As the election draws nearer, the spread of false information online shows no sign of letting up. But misinformation, experts say, doesn’t just come from fake news and social networks.
With just a month and a half to go before October’ s crunch presidential election, fake news continues to be prevalent on social networks and in Argentine media and politics, despite the best efforts of fact-checkers and media outlets.
Yet unlike in other countries, such as Brazil and the United States, disinformation plagues both sides of the political spectrum equally in Argentina. From the populist left to supporters of President Mauricio Macri, the spread of fake news persisted up to the final hours before August’s primary vote – and it shows no sign of stopping in the run-up to next month’s general election and beyond.
“Neither of the two sides found strategies or [the] opportunity to appeal as the side that escaped fake news,” Laura Zommer, the director of Chequeado, Argentina’s leading fact-checking website, told the Times in an interview.
In at least one way, however, both sides have sought to present a united front. In recognition of the battle against false information, the Argentine government last year launched a Commission for the Verification of Fake News (Comisión de Verificación de Noticias Falsas), an agency within the Camara Nacional Electoral (CNE).
Endorsed by top political parties, the commission works to fact-check news publications, report fake news to the CNE and pressure Internet providers to limit the distribution of disinformation.
In total, more than 30 parties agreed to sign up, including the Justicialist Party (PJ), PRO and the Civic Coalition (CC). Social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram and WhatsApp all pledged to work together in order to half the spread of false content.
At the time of the agreement’s signing, Provisional President of the Senate Federico Pinedo quoted famed president Juan Domingo Perón in a remark to newspaper Pagina/12: “‘The kids are alright, but if you control them they’re better.’”
Giving an assist to government efforts are those of factchecking projects like Chequeado and Reverso. Chequeado, with the help of AFP’s Reverso fact-checking programme, have collaborated with Argentina’s top newspaper to curb the flow of disinformation. Newspapers involved in the project include national outlets like Clarín and Pagina/12, along with provincial outlets like Río Negro and La Voz del Interior.
Like in many other countries, Argentine fake news is often crude, simplistic and easily produced. Memes or misleading social media posts largely involve the use of fake quotes or photos, cut together with images of historical moments.
In July, for example, the aforementioned Pinedo shared an image of Buenos Aires Province gubernatorial candidate Axel Kicillof with a superimposed quote saying: “Venezuela is the most successful case of income redistribution in the world.” The Senate leader apologised the same day, upon learning the quote was fake.
Peronist politicians are not innocent either when it comes to sharing questionable social media posts. Aníbal Fernández, former Cabinet chief to ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in August posted a video of Macri interacting with a grenadier.
Saturday, September 14, 2019 While in the video Macri told the man “One day I would like to be as elegant as you,” the video contains fake subtitles where the grenadier responds: “It’s a pleasure of all. This is the uniform of the HOMELAND, Mr. President!”
Macri and other government officials then laugh at the man.
In reality, the man responded, “it would be a pleasure to see you in the uniform of the homeland, Mr. President,” according to Reverso, another fact- checking website. By manipulating the grenadier’s reaction to the president, the video hoped to portray Macri and his aides laughing at the man’s exaggerated comments. Fernández later deleted the tweet.
Yet fake news in Argentina dipped into the sophisticated during the recent electoral campaign.
In July, a video emerged of Security Minister Patricia Bullrich slurring words, appearing visibly drugged or drunk.
The recording sought to play into long standing troupes of Bullrich – the minister in charge of tackling drug-trafficking – having a substance abuse problem.
The video was quickly exposed as altered, with the culprits having slowed down and manipulated Bullrich’s remarks, in order to distort her voice and give the appearance of inebriation.
The Security Ministry promptly opened an investigation, saying it traced the video to an associate to the mayor of Paraná, Entre Ríos Province, whom Bullrich has accused of being involved with drug-traffickers.
Other anti-Macri fake news has included misleading tweets and memes. At a Palermo campaign event in August, Macri declared: “It doesn’t flood anymore!” Social media was promptly beset by recent videos of floods in other parts of the city and country claiming to be in exactly the same neighbourhood the president was speaking in.
Another savvy attempt at Photoshop meanwhile tried to tarnish the reputation of National Deputy Elisa Carrió, even after August’s PASO primary vote.
