I am fascinated by your discussion of Latin American politics. We just witnessed Bolsorano commemorate the 55th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in a devastating anti-democratic period for the country. I would like to know more about the following:
In the Colombian case, that is the one I am more familiar with, the new government and far right party have used these tools and networks to undermine the implementation of a peace deal that was signed in 2016, the transitional justice process, and the construction of an inclusive and plural historical memory of the armed conflict (the oldest in the Americas with more than 60 years).
Can you speak to HOW they’re doing this? Can you provide an example?
Sure, I am happy to talk a bit about the Colombian case. It is full of contradictions, a mixture of tragedy and hope. This January I moved back to Bogota, my hometown, after spending more than a decade in the U.S., and although I frequently visited the country, and followed the news regularly, being back and experiencing the everyday life here has reminded me of the quite paradoxical and explosive nature of Colombian politics. Such paradoxes have been amplified in recent years with the transition to a networked media ecosystem that integrates both old and new media.
The country entered the 21st century with an unresolved armed conflict that extended for more than five decades, high levels of socioeconomic inequality, and a humanitarian crisis with millions of internally displaced people. Despite its multiple violences, including guerrilla and narco wars, Colombia has been a relatively stable democracy in the region, with only a brief period of military dictatorship between 1953 to 1958.
Political polarization has scaled up in the last seven years as a result of the peace process (2012-2106) developed between the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP). Regardless of having a multi-party political system, Colombians have been radicalized into the ones that support the peace process and agreement, and the ones that oppose to it. It has been precisely the context of sociocultural change opened up by the peace building process, including the creation of several laws pro-victims (e.g. Law of Victims and Land Restitution of 2011), the deployment of progressive policies for minorities, and the design of inclusive historical memory public institutions what triggered an increased radicalization in the political spectrum.
The Colombian far-right has systematically opposed to peace building and worked hard to undermine the peace negotiations and agreement, bringing together several conservative sectors like wealthy landowners, conservatives, and christian churches. Leveraging old and new media, the far-right attacked the government that led the peace negotiations and its policies, using "any media necessary" to erode the consensus around peace. Tweets, radio ads, billboards, television spots, and memes circulated fast through all the platforms available in the media ecosystem, disseminating critiques, rumors, and falsehoods about the peace negotiations and agreement. The far-right communication strategy turned out to be quite successful for winning elections. Proof of that are the results of the peace referendum in 2016, where Colombian citizens had the chance of ratifying the peace deal by answering the question: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace? The No won with 6,431,000 votes (50,22%) over 6,377,000 votes of the Yes (49,78%).
Two days after the referendum, the director of the far-right “No campaign” explained in an interview that their communication strategy consisted in exploiting the fears and anxieties towards social change of many Colombians, as well as the hate towards the FARC guerrilla. In the words of the campaign director, the strategy consisted in “making people go to vote with anger.” Inciting that anger, in a country with a long lasting armed conflict, and with strong conservative and traditional catholic family values was not a difficult task. Emotions trumps reason and fear trumps hope. The wounds opened by war do not close fast, and even when they are healing, they can easily be reopened with a simple touch.
Peace is fragile in contexts where there is no consensus about the responsibility of the different actors that have participated in the armed conflict. During the referendum campaign, the far-right crafted and spreaded falsehoods in different formats that said, for instance, that the peace agreement would destroy the traditional Colombian family with a gender ideology that promoted gay and transgender rights; that FARC rebels were going to get paid greater salaries (once they were reintegrated to civil life) than honest working class citizens; and that the country would transform into Venezuela.
The success of the “No campaign” in 2016 strengthened the far-right and helped to consolidate a repertoire of narratives that could easily be recycled and spreaded in order to promote anger, fear, and political polarization. Those narratives, with some variations, were used again two years later during the 2018 presidential election, and helped to build a political climate in where Ivan Duque, the candidate backed up by the far-right, won. As we have seen during the few months of the new presidency, some of the elements of these narratives, such as the fear of becoming Venezuela, is actively being used by the new government in order to gain popular support, to delay the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC, and also to strengthening ties with other far-right governments such as the one of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Trump in the U.S.
