Populism, media, and misinformation in Latin America

Ignacio Siles, Larissa Tristan, and Carolina Carazo

Latin America has had a long, complex, and complicated relationship with populism. Political figures in the region are usually considered some of the very founders or most iconic representatives of populism (De la Torre, 2000), starting with classic forms of populism (Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, and Getiilio Vargas in Brazil), followed by so-called neo-populisms (Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico, Fernando Collor de Melo in Brazil, and Carlos Menem in Argentina), and more recent populist figures of the twenty-first century, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. There is even an entire subfield of studies devoted specifically to Latin American populism (Retamozo, 2006).

Historically, media systems have played a key role in shaping Latin American populism. As Weyland (2001) argued about the region, ‘through television populist leaders reachjed] their followers directly and establishjed] quasi-personal contact with millions of people simultaneously. While radio played a similar role for classical populists, television [was] more powerful in projecting charismatic leadership’ (16). This chapter discusses the particular relationship between populism, media, and misinformation in Latin America. We envision populism as a ‘media and communication phenomenon’ (Waisbord, 2019) and thus examine the role of social media platforms in shaping populism and issues of misinformation in the region. Our analysis proceeds in four steps.

First, we briefly situate the study of populism and media in Latin America within a broader history. To this end, we discuss the links between populism and specific styles of political communication that emerged at the turn of the century. Second, we focus on how scholars have analysed the significance of digital media in shaping populism in Latin America. We thus examine the regional specificities of what some scholars have labelled ‘populism 2.0’. Third, we assess how researchers have analysed specifically the ‘elective affinity’ (Waisbord, 2018a) between post-truth (in the form of its most symptomatic expression, so-called fake news) and populism in academic literature. Our discussion draws on an analysis of the theoretical preferences, methodological approaches, and conclusions of this body of work. We also review major findings that come from regional surveys on media use, misinformation, and populism. We argue that a consideration of the ‘elective affinity’ between post-truth and populism in the case of Latin America requires assessing the significance of religion and its associated forms of polarisation and messianic authority. We conclude by summarising the main contributions of scholarly literature on these issues and by suggesting new avenues for research on this topic.

Media and populism at the turn of century

In the beginning of the new century, the relationship between populism and media in Latin America found an expression in two parallel processes, which Waisbord (2014) summarises with precision: on the one hand, ‘the politization of the media’ and, on the other, ‘the mediatizaron of politics’ (17).1 The former process refers to important attempts to reform media systems in many countries of Latin America. Such attempts took place in at least 11 countries of the region during the 2000s (Guevara, 2012). Waisbord (2014) considers some of these reforms — typically anchored in the idea of rupture in prevailing media systems — as populist, in that they expressed ‘a statist vision of media systems aimed at strengthening the communicational power of the presidency and based on the logic of “friend/enemy” as the organizing principle’ (29). Some have not hesitated to label the disputes that surrounded these reforms ‘media wars’ (Guevara, 2012).

The latter process — the médiatisation of politics — centres instead on specific styles or forms of political communication that took shape throughout the decade. It focuses on populism as a rhetoric, a ‘strategy and a discursive frame’ (Waisbord, 2019, 222). Newly elected presidents in Latin American countries turned to the media to ‘genuinely and “directly” connect with “the people”’ (Moffitt, 2019, 30). Because of the centrality of media in their political projects, Rincón (2008) referred to these figures as ‘los tele-presidentes’ (the tele-presidents). Examples were found at both ends of the political spectrum. Hugo Chavez launched his television show Aló, Presidente in 1999, arguably the most iconic piece of political communication of the next decade in the region; Alvaro Uribe aired his Consejos Comunales starting in 2002 and thus turned ‘the people into his main communication weapon’(de Vengoechea, 2008, 135); and Luiz Inacio Lula offered hundreds of radio interviews on a variety of topics in Café com o Presidente, created in 2003. These shows blended specific audiovisual formats and certain forms of political communication. In many ways, they sought to overcome a crisis of political representation well seated in the region during the 1990s.

The trademark of los tele-presidentes was establishing a form of ‘live’ communication that Guevara (2012) summarises thusly: ‘The aim [was] to involve all citizens in the government decision-making and problem-solving processes, thereby claiming to make communication a new tool for public management’ (118). For Rincón (2008, 9), the ‘communications kit’of politicians during the decade also included the need to perform a presidential posture (in addition to actually having being elected), to ‘govern for a spectator/viewer rather than for a citizen’, to convey an affective national project, to ‘turn the people into an ideological and aesthetic guide and inspiration’, and to always be present in the media. Implementing this ‘kit’ also required incorporating aesthetic and formal elements of various genres (including advertising, talk shows, reality television, and news broadcasting) (Guevara, 2012; Rincón, 2008).

The rise of this form of political communication gathered the attention of scholars from the region and abroad (Beijaud, 2016; Boas, 2005; De la Torre, 2017). References to populism in this body of work range from latent to explicit. Rincón (2008) is among those who linked populism and the communication styles of los tele-presidentes in the most straightforward way:

Political parties were over and a formula was created that mixed the media hero (a charismatic personality) with populism (direct welfare and social redemption of the poor) and liberal economy elitism (unrestricted support for businessmen and new riches). This new system is based on the leader who governs through a form of light and entertainment-like authoritarianism; which enacts a live (en directo) democracy, without means or intermediaries; which thinks in local perspective.

Rincón (2008), p. 6

Most of these television and radio programmes did not survive the end of the 2000s. With the arrival of a new decade, both the attempts to communicate ‘directly’ with ‘the people’ and the social concerns generated by such forms of communication translated to media platforms that were starting to gain traction in the region: social media. This process unfolded as new populist politicians took office. Compared to their predecessors, Latin American political leaders of the 2010s were relatively less charismatic. Despite the attempts, Nicolás Maduro and Dilma Rousseff had difficulties reproducing the media success of Hugo Chavez and Luiz Inacio Lula, respectively. Yet they sought to maintain a form of populist authority in which social media played a central role.

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