‘Fake news’, populism, and religion

Studying fake news in Latin America

More recently, researchers have turned their attention to the links between populism and misinformation (in the form of fake news and other types of content). Compared to other regions in the world, relatively little has been written about fake news in Latin America. In a literature review on the topic, Blanco Alfonso, García Galera, and Tejedor Calvo (2019) found only 2 out of 172 publications between January 2012 and April 2019 about Latin American (specifically

Chile and Mexico). A search conducted for this chapter in several academic databases yielded more results. We found at least 30 articles published in Latin America between 2017 and 2019 containing the term ‘noticias falsas’ (fake news). This body of work seems to be growing over the years: in our sample, only 2 publications were from 2017, 12 were published in 2018, and 16 in 2019. These studies were unequally distributed by country: 13 publications were about Brazil, 5 about Mexico, 4 about Venezuela, 3 each about Argentina and Chile, and 2 about Colombia.2

Researchers have covered a variety of issues in their writings about fake news. Several articles offer major reflections on the problem (Morales Campos, 2018). Many seek to find solutions to the spread of fake news, either through media literacy initiatives (Freire França, Furlan Costa & Oliviera dos Santos, 2019), by discussing overall trends in news consumption and distribution (Montero-Liberona & Halpern, 2019), or by emphasising the gains of fact-checking projects (Sanchez, 2019).

Because of their significance in regional studies about fake news, fact-checking initiatives deserve a closer look. Sanchez (2019) argued that data verification platforms in the region ‘followed the steps of the Argentinian Chequeado, a founding model in the continent in 2010’ (101). Since then, she noted, similar initiatives have emerged: Detector de Mentiras and ColomhiaCheck in Colombia; Truco, Agencia Lupa, Aos Fatos, and Agenda Pública in Brazil; El Sabueso and Checa-Datos.mx in Mexico, and Con pruebas in Guatemala. For Sánchez (2019), the growth of such initiatives in Latin America has stabilised over the past years, considering that ‘in February 2018, there were 15 [Latin American projects] out of 149 active initiatives worldwide, a significant increase given that in 2014 there were only three’ (101). Sánchez examined the Mexican Verificado! 8, a collaborative initiative that was born in the wake of the July 2018 elections and which brought together more than 60 organisations, including media outlets, universities, and foundations from around the country.

The circulation of fake news has been linked to major social and political events in many countries of the region, notably presidential elections. Most articles have addressed countryspecific cases, and, although populism is not their main focus, most examples are related to Latin American politicians who have typically been labelled populists. Thus, in the case of articles about Venezuela, some were specifically about Hugo Chávez (Kitzberger, 2018) and about issues of immigration between Venezuela and Colombia (Ordóñez & Ramirez Arcos, 2019). In the cases of Mexico and Brazil, articles dealt mostly with the controversial electoral processes of 2018 won by Manuel Andrés López Obrador (Alvarez Monsivais, 2018; Meyenberg Leycegui, 2018) and Jair Bolsonaro (e.g. Rezende, 2018; Stefanoni, 2018), respectively.

Although not strictly academic studies, surveys and public opinion polls also shed light on the broader socio-political context that surrounds the discussion of misinformation and fake news in Latin America. Data from the Latinobarómetro (2018) report warns about the fragility of democratic regimes in the region: although support for authoritarian governments remains relatively stable (15 percent), there is a growing dissatisfaction with and indifference towards politics. Data also show that party affiliations continue to decline. This partially facilitates the emergence of populist and anti-system candidates from both the right and the left (such as López Obrador in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brazil) and is a breeding ground for the spread of the strongly emotional content that characterises fake news.

The Latin American Communication Monitor (2018—2019), which surveyed 1,229 communication managers in 19 countries in the region, found that most professionals in this field (62.5 percent) pay attention to fake news and are convinced that this shapes the public sphere at the national level (62.7 percent). In their view, fake news come mostly from social media (83.8 percent) and media outlets (37.8 percent). Furthermore, 61.6 percent of communication managers in government organisations and 45 percent of them in companies indicated that fake news had affected their organisation once or on several occasions, and the countries they felt were most affected by this were the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

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