Spotting Fake News in Latin America

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Photo: SocialPost.news

Fake news. You’ve probably heard these two little words a lot lately, even from people not immersed in current affairs and, for plenty of journalists, it’s become way more than a nuisance. It’s the new “normal”.

Not only little-known sites are taking advantage of this, but actual State media outlets fully backed by governments wanting to spread propaganda and push their overall interests above truthfully informing citizens.

Last month, non-profit Global Americans released an initiative on their website to follow reports by four State outlets and measure if they’re accurate, misleading or downright false. Those are Russia’s RT and Sputnik, and Xinhua and People’s Daily from the P.R. of China.

To discuss this project in detail, Caracas Chronicles interviewed William Naylor, of Global Americans. He recently co-wrote an op-ed on the subject for Caracas paper El Nacional.

What’s the reason behind this monitoring initiative by Global Americans?

We’ve been interested in following the growing influence in the Americas from outside the region for a while. Last year, as part of our working group on inter-American relations, we wrote a paper on redefining the inter-American agenda in the context of China —and to a far lesser extent, Russia—, as established players in hemisphere. In terms of State media, the main issue is accountability; these are news services that have very quickly gained quite a following in Latin America through their Spanish-language outlets. They have every right to be publishing Spanish-language news, but we want to make sure that people who read are aware that websites such as RT, Sputnik, and Xinhua aren’t necessarily always reporting the objective, unbiased truth. Oftentimes, they’re advancing the Moscow or Beijing agendas through stories that masquerade as straightforward reporting.  

As you’ve explained, RT (formerly Russia Today) has expanded quickly in Latin America. What are the keys to their success?

There are two things: First, the active efforts by Russia to sow discord. We saw this in the buildup United States presidential election, where Russia used social media to stoke disagreements and prop up radicalism on the Left and Right. In Latin America, this manifests itself a bit differently —from what we’ve seen, the primary goal is to disrupt regional unity and consensus, prop up governments that are friendly to Russian interests, and chip away at the view that the United States is a good partner (of course, the Trump administration has done a lot of Russia’s work for them in the last 18 months).  

Second, Russia sees Latin America as a relatively fertile environment to further its foreign policy goals. Russian efforts don’t exist in a vacuum; there are governments in the hemisphere (Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba especially) that are very receptive to these Russian efforts to disrupt regional relationships, especially between Latin American democracies and the United States. So, Russia has had help. For example, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner agreed to lunch RT en Español at a public television channel in Argentina.

Russia Today has worked in alliance with Venezuelan State news channel Telesur for quite some time now. What’s the real effect of this partnership?

The most significant effect, and this is huge for the Maduro regime, is that they have a media source from outside Venezuela, outside the hemisphere, lending legitimacy both to Telesur and the regime itself. We’ve all read and seen the stuff that Telesur puts out, and it’s very similar to a lot of the more extreme stuff you see on RT.

This is a symbiotic relationship; for Russia, it’s a relatively popular outlet among certain circles in Latin America giving legitimacy and a wider audience to their efforts. For Maduro, I think it’s more that he’ll take any help he can get, and Russia has become a key ally. He’ll embrace any outside source that will espouse his legitimacy and play down Venezuela’s growing crisis, which is exactly what RT does.

An important number of the monitored articles focus on Venezuela. Is it that important for those outlets to push their narratives of what happens here?

Russia and China both have an enormous financial stake in the survival of the Maduro regime at this point. China in particular is Venezuela’s chief financial backer. Now, it’s important to note that I don’t think Russia or China are opposed to an eventual collapse of the Maduro regime, but they correctly see Venezuela as a major destabilizing force in the region, as well as a major potential area of opportunity when the Maduro regime eventually collapses.

What difference can be found between Russian and Chinese coverage about Latin America?

There’s a very clear difference. Chinese coverage about Latin America tends to exclusively have the goal of portraying China as a positive economic partner and promoting further economic and political collaboration between Beijing and the region. There are a couple notable exceptions; for example this article from Xinhua praises the Venezuelan government for its efforts to fight drug trafficking. Anyone who’s even remotely following Venezuela knows how ridiculous that is.

