool by which the user can check whether the news is trustworthy. Internet companies would be subject to a staggering fine of up to 5% of their revenue in the previous fiscal year if they failed to remove content. Although the proposal was withdrawn as a reaction to public outcry, other bills with similar content remain in the parliament.
Mexico is also approaching election season; the country is set to hold the largest election in its history. In July 2018, Mexicans will elect not only a new president but also all federal legislators and nine state governors. The country’s National Election Institute (INE) has recently signed an agreement with Facebook Ireland to fight fake news. The INE is expected to sign similar agreements with Google and Twitter. The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by the newspaper El Universal, includes the use of Facebook’s tools to measure civic participation, access to real-time data of voting results granted by INE, and the provision of a physical space in the Institute’s office where, on election day, the company is expected to perform activities such as posting live videos. While neither party is meant to get involved in deciding what is true or false, transparency is a must. Luis Fernando Garcia, of Mexican NGO Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, told EFF:
We need complete transparency about the nature of the relationship between INE and Facebook. Facebook should also refrain from adopting measures that discriminate against some media outlets and benefit others in the name of combating “fake news”.
We need an Internet where we are free to meet, create, organize, share, associate, debate and learn. And we also need elections to be free from manipulation. As we have said before, people should be empowered by the tools they use, not left passive by others’ use of such technology. But platforms should remain wary of purporting to validate news even in the face of calls to do so; if they assume this role, it will raise obvious concerns about how they’ll respond to political pressures.
Like “fake news,” policies around hate speech are often used as cover for censorship. It has served as a convenient pretext for advancing a repressive Honduran draft bill on Internet content regulation. After fraud accusations marred 2017 Honduras’ presidential elections, Honduras finds itself in a grave political crisis. Amidst the turbulence, a bill regulating online speech was introduced in the Honduran National Congress in February 2018. The bill, which was widely criticized by civil society, provides broad leeway for Internet companies to block Internet content in the name of protecting users from hate speech, discrimination, or insults. The bill compels companies to take down third-party content within 24 hours in order not to be fined or even find their services blocked. This pro-censorship bill has also spurred recent debates on the creation of a national cybersecurity committee assigned to deal with, among other issues, fake news.
Efforts to keep “fake news” in check are spreading across Latin America. Disinformation campaigns cannot serve to wreck democracy and free speech. EFF will be monitoring this issue as this year’s Latin American elections progress.