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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 19-06-2021 09:57

Porno-politics and Argentina’s digital rumour mill

The rumour mill is working at full speed these days, and don’t expect it to die down – elections are around the corner.

A series of sexual rumours about Argentina’s major political characters has been circulating for a while now, and it has only penetrated deeper into the so-called ‘collective subconscious’ as time passes and we travel deeper into the deep woods that is the electoral season. These unfounded and unverified claims spread from President Alberto Fernández to the opposition’s main man, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. They include former President Mauricio Macri and in the not too distant past involved Cristina Fernádez de Kirchner. While political rumours are a thing of times immemorial, and the alleged sexual varieties are of the strongest type, the prevalence of digital means of communication and news consumption have quickly distorted and amplified them, making them potential ticking timebombs. At the same time, the use of social media and other platforms have also sown a new generation of conspiracy theories and misinformation that can have very real impacts on social perceptions and electoral results.

Back in 2019, when Alberto had just been fingerpicked by Fernández de Kirchner to lead the pan-Peronist ticket that sought to oust Macri, the then-candidate was singled out for supposedly causing a very public separation. Viviana Canosa, a gossip journalist who had just returned to TV with a political show, had recently made public news of her separation from Clarín’s political humorist, Alejandro Borensztein. She was immediately linked to Alberto. The journalist dismissed it and spoke of a smear campaign pointing to a digital “troll, with four followers.” Since then, the rumor mill has targeted the president as a womaniser, despite his public relationship with First Lady Fabiola Yáñez and the level of exposure he’s exposed to, a fact that would make it it quite difficult to keep affairs hidden behind closed doors.

What exactly is the purpose of said rumours, which, beyond their veracity, have a very real impact on public perceptions? There’s a good amount of literature on the political use of rumours, and there’s a new realm that investigates the emergence of social media and digital platforms with regards to the spread of misinformation. In a paper titled “A War of (Mis)Information: The Political Effects of Rumors and Rumor Rebuttals in an Authoritarian Country” (2015), political science professor Haifeng Huang from the University of California, Merced, indicated that such slanders decrease citizens’ trust in governments. They permeated throughout socio-economic and political backgrounds, and their impact persisted beyond rebuttals, which reduced belief in the specific piece of content but did not rebuild trust.

Bringing the concepts forward Soo Young Bae, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Communications, analysed the impact of social media on the issue. Her paper, “The social mediation of political rumors: Examining the dynamics in social media and belief in political rumors” (2017), noted the connection between people’s reliance on social media for news consumption and their belief in political slurs. These are impacted and exacerbated by the network characteristics of social media in the construction of beliefs around said political rumors. If we consider that studies in the US by the Pew Research Center have shown that 71 percent of people get their news from social platforms, the field is ripe for manipulation.

Bringing it back to the Argentine political arena, it is unclear whether rumours are being used to harm a certain actor, or even be used for their benefit. Claims can also be used to distract attention from other issues, both to the benefit or harm of different political actors. The more personal and salacious, the better.

Late last year, Rodríguez Larreta’s break-up with his wife, celebrity wedding planner Bárbara Diez, surprised much of the establishment. The official story was that the intensity of his political work as mayor and as a potential 2023 presidential candidate had strained their relationship, yet quickly the rumour mill began turning and claims of an extramarital relationship began circulating. Newsmagazine Noticias investigated the issue, indicating the involvement of intelligence agencies under the ring of illegal espionage that snooped into both allies and enemies of the Macri administration. “In their reports, agents mentioned an affair between the City mayor and a community leader,” read the piece by journalist Rodis Recalt, who inquired and received a firm denial from Larreta’s inner circle.

Interestingly, it isn’t entirely clear whether this ‘attack’ on the most important figure of the opposing Juntos por el Cambio coalition is an external or domestic threat. There’s a ferocious battle within the opposition between hardliners close to Macri, represented publicly by Patricia Bullrich, and consensus-seekers aligned with Rodríguez Larreta and María Eugenia Vidal. What is clear is that whether or not these rumours are true, the intention to put them on the agenda from certain sectors has the clear desire of trying to push the public towards a certain viewpoint.

Within this dirty political world of tricks, where it isn’t clear if rumours are meant to hurt or aggrandise a certain actor, or if they are released into the wild by colleagues or adversaries, there’s an intentional use of stories tied to sexuality. But this isn’t new. Roman general Julius Caesar was a prime example, as Kelly Olson of the University of Western Ontario wrote in her paper “Masculinity, Appearance, and Sexuality: Dandies in Roman Antiquity” (2014). Citing Suetonius, she notes Caesar “was somewhat overnice in the care of his person,” while Plutarch spoke of how well-known his sexual proclivities were. Caesar used all of the means of communication at hand to project the image of an alpha male, using it to political advantage. On the flip side, already in the Roman Empire, Caligula’s depravity and sexual thirst had been used by his rivals to paint him as a madman and was ultimately murdered and overthrown.

The rumour mill is working at full speed these days, and don’t expect it to die down. Elections are around the corner.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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