Russia doesn’t have nearly the economic investment that China does in the region, which I think explains a lot of the difference in coverage. Whereas China is an ascendant global power, Russia is largely trying to chip away at U.S. influence specifically, and more broadly the global rules-based, democratic system. As a result, RT and Sputnik are publishing articles that more blatantly advance the Russian agenda. That means a lot of anti-U.S. material, a lot of pro-Venezuela material, and a lot of stuff aimed at undermining trust in institutions at the regional or national level. In recent elections in Mexico and Colombia, for example, they threw a lot of weight behind supporting Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Gustavo Petro, respectively. I’d keep an eye out for how they choose to get involved in Brazilian elections this fall —or not, if they decide Brazil is enough of a mess as it is.  

What is Western State media, like the BBC or DW, doing about its coverage of Latin America? And what about major private media, like CNN or regional conglomerates like Televisa?

First, it’s important to point out that the BBC and DW, while they are publicly owned, have independent boards that ensure that they adhere to professional journalists standards and are not mouthpieces for their respective governments. VOA is a little different in that it is intended to provide a more pro-U.S. take on the news, but it’s still not a tool of U.S. propaganda; it also has an independent board and abides by journalistic ethics and standards. Private media, like CNN en Español, Televisa, and NTN-24, have interests that in many ways Telesur, RT and others are trying to confront, to provide a more slanted, politicized view on topics that favor Russia and China.  

What can newsreaders and journalists in Latin America do about getting accurate information and not fall into the “fake news” terrain?

My advice is the same to citizens of Latin America as it is to citizens of the United States, because everyone in the hemisphere is living through probably the most trying time for democracy, human rights and inter-American unity, since at least the turn of the century:

Read the news. Lots of it. Read things you agree with and don’t agree with, and read from multiple, different sources. Even the best sources get stuff wrong occasionally. Also, be careful about what you repost or retweet. Read beyond the headlines to make sure that the story itself is credible. Most importantly, keep your eyes open, follow what’s going on with your local and national governments, and talk to real human beings. It’s so easy to get lost in the black hole that is the internet, and get desensitized to what’s happening right outside.

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48 COMMENTS

  1. I love going to the comments section of RT. 80% of the comments blame the Jews/”Heebs” for every malady known to mankind. 19% are aimed at how decadent/dysfunctional the United States/US military is and how awesome Russia/Putin is. The other 1% are soon to be censured rebuttals from the anti-trolls. An entire book of “How to Write Comedy” could be drawn from that website.

    Of course, they share content with TeleSewer. So that speaks volumes.

      • Well, they are morons of the highest order. I doubt they can string together a cogent thought outside of their “special world”. I don’t think diction and lexicon are very important to them. I am not sure they get anything better than a grade school education in English in the colleges/universities of Minsk these days.

        I am routinely told by half the posters how the United States is about to collapse under its own western decadence. The other half insist that Russia will flatten the United States (unknown timetable, unknown methods!) and people like me will be the first to kneel down before people like Putin. So I have that to look forward to!

  2. Except for some very few news outlets most outlets must be read critically , i.e without automatically accepting as true what news they offer , usually we know enough about an item that we can tell when something is amiss or probably exagerated or wrong about a piece thats being reported , other news outlets you have to be automatically skeptical about what they publish , RT and telesur come to mind , their news are slated and skewed and sometimes scandalously so , they dont report certain news that normal media do while playing up other news that might be disruptive of Russias rivals or laudatory of their geopolitical allies , The RT news on siria is so slanted that it is almost laughable ……., then there is news which is sensationalistic and frivolous like most of what you find in the social media and not worthy of notice..just skip whatever they report ……., even news which are basically truth have to be read with a grain of salt because of the overemphasis of the newsmedia on some negative aspect or another of the person or event being reported ……., I havent seen anything from China , they come on as basically low key , tooting their own horn but not too garishly..

  3. ……..the primary goal is to disrupt regional unity and consensus, prop up governments that are friendly to Russian interests, and chip away at the view that the United States is a good partner (of course, the Trump administration has done a lot of Russia’s work for them in the last 18 months)……

    ————

    You guys at CC just can’t waste an opportunity to bash Trump, can you?

    And this bash makes no fucking sense.

