Coronavirus and Political Disinfo - April 2020

The current public health crisis will create opportunities for political disinformation to spread rapidly.

Over the weekend, two rumors burned their way through social media in the region:

Rumor #1: On Saturday, there were reports Walter Braga Netto with the backing of the Brazilian military had sidelined President Jair Bolsonaro and was acting as the president, an essential coup though Bolsonaro remained the figurehead. Those rumors, started by a Brazilian news site (which happened to publish the report on April Fool’s Day) were spread by an Argentine columnist and amplified by various foreign media outlets including Cuba’s Prensa Latina.  

Rumor #2: On Sunday morning, rumors spread around the globe that Daniel Ortega had either died or was seriously ill and being transported from Nicaragua to Cuba for medical treatment. The rumors were based on the fact Ortega has not been seen in weeks and credible reports that he is in quite poor health. 

As of Monday morning, there is no confirmation of either rumor and they appear unsubstantiated. Perhaps one of them will turn out to be true five minutes after I send this newsletter, but for now it appears the social media rumors have outpaced reality.

The region has lots to worry about in terms of disinformation about the coronavirus, how it spreads, who has it, how to prevent it, and what may happen next from a public health point of view. The two examples above, however, are different in that they are political disinfo taking advantage of the current situation. That is a threat to the region’s governments and populations and one that is likely to expand in the coming months due to citizens already distrustful of their governments and people with extra time on their hands due to quarantines.

Rumors that contain an element of truth are more powerful

Bolsonaro’s downplaying of coronavirus is absurd and harming his country’s response. The president is clashing with technocratic and serious members of his government including the military over the response to Covid-19. There are discussions about his potential impeachment as well as polling regarding his potential resignation (most Brazilians are opposed, for now).

Ortega is in poor health and has not been seen in weeks, something that I wrote two weeks ago created “questions about a power vacuum within his government.”

The reasons both of the rumors spread this weekend was that they fit as a potential logical progression to the current narrative in each country. The rumors play off real events that are occurring, making them sound more credible, spread more quickly and become more difficult to refute.

Rumors can threaten a government

Public opinion can impact presidential power. Presidents facing this sort of disinformation campaign potentially lose political capital. Political rivals may sense opportunity in the perceived weakness of the national leader.

Governments who feel their legitimacy has been challenged by a rumor spreading on social media are prone to overreaction. They may need to show a demonstration of control or even a “proof of life” if the president has not appeared publicly in a long time. In doing so, they move to a responsive mode rather than pro-actively driving the communications cycle and their government strategy.

Governments that fail to communicate transparently leave themselves more open to potential disinfo campaigns. When people know a government is lying, it makes rumors about those governments more credible and attempts to push back against those rumors less effective. The Nicaraguan government is lying about the number of cases and the seriousness of the problem in the country. Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the virus has been widely ridiculed as a failure of his presidential leadership.

Some governments may be tempted to combat rumors with censorship

Officials will look to crack down on those spreading rumors and/or negative information that makes the government look bad, whether truthful or not. Censorship and intimidation of journalists are likely to increase with a veneer of government legitimacy due to the disinformation occurring during this health crisis. In recent years, the world has seen populist politicians attempt to use the “fake news” mantra to discredit political opponents and critical media outlets. While that may work in normal political times, like crying wolf, those same populists are now likely to be ignored when they claim fake news at a politically sensitive moment during a global crisis.

The best way to combat rumors is by providing regular, timely, truthful and accurate information related to coronavirus and the current governance situation in the country. Censorship of the media is both morally wrong and will lead to increased rumors on social media. Governments and media outlets have an obligation to push back against fake information that may cause harm to public health. Too many governments in Latin America are likely to fail at finding the right balance and will lean towards censorship.

Every country faces potential political disinformation

Every country in the hemisphere faces the threat of disinformation undermining their government. However, some countries are more vulnerable given their political situation. Perhaps no country is as vulnerable as Venezuela, where the rumor mill about potential government instability moved strongly even before the current coronavirus outbreak. The Maduro regime is lying about the health situation in the country. 

The rumor that a president has died or been removed is a fairly extreme form of political disinformation. Where governments are not completely stable, those rumors are likely to gain more attention during the current crisis. 

Many other countries in the hemisphere are vulnerable to more subtle political disinformation efforts. The experience of Latin America in late 2019 can provide some hints as to how this may play out in 2020. During the wave of protests last year, domestic and foreign actors pushed various misinformation and disinformation campaigns to undermine governments and those same actors may strike again.

The most common rumors in the coming months will involve expanded quarantines, restricted civil liberties beyond the official quarantine rules, or false reports of military and police repression to halt legitimate movements of populations. 

In addition to potential false reports, as with the protest wave, a single instance of a police or military unit using excessive force during this quarantine can lead to populations turning swiftly against their governments. Disinformation on social media, particularly with most people trapped in their homes, can play a role in amplifying a single bad event.

Given the painful recession that the region is experiencing, there is strong potential for rumors about financial systems breaking or government restrictions on accessing money that could lead to a run on banks. Fake information about government benefits could lead people to venture out in search of those benefits, increasing the potential spread of the virus and creating feelings of disappointment that can undermine governments.

Private sector actors should be concerned that disinformation about their products or services could spread as people search for any information about the disease. There have been variations of “product x is tainted with coronavirus” since this illness began to spread. In countries where the government and private sector are often pitted against each other, companies should worry about populist presidents amplifying these rumors. In countries where protesters view the private sector as too cozy with government actors, companies may become part of the political rumors.

Finally, as with the protest wave last year, coronavirus is creating an outlet for xenophobic rumors about foreigners spreading the virus. In some countries, Venezuelans migrants will be blamed for the spread of the virus or for looting events that occur. In other cases, there are instances of Asian, European or North American visitors and migrants being blamed for the spread of the virus into the country. 

Thanks for reading

I’m on day 18 of quarantine here in Bogota. Please continue to email me comments and questions and encourage your friends and colleagues to subscribe.