Misinformation and messianic populism in Latin America

Only a few scholars have addressed specifically the link between populism and misinformation in the region. Waisbord (2018a) argued that present conditions in public communication are ideal for the proliferation of populist politics (which is intrinsically oriented towards post-truth). In his words, ‘the upsurge of populist politics is symptomatic of the consolidation of post-truth communication as a distinctive feature of contemporary politics’ (Waisbord, 2018a, 18).

Waisbord drew on Weber’s notion of ‘elective affinity’ to suggest that there are key links between populism and post-truth, a relationship that ‘should not be mechanistically viewed as straightforward causation, but rather in terms of similarities, analogies, convergence, and/or reinforcement between social facts such as culture, politics, religion, and economics” (Waisbord, 2018a, 18). In his view, two processes have led to this particular situation: the breakdown of the legacy media order and the increasing fragmentation of mediated spheres. From this perspective, the spread of misinformation both results from and empowers populism.

Building on Waisbord’s analysis, we argue that religion has become a third key component of the elective affinity between populism and post-truth in the particular case of Latin America. Laclau’s (2005) approach to populism is a key to making this argument. According to Laclau (2005), populism is not best defined by its political or ideological contents, but rather by ‘a particular logic of articulation’ that builds on discourses that dichotomise social spaces and collective identities (32). As a result, populism emerges whenever social events are framed in terms of a dichotomous border that separates ‘those above’ (us) from ‘those below’ (them) (Laclau, 1987, 30).

The dichotomous nature of populism holds important affinities with the discourse of Western religions. In the particular context of Latin America, this has been the case since colonial times. To this day, Catholicism has privileged a discourse that separates it from ‘the people’ through a binary that overlaps with the political realm, causing a dichotomy that hinders pluralism and diversity while fostering social polarisation. In this context, certain political ideologies have acquired almost the status of religious doctrines, such as Peronism in Argentina (Mansilla, 2012).

Extending forms of authority' that prevailed at the turn of the century (which emphasised the idea of the hero who came to rescue ‘the people’), populism in Latin America has acquired a much more explicitly religious expression (which stresses the role of messiahs in saving ‘the people’ from certain threats). This allows the establishment of another link with the work of Weber, who studied the mechanisms of charismatic authority in ways that tied together the political and religious realms. According to Weber (2013), charismatic authority is messianic in nature. In his words,

The turning point is always the same: charismatic men and [their] disciples become companions admitted to the Lord’s table and endowed with special and distinctive rights. . . . The dominated of the charismatic structure . . . become ‘subjects’ submitted ... to the coercion and discipline of a rule and an order, or even ‘citizens’ obeying the law. The charismatic message inevitably becomes . . . dogma, doctrine, theory, regulation, legal code or content of a tradition that gets petrified.

(Weber, 2013, 465-466)

Although the articulation or elective affinity between populism and religion dates back to pre-democratic times, it prevails in many democratic systems in Latin America. The binary essence of this discourse remains, but it has also varied in two important ways: (1) the nature of its manifestations (given the prevalence of fake news and misinformation issues) and (2) the institutional source of religious discourse (given that Catholicism is no longer the sole religious denomination that fuels populist rhetoric in the region). In what follows, we discuss these two issues in their relationship to issues of misinformation.

Framing religion as part of the elective affinity between populism and post-truth helps explain some of the particular manifestations that this link has acquired in Latin America over the past years. Recent presidential campaigns in various countries of the region show how this tripartite affinity has manifested in the parallel dissemination of particular kinds of content, served as a platform for the rise of populist political/religious figures, and shaped the outcome of electoral processes. For example, Guevara (2020) and Siles, Carazo, and Tristan (2020) demonstrated that, during the presidential elections that took place in 2018 in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico, social media fuelled a polarisation of the electorate regarding topics such as sexual orientation and social values.

The combination of misinformation, populist styles of communication, and religious discourses has been a fertile ground for the rise of political/religious candidates and politicians from neo-Pentecostal churches. The cases of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Fabricio Alvarado in Costa Rica (not to be confused with Carlos Alvarado, the country’s president) exemplify how the rise of the neo-Pentecostal and evangelical churches have added nuance and complexity to the fight between multiple actors and movements for the ‘populist reason' in Latin America (c.f. Laclau, 2005). Key in this process is the construction of a discursive premise that separates us from them, which is framed around the distinction between traditional values and new threats. This elective affinity enacted a form of symbolic violence that was crucial for understanding not only the results of these elections but also how they unfolded (Guevara, 2020; Siles, 2020).

In this context, the Bible has become a key component of the populist communications kit in Latin America; along with Brazil national soccer team’s jersey, it was the central symbol ofjair Bolsonaro s discursive fight against ‘the red flag, “gender ideology’”, and corruption’ (Stefanoni, 2018); El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele carried it with him during his inauguration, and, like many other presidents in the region, Guatemala’s Alejandro Giammattei cited it as the main weapon to stop the ‘battle’against the COVID-19 ‘enemy’. It is not surprising that, after the resignation of Evo Morales in November of 2019, Jeanine Anez, the self-proclaimed president who took over the country’s government, declared, ‘The Bible returns to the Palace’ after entering the Palacio de Gobierno in La Paz, Bolivia, on November 12, 2019.

Social media platforms and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are crucial in the creation of an ‘epistemic democracy’, (Waisbord, 2018b, 1870), in which journalistic values and populist/messianic discourses compete for the attention of digital communities. These constitute ‘communities of belief’, as Waisbord (2018b) calls them, and are ‘anchored by common allegiance to politics, ideology’, and religion as well as socio-demographic variables’ (1870). Both in form and in substance, Bukele’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly — where he snapped a selfie and positioned himself as a model in the political use of social media platforms for connecting with ‘the people’ in El Salvador — illustrates this phenomenon.

The relationship between populism, misinformation, and religion in Latin America is a threat to democracy and human rights. This is because the separation between us and them that underlies the populist/religious reason, often exploited by’ and reinforced through fake news, creates political scenarios in which certain groups are banned from expanding their rights or, even worse, losing rights that they had already acquired. Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) director, Kenneth Roth, warned that the government of Jair Bolsonaro attacks human rights by repeatedly using excessive force against civil society and the media. In a similar manner, in the past Costa Rican election, Fabricio Alvarado, a candidate from the neo-Pentecostal political party Restauración Nacional, helped define the central media event of the campaign around the issue of ‘gay marriage’. This not only polarised the election but also excluded other relevant topics from the democratic debate (Siles, 2020; Siles, Carazo & Tristan, 2020).

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