    • To be fair, Trump is often his own worst enemy.

      But, the CC hierarchy are supporters (by my estimation) of the Democrat Party. So it isn’t surprising anymore.

      • 4% GDP growth this second quarter.

        And all Trump is promising is a 3% annual growth, double over the last two 2-term administrations, Obama and Bush.

        So how is he his own worst enemy? Because of what CNN thinks?

        The proof is in the pudding.

        • Well, he could stop Tweeting. That would be an awesome step in the right direction.

          The guy is 74 years old and acts like he’s a teenage girl.

          • Hey, no one can disagree with you. I’m amazed he won.

            But BECAUSE he won, who the hell can disagree with his methods?

            Considering how many presidents have hidden themselves from the people, Trump is turning that all upside down.

            For better or worse.

          • This. Look, I’m no fan of Trump but anyone can see the establishment media really has a hard on for him.

            However, he’s his own worst enemy once he opens his yap. And I said yap, because that is exactly how this self serving, ego the size of a runaway iceberg, lying sack of crap speaks.

            I’d respect him more if he stopped acting as if the presidency was a role in the Barnum & Bailey circus as he seems to think it is.

            As for the conservative agenda he purports to support, there are ideas in it that make sense, but when taken as a whole it proves to be too much for my way of thinking.

            And no, not a fan of Hillary, Bernie or the loons that flock to them either.

            Somebody needs to come forward with a more centrist way or the US is going to swing from Right to Left in ways that do not augur propsperity.

          • “But BECAUSE he won, who the hell can disagree with his methods?”

            Just because he won the election, doesn’t make him right.

        • Chavez and Putin had great GDP numbers when they were consolidating their power. The pudding rendered more digestible the poison being delivered with it, as it turns out.

          • Oh, that’s very clever. Comparing Trump to Putin.

            And you’re full of crap. You have no idea what Russia’s GDP was then, or now, do you? Nor the veracity of the Russian numbers. (The U.S. numbers are undisptutably verified.)

            Why do you think you can just bullshit and lie here and get away with it?

            Seriously, dude. You’re pitiful.

            The highest GDP growth in 16 years, and anyone is supposed to take your know-nothing crap…as a Trump-hater…seriously?

            You’re a sad, ignorant fool.

      • Part of it is indoctrination and talking points written by their masters. Part of it is frustration that the Trump admin. disregards Vz — sort of like stomping their feet and crying “look at me!”

        • And you, and the idiots that continually bash the authors of this blog for thinking differently, are the prime example of how the divisiveness that is part of the agenda of Agent Orange is possibly the worst thing that can happen to the US.

          What a low threshold of having fun you must have to continuously visit a blog to spew your insults. Feel better afterwards?

          People have read this blog, and commented for years, in a way that made the comments better than the posts at times. Asshats like you bring the discussion to new lows every time you post your drivel.

          So in the spirit of lowering myself to your level, go jump in a fucking lake and open your mouth wide. Breathe deep.

          • What drivel?

            CC only publishes articles that agree with its leftist, anti-U.S. stance. This is fact, not fiction.

            Roberto, we don’t bash the authors for thinking differently. We bash them for thinking stupidly. Or isn’t that allowed?

            VZ has become the shithole it is exactly because of the views of so many bloggers on CC.

          • “And you, and the idiots that continually bash the authors of this blog for thinking differently

            Differently!?! Different from what? Every reference to anything outside Venezuela is verbatim from BigMedia — same talking points, same agenda, same bigotry.

            No surprise; they come from the same pseudo-journalism schools, indoctrinated by the same professors, have the same mindset and masters.

            It’s all so emotional and personal with you:
            “Asshats like you…”
            “…go jump in a fucking lake and open your mouth wide. Breathe deep.”
            What a classic leftist. You can’t argue the issues so you attack the person.

    • FFS Ira c’mon!

      Where’s your reading comprehension?????

      “Caracas Chronicles *interviewed* William Naylor, of Global Americans”

      Your rants, attacks, insults and criticism against CC’s editorial team are getting real freckin old.

      If you disagree so much with every single post, why do you keep coming back? Dear IRA please explain to us!