Last month, a photo shared 22,000 times on Facebook purported to show Carrió alongside, Facundo Serrano, the governor of Chaco during the last military dictatorship of 1976-1983, who was a personal friend of dictator Jorge Videla. The photo, debunked by AFP as a fraud, included the caption: “Look at this daughter of a bitch, associate of the dictatorship.”
Other uses of disinformation in the country go beyond politicians to strike at social issues like immigration and poverty. One post – shared 19,000 times since last February, ac- cording to AFP – claimed that 43.5 percent of social welfare beneficiaries were foreign immigrants. “Share if you want their deportation,” the post read.
In reality, foreigners make up less than 10 percent of recipients of social spending programmes, AFP’s Reverso reported. For one social programme, which offers subsidies to poor families with children, foreigners make up 1.36 percent of recipients.
Yet the crown jewel of online controversy in recent memory occurred three nights before August’s primary. As Macri’s election team launched a hashtag campaign, hundreds of bot accounts began tweeting incomprehensible pro-Macri messages using the campaign’s hashtag.
While the cause of the bot storm was never known, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña has long been accused of running bot campaigns to attack political opponents and support Macri’s government. After the bot storm, experts speculated that the government’s campaign had contracted a company to create bots. Yet the company may have mis-programmed them, hence triggering a flurry of poorly designed accounts meant to boost the campaign’s hashtag.
NOT JUST NETWORKS
Further fuelling disinformation, on both sides, is Argentina’s highly-polarised media landscape. Many newspapers, for example, have a clear allegiance between the top political factions.
Partisan newspapers often run with popular narratives intending to damage their political opponents, such as focusing on corruption amongst Fernandez de Kirchner and her allies.
A classic example of newspapers publishing false accounts that fuel otherwise valid narratives dates back to the 2015 general election.
The Clarín newspaper published a front page story claiming Nilda Garre, Fernandez de Kirchner’s former defence minister, managed offshore accounts to funnel money between Argentina, Venezuela and Iran. The existence of the accounts was eventually denied by the US government.
“Fake news isn’t always used through social networks,” explained Leonardo Murolo, a journalist and director of social communication at the National University of Quilmes. “It can be born through radio, television, or even the top newspaper in Argentina. This is very debilitating for the work of journalism, when it ties itself to long- standing political debates and defends its own interests.”
Misinformation also comes in the form of political marketing and propaganda, yet in Argentina this isn’t always achieved through outright lies or distorted content. For Cambiemos, a recurring campaign tactic is to visit small business owners unannounced in so- called ‘timbreos’, surprising them and capturing their reactions on video.
Yet one recent video, which showed President Mauricio Macri visiting two pizzeria owners, cast doubt on how big of a surprise his visit truly was.
As the president enters the kitchen, someone is already filming the owners from inside the pizzeria.
“As the telephone users were already inside the shop, people online were very suspicious that the woman did not know that she was being recorded,” said Ana Slimovich, an investigator for CONICET who specialises in social networks. “Is this a type of political discourse not fake news? At first it seems as if not because all political discourse – as [Argentine sociologist Eliseo] Verón explains – implies a construccion, staging. In these videos the staging is so comprehensive that it seems there is none at all.”
During the campaign of Macri and Juntos por el Cambio coalition, the use of emotion in political advertising greatly surpassed that of Alberto Fernández and Frente de Todos, according to Slimovich.
“Facing an economic, political and social crisis, we believe their messages focus on the lucid,” Slimovich said. “They mobilise emotions. Messages that argue from passion move away from the president him- self and towards other officials and citizens.”
Unlike Brazil, where a massive fake news campaign in support of then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro is believed to have had an effect on the beliefs of voters, most experts feel disinformation was not decisive in the final tally of August’s primary vote.
“Just because one party is better than the other in a strategy of disinformation, it doesn’t necessarily determine who wins an election,” said Chequeado’s Zommer.
With Macri’s long-shot election efforts lurching back to life again, the polarisation caused by fake news in the primary election has yet to disappear, ensuring the role of disinformation in the day-to-day cycle of news in Argentina.
“I think that the most challenging thing is convincing people that there isn’t only disinformation from the candidate you don’t like,” Zoommer added. “A Kirchnerista should accept that Kirchnerismo disinforms and a Cambienista should also accept that Cambiemos disinforms.”