Spotting Fake News in Latin America

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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