      Do you like to be tortured? Is that what this is? Maybe you’re showing your tendencies at BDSM?

      I think you should go to therapy. Really. It’ll do you good.

      In the meantime go and suck a popsicle.

      Xoxo

  4. I like BBC a lot.

    They seem to be the fairest, even if the discussion heads in a direction and view I don’t agree with.

    • careful with BBC, they were part of the “fabrications” of the PR campaign by “selling” propaganda/fakefacts under the captivating The revolution will not be televised. Shown in every university. I appealed to my right to reply with X-Ray of a Lie which debunks and demonstrates all the manipulation and distortion of events. By the way, that whole episode of April 11 can be seen by some as the 4th COUP of Chavez. First 92, then swearing under a “moribunda constitucion” Third violating the separation of PDVSA as an independent institution, Civil Society took the streets!!! Chavez implemented Plan Avila to “kill”

  5. I also like BBC alot but their coverage of latin america is rather poor if you compare it to the coverage they give other parts of the world including Africa ………., latin american news are last in the queue…

    • The amount of coverage is light, but when they do it, they do a good job.

      Stephen Sakur is amazing, and well balanced.

  6. Russia is largely trying to chip away at U.S. influence specifically, and more broadly the global rules-based, democratic system.
    ———

    That’s always been the sticking point with outfits like Chavismo and Putinism – any check on their power, any rules that bind their hegemony, are seen as negatives. Note this is the chief feature of any and all gran jefe regimes, and insures a floundering economy with almost no transparency because the notion of accountability is absent.

  7. Interesting observations and good advice. The problem in countries like Venezuela and Russia, which have fallen prey to illiberal regimes and demagogues, a problem that has now migrated to North America and Europe, is that a critical mass of people become polarized in their views and attached to a tribe, so that they lose all interest in distinguishing propaganda from reality, and they lose all interest in evaluating the credibility of their sources of information. The practice of lying becomes trivial and unimportant. News becomes a form of group-reinforcing propaganda-entertainment: their group is up, the other group is down. Credible news sources are easy for the state to extinguish in this environment, if the passion and mobilization, if not the majority, is on the side of knowing nothing and propaganda-entertainment.

    • @Canucklehead Mate, if you wanna talk about how news has become not about information but about group reinforcement, you are going to have to shut your yap’s tendency to repeat blatantly untrue and biased nonsense, like the idea that GRU could not wish for a more cooperative leader than Trump.

      Not only does that Fugg up which branch of the Kremlin’s intel would be responsible for suborning a POTUS (that’d be the SVR and FSB), it also forgets that GRU suffered dozens of casualties in order to *Kill* a loyal Soviet puppet dictator because they SUSPECTED he might not be so loyal.

      No, he was not actually disloyal. No, he was not pushing some kind of radical reforms like Dubcek. No, they did not have any proof.

      But they suspected. So Operation Storm-333 was launched and Amin went to meet his maker. I am quite sure the successors of those guys can afford to be picky about their dream leaders.

      Moving on.

      Regarding your claim that “The problem in countries like Venezuela and Russia, …. is that a critical mass of people become polarized in their views and attached to a tribe, “

      Sorry, but this is codswallop.

      Tribalism certainly can play a role in the rise of illiberal regimes, the Congo and Spain’s history is practically one long string of this.

      But it is not the case in Russia and Venezuela, which had a Remarkable amount of national, ethnic, and even political cohesion. ESP. In the core territories.

      The problem is that Russia and Venezuela fell to illiberal dictatorships because of dependency. People became dependent on state largesse to maintain their way of life, and gradually mortgaged their rights in favor of bread, circuses, and security.

      To the point that when they DID become free and state largesse was rolled back, many people- not all but many- fell into destitution, did not know how to function as free people, and Were Not ThT Interested In Learning.

      So when someone offered the chance to vote the largesse our again, they took it. And not just “el pueblo.” Gazprom and PDVSA are essentially welfare schemes for corrupt oligarchs.

      It can happen in the West, but it isn’t going to be QUITE as easy.

  8. “of course, the Trump administration has done a lot of Russia’s work for them in the last 18 months”

    Hey, I spotted the Fake News!

    (What’d I win?)