I’ve learned so much from your discussion of Colombian politics. There is so much overlap in anti-democratic and fascist right-wing politics across various nations and political contexts. It is definitely worth exploring, however, how progressive communities are responding. The example of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is illuminating in this regard. It isn’t that other candidates haven’t attempted to harness the power of digital and social media. The current Democratic presidential hopefuls, however, show that authenticity is important amongst young people. When Kamala Harris went on a New York hip hop station and declared that she listened to Tupac in the 80’s, Twitter was ablaze with memes and gifts questioning her authenticity. I think that young people, especially, use social media platforms as “checks” on power.m Moreover, Black twitter has been especially important in this regard.
I recently have learned of my colleague Matt Barretto’s research on the 2016 and 2018 elections http://www.latinodecisions.com/2018-election-eve-poll/ He finds that Democrats and progressives are more readily seeing, understanding, and deciphering racial and racist whistleblowing (or cues) and denouncing them. In public opinion research, Tami Mendelberg’s research in the early 1990’s showed that when the public became aware of how Bush was trying to use race to attack the Democratic nominee in 1988, many Democrats disapproved. Her conclusion was that while racist cues are used often, it is less effective when their content is exposed.
It seems that more than two decades later, Black Twitter and other forms of social media has created a “rapid response” that “calls out” these types of racialized ads used by the far right & even by companies. [For example, H&M and Snapchat have been targets of this social media call out for using racist images in their ads]. I think millenials are much more attuned to and sensitive to these racial frames and have access to counternarratives that allow them to decipher and decode blatant attempts at race baiting. Unfortunately, Fox News and its audience wield disproportionate institutional power (electoral college, Senate, etc). However, I am heartened by how progressives and black/Latino youth engage in these alternative public spheres, using these platforms to contest, reframe and create new democratic visions. I guess the question comes down to how we can actualize these networked forms of communication to build robust public spheres that can hold institutions and government accountable.
Yes, progressive communities, young politicians, and young activists in democratic countries are adapting fast to the new political climate and finding ways to participate in a networked communication environment that, although it has become more toxic in its abundance of disinformation and hate, it is still open. I totally agree with you that many young people is leveraging social media platforms as “checks” on power, and engaging in alternative public spheres to verify information, call out extremists, and ultimately, continue to push forward a progressive agenda. I have seen these media practices emerge in the Colombian context, particularly on the Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp platforms with the circulation of news verification reports in various formats (videos, infographics, text), visual memes, emoji compositions, and text messages. The use of humor in visual memes, particularly, has turned quite effective debunking some of the falsehoods spreaded by the far-right, and the smokescreens created by the new right wing government.
At the beginning of the year, for instance, and perhaps in preparation for a possible military intervention in Venezuela that could involve the help of the U.S. troops, the Colombian president gave a public speech in Cartagena welcoming U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in where he claimed that the United States founding fathers had been “crucial” for the Colombian independence. After his speech, and the publication of a tweet in the president official account, dozens of visual memes circulated on Twitter and were accompanied with an intense debate about the historical inaccuracy of the president’s claim. These memes included multimodal compositions that combined classic paintings of the founding fathers, photographies of American superheroes, collages of Simon Bolivar, and captions in text mentioning specific geographic locations and important historical moments of Colombian history. All these memes and other messages that mocked, debated, and questioned the accuracy of the president’s claim were aggregated under the hashtag #LeccionesDeHistoriaDeDuque (DuqueHistoryLessons in English).
I am hopeful that as more young people develop tactics for navigating a polarized political climate, and leverage networked media ecosystems for checking on power and limiting the spread of disinformation, we would be able to overcome the current global crisis of democracies.
Arely Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Andres Lombana-Bermudez (@vVvA) is an assistant professor of communication at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia. He is also an associate researcher at the Centro ISUR at the Universidad del Rosario, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.