Op-Ed: Making the Americas resilient to information operations against democracy

Leaders attending the Summit of the Americas must define actionable policies to promote resilience to disinformation and foreign influence.

Op-Ed: Making the Americas resilient to information operations against democracy

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BANNER: Participants walk at the convention center prior to the inauguration of the VIII Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, April 13, 2018. (Source: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Thirty years ago, the Americas reached a consensus on the benefits of embracing democracy and building on it to foster development. However, after two decades of democratic backsliding, such consensus is broken. Pressures from authoritarian leaders have challenged the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles beginning on June 6, 2022.

Renewing its commitment to democratic values, the United States decided not to invite the authoritarian rulers of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Unexpectedly, Cuba and Venezuela managed to articulate diplomatic maneuvers and threats to boycott the summit. The region democratic countries, meanwhile, remained silent; they did not publicly rally to hold the Democratic Charter of the Americas. Several voices pointed out that the United States can no longer claim the Americas’ leadership role since several countries in the hemisphere find their interests more aligned with Russia and China.

These pre-summit tensions revealed authoritarian cooperation and its use of strategic communication and public diplomacy. This well-articulated and efficient effort to derail the summit underscores how essential it is for the Americas’ democratic states to confront illiberal forces.

Defending democratic institutions is indeed a fundamental challenge. An agreement on countering disinformation and curtailing extra-hemisphere influence must be a cornerstone of the Americas’ democracy agenda. Civil society organizations and business leaders in Latin America should step forward and express support for democracy.

Looking at nuanced options and weighing unintentional harm

The goal should be to define actionable policies to promote resilience to disinformation and foreign influence across the Americas. While discussing options, it is vital not to lean toward hasty technological solutions that may increase censorship and surveillance on digital platforms. Ill-conceived solutions would favor undemocratic and illiberal forces instead of safeguarding democracy.

Most publicly discussed remedies address the distribution of false, harmful, or polarizing information. Focusing on suppressing or moderating divisive content may come with the cost of a shrinking public sphere. Indeed, grievances expressed on social media should guide political and civil society leaders in tackling the underlying social conflicts that have been weaponized against democratic institutions. It is paramount not to lose sight of the positive impact of the usage of digital communication by underprivileged and oppressed social groups to denounce injustices, express dissent, and mobilize for rights.

Undoubtedly, people using the internet to access information are often exposed to misinformation. They are also more likely than disconnected people to be confronted with ideas challenging their beliefs and bias, thus forcing them to reconsider their viewpoints. A substantial percentage of the investment in developing resilient information ecosystems is directed toward fact-checking public discourse and debunking misinformation. These initiatives help mitigate the damage that misinformation and disinformation may cause. However, research has shown that audiences are not eager to look for fact-checking and debunking. Most people would still prefer to swallow hyper-partisan narratives aligned with their worldviews. This preference is rooted in human cognition. Improving media literacy can help people overcome their cognitive biases, but it may take years for those programs to yield significant outcomes. Preemptive debunking of foreseeable misinformation around controversial social issues and electoral politics may be an effective form of intervention, halfway between media literacy programs and debunking initiatives. Engaging and factual content should be readily available in media and platforms that people routinely use to get information. Such content may help build resilience through preemptive debunking, acting as a vaccine against disinformation.

Investigations to expose actors behind disinformation operations and stop them from achieving their strategic goals continue to be necessary. Currently, much effort is put into the whack-a-mole hunting of trolls and harmful content spreaders. Reactive content moderation procedures are not enough to fix the problem, but they can also become the other face of the problem. Beneficial content moderation should follow due process and be enforced by applying fair and proportional rules, as recommended in the Santa Clara Principles.

Despite common mistrust, internet recommendation algorithms might contribute to a more civic social media environment, if the ethics of doing good is incorporated into their design principles. Then, prioritizing democratic values could become part of their optimization. Social media companies have been adding friction to slow the spread of potentially harmful content. Could they accelerate the spread of civil content as a public service?

The arena for defending democracy, freedom, and civil liberties cannot be limited to a handful of social media spaces, no matter how large their audiences are. Policymakers should also consider traditional mainstream media and messaging apps. Besides, solutions to the information malaise must account for transnational flows of news, cultural products, and people. Disinformation crosses borders, and trustworthy information should cross them too. This reality is a major reason why the Summit of the Americas is an appropriate space for defining policies to tackle disinformation and influence operations.

Nonetheless, policymakers must be wary of the unintended harms of implementing policies or enacting legislation that violates data rights (as is the case of the Nicaraguan Cybercrime Law) or legitimizes censorship. In 2005, Venezuela pioneered an era of media restrictions in Latin America by enacting the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which mandated that news ought to be “truthful” and penalized information that could cause distress. Since then, more than a dozen laws have been enacted in Latin American countries criminalizing “false news,” fostering media self-censorship and allowing discretionary censorship by government agencies.

Envisioning a public service information system across the Americas

The leadership of the Americas should instead pledge to champion an innovative and trustworthy information ecosystem. There is a decades-long history of studies, debates, and public policies in Latin America to promote public service media. In the United States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers a model of public funding, nonprofit governance, and decentralized distribution that may work across countries. The European Broadcasting Union published a model declaration of values to inform the work of public service media: universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability, and innovation.

The Summit for the Americas may be a pivotal space to build political consensus toward funding a hemispheric public service information system with the aim of strengthening democracy. We can envision a multi-platform public service information system featuring content that attracts and engages while being committed to democratic values. Designing the governance of this system would take time beyond the summit; it would be necessary to align different legal frameworks for public service media across partner states. However, during the summit itself, leaders can reach agreement on the mission of rebuilding trust in democratic institutions eroded by illiberal actors.

Cite this op-ed:

Iria Puyosa, “Op-Ed: Making the Americas resilient to information operations against democracy,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 19, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/op-ed-making-the-americas-resilient-to-information-operations-against-democracy-78250fd444ed.