  9. Good article, interesting and depressing to learn about the spread of Russian/Chinese propaganda in Latin America, hadn’t thought much about it but I’m not surprised. It took me a few months of watching RT in 2007 to realize it wasn’t objective, and that was when they were putting real effort into making it seem objective, it’s unrealistic to expect average people with less political education to be as astute. Also the CC interviewer didn’t bring up Trump, the interviewee did. No one should blame CC for printing what he said. Naylor’s overall perspective is fair. I don’t think the CC hierarchy is necessarily anti-Trump and pro-democratic but more just wary of certain aspects of Trump that everyone should be wary of, even supporters. Even moreso many CC authors are wary of the troubling trends in American democracy overall in recent years, and they have good reason since they’ve seen some of this before and it didn’t end well. Not that anyone thinks it’s likely to end up just as badly for the U.S. But whenever Trump is criticized it’s like kicking a hornets nest, from what I remember Obama supporters were far less touchy when CC articles criticized him. People should take it more in stride.

    • “I don’t think the CC hierarchy is necessarily anti-Trump and pro-democratic but more just wary of certain aspects of Trump that everyone should be wary of, even supporters.”

      Can’t agree with you on the first point, and while I agree with you on the second, Trump is as transparent as they come. Like him, hate him, or just enjoy that he continually triggers people like Canuckles (life’s simple pleasures are often the finest), the Orange Ball of Hate said what he would do if elected, and that’s what he’s done or at least tried to do. I don’t agree with many of his actions, and he certainly is his own worst enemy (sorry NYT and WAPO and CNN – but I know you’ll keep trying), but he’s gotta be himself.

      • It is not clear to me how people think a pathological liar is authentic, except that they see the animus towards people like “me” as being the quality of overwhelming importance.

        Buddy, its not a plan, and its not leadership, triggering people like “me”. It is not a formula for your success. He’s got his hand in your pocket while he’s doing that. I know because I watched Hugo Chavez do the same trick.

        • Sure he’s got his hand in my pocket. Both hands, both pockets. But at least he’s not squeezing my balls and giving me the two-knuckle reach around at the same time, like Obama and Moonbeam.

          If you don’t like pathological liars, you must have really shitted your pants when Bill Clinton was the US President. How did you survive 8 years of that guy? “Authentic” is not necessarily a compliment. Stalin was authentic. The gold standard of dictators. And that’s not the word I used. I said Trump is transparent. He is not an enigma. He did not come out of nowhere. Trump’s been exactly like this for as long as I can remember, at least since the early 80s. Womanizing blow hard bullshitter. And, yes, someone needs to unplug his Twitter. In fact someone needs to unplug all Twitter.

          Like I said, IMO, no way Trump becomes president if Hilary wasn’t the alternative. Maybe the Opposition will wise up and pick a more likable candidate next time. We’ll see.

          In the meantime, if you see Trump as another Hugo Chavez, OK that’s how you see him. I don’t. But at least Trump doesn’t openly worship the Castro brothers like Hugo did, and like that used used tissue you have out there in Ottawa.

        • “Buddy, its not a plan, and its not leadership, triggering people like “me”. It is not a formula for your success. He’s got his hand in your pocket while he’s doing that. I know because I watched Hugo Chavez do the same trick.”

          Slashing regulations on small businesses, lowest unemployed in decades, more hispanics and blacks than ever in the workplace, manufacturing jobs coming back to the United States, but “Trump’s got his hands in your pockets”.

          Yeah, just like Chavez. LOL

    • “………from what I remember Obama supporters were far less touchy when CC articles criticized him.”

      I’ve seen pink unicorns, but can’t say I’ve ever seen a CC article criticize Obama. Please link me to one, just one.

      I’ll hang up and listen.

      • The most common criticism of Obama was that he didn’t take a strong enough stand against the regime and waited far longer than he should have to condemn and sanction the regime. That came up numerous times. There were other scattered criticisms here and there but it would take quite some digging to find them. Personally I sympathize with that criticism but at least Obama’s approach kept the moderate Latin American counties mostly on side. If he’d acted far stronger earlier it would likely be morally right but would have led to a bigger backlash in Latin America.

