Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
The disinformation war in Latin America has reached fever pitch in recent months, with Russia taking advantage of the pandemic to portray the US as both responsible for the virus and unable to control its spread. Viewers in Latin America are exposed to these narratives both on Russian news channels in the region and via local outlets sharing the Russian take, where some stories are facts-based and others are pure disinformation. Among them are tales that IranWire has observed in other countries, in which Russia claims that US soldiers brought the virus to Wuhan in China and that the US, therefore, is responsible.
According to Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University's (FIU), who has researched Russian disinformation in Latin America extensively for several years now, this comes as part of an intensifying battle over the information space in Latin America between Russia, China, and the US.
"During Covid-19,” Fonseca says, “Russia has taken the opportunity to degrade the perception of the United States in Latin America. They make the US look like a disaster, and try to erode the picture of the US as a robust political model. Russia's disinformation during Covid-19 is a continuation of what we have seen in Latin America for the last 10 years."
Russian disinformation in Latin America had garnered a lot of attention in recent years, particularly after civil unrest broke out in Venezuela and an increasing number of Latin Americans began to voice their dissatisfaction with the political establishment. It has led to numerous analyses whereby the US State Department, amongst others, encountered examples of Russian disinformation aiming at spreading confusion in Latin America.
Fonseca says that while Russia's disinformation campaigns in the region are nothing new, they have become much more coordinated and messages are now delivered more effectively. The current crisis, he says, is an opportunity for Russia to take aim at the West.
"Before, they were simply coming out with information without clear coordination and a clear message,” he says. “Now, it is more sophisticated. Russia portrays the United States as unable to cope with racial tensions inside the country, highlighting Trump and now, in recent months, using Covid-19 as a way to make the United States unpopular.”
Drawing on the Soviet Union
In an analysis of Russian political aims in Latin America, scholars from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described similarities between the Cold War and what is happening now. During the 1960s and 1980s, the Kremlin knew it could not match the US in Latin America militarily. But it could use softer methods to influence the region - among them the use of disinformation campaigns.
"The changes in principle between then and now are only minimal,” says Fonseca. “In the Bolshevik Revolution, we saw how they used images to spark certain behaviors, and we saw the same during the Soviet Union – and in Latin America today.”
Fonseca points to how, during the Cold War, the Kremlin incorrectly reported that the US had used napalm in El Salvador during the civil war. This was a believable lie after the US had used napalm in Vietnam. The potent images still seared into people's minds helped mobilize people across South America against the US.
"During the Cold War,” Fonseca adds, “we also saw Russia blame HIV on the United States. It was a powerful image, and we see the same thing today with Covid-19, where they share the Chinese narrative of how the virus originated in the United States.”
Fonseca also says that Russia has been very successful in using the Russian diaspora in Latin America, which is a few hundred thousand strong. According to Fonseca, the Russian foreign ministry has been able to not only connect these people but to use them to its advantage. A few years ago, Argentina considered banning the Russian channel RT, which made the Russian Foreign Ministry call on Russians overseas to demonstrate and complain to the government. It worked, and Fonseca says it is likely that Russia will try to use its diaspora during the pandemic in a similar fashion.
Hard to Judge the Effectiveness
According to US think-tank the Center For Strategic & International Studies, Russia has only limited economic interests in Latin America, with some interest in the sale of natural resources and arms deals. On top of that, though, there are Russian political ambitions. In Fonseca’s view, it is hard to judge how successful Russia has been in its Latin American disinformation campaigns to date and how successful we can expect it to be during the pandemic.
"We don't have the mechanism to detect the effectiveness,” he says. “However, it does not seem to have had an overwhelming effect in the last 10 to 15 years. Russia still has a long legacy that it needs to overcome, and the social media posts are not very popular.”
In a similar way, Fonseca finds it hard to predict whether Russian narratives during Covid-19, in which the Kremlin is blaming the West, will be particularly successful either.
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