There is nothing new in saying that the region has a particularly intense level of communicational and media confrontation, to a certain extent comparable to levels seen in war contexts. The slogan “territory at peace” proclaimed in 2011 by the representatives of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) by then already rhymed in reality with the idea of pax americana, however it stood in stark contrast to the bitter conflicts that were taking place irregularly. This trend was spurred by media concentration and weak regulation, network penetration with mobile telephony and the rise of the Internet from the 2000s, as well as the context of acute social conflict. Starting in 1989, the concept of fourth-generation warfare (or hybrid warfare), together with the notion of soft power, had extended what Quijano, Prebisch, Furtado, Escude and others described as edges of domination in one of the main areas of influence of Western powers.
It is a fact that since 1990, when the North American hyperpower was at its peak, and after the Iraq war in which the manipulation of information reached an unprecedented threshold, conflicts have shifted towards more irregular modalities. This evolution has exponentially increased the confrontation in the information space. It expanded the ways to build influence. The social dimension of the conflict moved to a decisive position. The binary friend-or-foe relationship inherited from bipolarity evolved towards a dominant-dominated (or ally-adversary) relationship, which was combined with new forms of confrontation in the cultural and communicational field. As Christian Harbulot of the French School of Economic Warfare points out, this combination has become one of the strategic keys to building power in our times, not only in the geopolitical sphere but also in the economic sphere.
In Latin America, the peoples of the region know are very much aware of what it means to try to consolidate a nation-state while being exposed to the incessant flow of moralizing, conditioning and sometimes destabilizing acts that are undertaken with the cynical and monolithic countenance of the political-economic freedom distilled by the North American power. Since the 1950s, the United States had begun the process of consolidating its power in the technological field in order to create a lasting relationship of dependency with its allies and achieve a decisive advance in information technology. As part of the cognitive dispute, American influence is measured, apart from the military, economic and political hegemony, by cooperation in the initial knowledge generation system (scientific production and design of high-level initial training). In another field, it is considered as the incentive of communication infrastructure, cultural products and related media, often acting as a political vector due to its information weight.
However, far from being an exclusive resource for the dominant, many actors in the region among the dominated already practice these new forms of persuasion, also between lights and shadows. In terms of political and media manipulation, the center stage has been taken by disinformation in electoral processes and the lawfare operations that are sometimes compared to soft coups. The case of former President Dilma Roussef and Luis Lula da Silva in Brazil was emblematic. Several political leaders, irrespective of their political allegiance, got wrapped up in such operations that bring information, legal and political offensives closely together (the most recent example being former president of Bolivia Jeanine Añez, as pointed out by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights1). In Argentina, former President Mauricio Macri promoted from the State a private intelligence system combining illegal espionage, co-optation of the judiciary, communication activism centers (trolls) and economic favors in order to control his allies and political adversaries.
On another level, the progressive cycle in the region has driven forward forms of integration that include a more offensive dispute over Washington’s predominance on the regional agenda and multilateral bodies. The leaders of MERCOSUR, UNASUR, CELAC, the São Paulo Forum or, to a lesser extent, the Puebla Group, after the no to the FTAA in 2006, affirmed a counter-hegemonic management of the regional destiny, though without making the internal adversities disappear. Despite the structural rupture of the former, the latter two continue to influence the psychological power relationships that exist between political camps. In the case of Cuba, Venezuela and the bloc of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in general, the strategies of influence of the former in the higher institutional spheres of the others are effective and guarantee a geopolitical viability to Havana. Faced with external pressures, Nicaragua, like Bolivia and Venezuela, have set up an information fabric (in which Telesur naturally participates) operating in a networked ecosystem to compensate for their internal weakening and alter perceptions.
In other areas, we could mention the powerful maneuvers of corporate lobbying and illegal financial and judicial groups that come to light with the scandals or crises of the moment, along with corruption issues in the political sphere. The cases of the Panama Papers, Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) and Odebrecht, among many others, have given a glimpse of the dark continent of influence and criminality that operates above and below the institutional surface. It is not an exaggeration to say that the weight of these structures of influence in Latin America is such that their impact on corruption and insecurity could disrupt the institutional balance of a country. Whether to maintain the hegemony from the dominant to the dominated, weaken the influence of the dominant from the place of the dominated, change the power relations with an adversary or shape the reputation of certain sectors, every actor today, with a greater or lesser degree of depth and intelligence, gets involved in this new guerrilla that touches on communicational matters.
Several common denominators are present in these maneuvers. The dominated actors can change the power relations by targeting the adversary’s weaknesses, and the offensive will yield better results if carried out intelligently. Rather than communication instruments, it is a matter of conceiving true strategies to operate in different fields, which requires having a clear objective, a consolidated identity and being organized. Intentions are rather more veiled and disguised than direct and frontal, although both modalities complement each other, the corollary of which is the need to have defense strategies. Communication vectors are often indirect and more interrelated, while a wide range of actors are involved. Moral, identity or historical contents are intensely mobilized, hence the importance of issues related to corruption and the reputation of public figures.
It should be noted that although information confrontations are violent and intertwined in all social, economic and political levels, there does not seem to be a well-established conceptual body to address these strategies. There is yet no organizational or intellectual effort in reaction to the notorious information “bombardment” repeatedly denounced by those oppressed by the concentrated media which would thus give the phenomenon its full dimension of cognitive warfare. Although universities and a sector of investigative journalism make a notable effort to make this scheme visible, such influence is still addressed in classical terms. Furthermore, because of the compartmentalized structure of academia and organizations, it is difficult to integrate information issues with other dimensions. Suffice it to see how disinformation in mass and social media is addressed locally from an primarily normative standpoint2.
Ultimately, and beyond dissenting slogans, it is essential to renew the conceptions and modalities of use of influence in a more multipolar and interconnected world. This is about a new positioning of sovereignty vis-à-vis a liberal order eaten away by a sort of new irregular imperialism. In this respect, digital activism has an exciting role to fulfill in terms of aggiornamento.
- Guía para garantizar la libertad de expresión frente a la desinformación deliberada en contextos electorales [Guide to guarantee freedom of expression regarding deliberate disinformation in electoral contexts], OAS, RFOE, IACHR, http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/expresion/publicaciones/Guia_Desinformacion_VF.pdf
Desinformación en Internet en contextos electorales de América Latina y el Caribe [Disinformation on the Internet in electoral contexts in Latin America and the Caribbean], AlSur, https://www.alsur.lat/reporte/desinformacion-en-internet-en-contextos-electorales-america-latina-el-caribe