  10. It should be noted that even the best news outlets get it wrong when they report on subjects that are outside of their expertise. I am a constructor. When I read articles about a construction project or a construction accident, I am normally appalled at how wrong they get it. Medical doctors I know have told me the same thing about the reporting medically related stories.

    In the case of business news, they have specialized reporters that I assume do a little better. But, generally, if the subject is one that is not understood well by the general public, and it is published in a non-trade publication, it is probably crap.

  11. Hey maybe we could do a trade: offer Maduro as president of the US and get Trump as president of Venezuela, ‘pelo a pelo’ to be fair ……, If Trump went against Maduro in a free Venezuelan election wonder who would win !!

    • Bill Bass – I don’t know if Trump could beat Maduro in Venezuela. You tell us. Could Trump “Drain the Swamp” in Miraflores and make Venezuela great again? Could he build a big beautiful wall along the Colombian border, and make Colombia pay for it?

      But I’d give Maduro at least a 50% chance of being Hillary Clinton in a US election (because RUSSIANS!).

  12. Political sniping aside, I hope the new initiative does a good job. Just remember everyong is fallible; integrity comes from trying to avoid that and making amends when one inevitably does.

    A smalPoint of order: “Our region isn’t safe from the fake news epidemic that has become part of the current global media atmosphere. ”

    Fake News as an epidemic hasn’t “become” part of the global media atmosphere. It has always been there.

    Whether you go from RT and Pyongyang today or Ramses II claiming he won the Battle of Kadesh in distant antiquity. Whether you look at ISIS’s “Dabiq” rag or Napoleon’s army bulletins on the right, Iskra and Pravda on the Left, or snake oil peddlers and con men in the politically incoherent. Whether it is multi billion dollar state managed propaganda empires like those of Goebbels or word of mouth.

    Fake news has Always been a part of the global news climate. We’ve just become more aware of it.

  13. I have no doubt that the governments of Russia, Venezuela, and to a lesser extent China are engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to undermine Western-style democracy and the Atlantic Alliance system. This radical polarization of society is actively promoted by state outlets like RT, Sputnik (Russian), CCTV (China) and TeleSur (Venezuela + Cuba), and reinforced by the “echo chamber” nature of social media like Facebook (the FB algorythm is programmed to show news similar only to those “liked” by the user, shielding people from opposing viewpoints).

    The end result is polarization – the destruction of the political center and the consensus-building modern democracy is based upon, leading to the rise of equally-dangerous far-right (Trump, Le Pen, Salvi) and far-left groups (Sanders, Corbyn, etc.) in Europe and the US.

    To those of us who read numerous publications from different parts of the world, this strategy is blatantly obvious. A state outlet like RT supports far-right opinions in its English version for American audiences while supporting far-left views and governments in its Spanish version for Latin American audiences. How is this possible? Because the goal is not supporting a particular ideological position, it is not mere ideological bias. The goal is a conscious, relentless undermining of NATO and democracy by promoting unstability and authoritarian leaders throughout the world.

    We are living in dangerous times and we must not fall pray to political extremism. It is not acceptable for leaders to lie, to bash the press, to put tariffs and engage in trade wars against democratic allies, to demonize democratic leaders while coddling with dictators throughout the world. No matter what ideology or party they claim to stand for.

    Centre-right people like me, must realize that a centre-left person that supports democracy and the rule of law, is more of an ally than a right-wing person like Le Pen who wishes to undermine these values. Likewise, a centre-right person is more of an ally to a centre-left person than a far leftist who is not commited to democracy and who praises Maduro and Chavez like Corbyn does in the UK.

    Millenials have grown in a world without the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and thus they have not been innoculated against it. The shared values of democracy and the rule of law must be preserved, it is the effort and legacy of millions who died in two world wars and in the horrors of the gulag so that today people around the world can enjoy liberties that we take for granted.

    This is not to say Trump is like Hitler or that the US will cease to be a democracy – I am NOT trying to be hyperbolic. American institutions, unlike those in Latin America, are very strong and will endure. Trump is a democratically-elected leader whose station must be respected as well as the policies that people voted for him to carry out. But the fact that Trump shares many behaviours with populists we’ve seen here south of the border is troubling enough.

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