Spreading disinformation through social media and Russia Today
Sowing distrust of democratic institutions has long been a hallmark of Russian global strategy. In the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, there was widespread fear that the Russians would attempt to sway the results through disinformation campaigns (Gur- ganus 2018). These were legitimate concerns, especially given the widely publicized official investigations then underway in the United States. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators eventually found that
The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion ... a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [and] ... a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents.
(US Department of Justice 2019)
In mid-December 2017 then US National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster told a group in Mexico, ‘We've seen that this is really a sophisticated effort to polarize democratic societies and pit communities within those societies against each other ... you’ve seen, actually, initial signs of it in the Mexican presidential campaign already’ (Garcia and Torres 2018). Mexican analysts warned that the campaign of challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) had already been infiltrated by Moscow, pointing out that AMLO’s choice for the top anti-corruption post in his cabinet, Irma Erendira Sandoval, was the wife of Jonathan Ackerman, a frequent contributor to RT (Krauze 2018).
Yet there was conflicting evidence that Russia attempted to influence the Mexican election through social media manipulation, as it did in the 2016 US elections. Over a 30-day period spanning ApriUMay 2018, a data forensics firm analysed traffic from outside Mexico and claimed to find an incredible 92 million Lopez Obrador-related posts coming from Russia and Ukraine (Yucatan Times 2018). This represented over 80% of all AMLO- related social media posts from outside of Mexico. This stunningly high level of apparent interference, however, could not be confirmed by other forensic analysts. In late May 2018 another organization analysed the same time period and could find only 314,000 social media posts related to AMLO from both inside and outside Mexico. The vast majority (79%) originated in
Mexico, with most of the rest coming from the United States. Russia and Ukraine did not even make the top 10 countries (Medium 2018). Similar claims of Russian meddling through social media or attempted hacks appeared during the presidential elections in Brazil (October 2018) and Colombia (May 2018). As in Mexico, however, hard evidence of Russian manipulation did not materialize.
Russia Today network
In December 2005 RT went live with the purpose of presenting ‘a more balanced picture of Russia’ (Ioffe 2010). Four years later. RT started streaming a Spanish-language service (RT Actualidad) from Moscow. In October 2014 Argentina became the first country to carry RT on its national cable network (Russia Today 2014). Other countries quickly followed suit, with RT cable broadcasts becoming available in Chile in 2015, in Ecuador and Mexico in 2016, and in Peru in 2018. Venezuela and Cuba also began to carry RT programming on their state-owned networks. By 2020 RT Actualidad had opened up bureaux in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Madrid. In January 2020 RT launched a YouTube news channel and within six months claimed that it had about 3.8 million subscribers.
During its first few years in Latin America, RT has had limited influence. Telesur, founded in 2005 as a project of Hugh Chavez, already provides news that is critical of the United States and Europe but which offers very favourable coverage of Venezuela, Cuba and Russia. It was dubbed the ‘Latin socialist answer to CNN’ (Lakshmanan 2005). In the decade after its founding, the Russian network and Telesur have provided remarkably similar coverage of world events and political developments in Latin America. They have cooperated by sharing videos and other content, carrying each other’s correspondents on their live feeds, and airing each other’s programmes.
In 2018 RT was accused of helping to elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the presidency in Mexico (Garcia Ramirez 2017), but the dynamics of the race had little to do with foreign policy or the United States. Mexican voters overwhelmingly focused on the issues of corruption and endemic violence, both of which had received extensive coverage in other media outlets.
Given the US experience in 2016, Latin America is right to worry about Russia’s intentions and its capabilities of media manipulation. Yet Russian efforts to disrupt institutions and elections in Latin America, to the extent they exist, have been desultory and haphazard, with little to show for results.