Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Is Social Media Changing Elections in Latin America?

In March, a whistleblower drew attention to the actions of Cambridge Analytica, which is accused of processing voters’ Facebook data without their consent in order to create psychological profiles during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Later, executives from the British data firm were filmed saying they used the same strategy in Mexico and Brazil. The scandal has fueled worldwide fears that social media user data is not adequately protected, and that improperly obtained data could influence elections. Is the integrity of Latin America’s elections at risk due to data breaches? How might responses to the scandal affect companies that do business with consumer data in Latin America? How can Latin American countries address these concerns as elections approach in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other nations?

Pedro Less-Andrade, director of public policy and government affairs for Latin America at Google: "A multi-stakeholder approach is needed here, where Internet platforms jointly with civil society, traditional media, governments and political actors can work together to address some of the most challenging issues for digital democracy: fostering access to accurate information, helping people to understand where to vote, providing information on the different candidates, and enhancing transparency and accountability during electoral processes. Google has been working with electoral authorities for almost a decade, starting with Mexico back in 2009, when we launched an interactive map showing voting polls. Last week we signed a new collaboration agreement with INE (Instituto Nacional Electoral) to promote participation in the election and streaming political debates on YouTube. We are also partnering up with multi-stakeholder coalitions like Verificado in Mexico, and First Draft in Brazil, and organizations like Colombiacheck and Silla Vacia in Colombia and A publica y Aos Fatos in Brazil, among others, to work on fact checking to combat misinformation. We support the production and detection of quality journalistic content. On our platforms, we’ve updated our algorithms to weigh more heavily on authoritative sources during breaking news moments. Additionally, through programs like the Google News Initiative, we are training journalists and creating programs to support fact-checking and limit the spread of disinformation."

Arturo Sarukhan, board director of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: "In the last two decades, Latin America devoted significant institutional bandwidth to hardening institutions first against democratic rollback, then against the footprints of organized crime and now corruption. But it does not seem prepared for the political, ideological and geostrategic disruption that technology and digital platforms have recently spawned. The weaponization of narratives and storytelling—fueled by disinformation and fake news and magnified by the political and electoral leverage of big data analytics and harvesting, astroturfing, and bot farms—on social media has become one of the most salient forces of the 21st century. These threats aren’t going away. The revelations regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm’s budding footprint in the region, and more recently Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony in mid-April explicitly mentioning the Mexican election as an example of ongoing challenges in this space, are compelling proof of what’s at stake. Therefore, a core question for nations heading to the polls in 2018 will be whether governments, societies and the media can preserve the tenets of open societies, the values of freedom of speech or the free flow of information while protecting themselves—and the private data of citizens—from domestic or foreign actors exploiting these tools for political-electoral or geopolitical gain. If the dynamics unleashed in the United States in 2016 caused severe democratic damage there, the replication of some of these tactics in other nations in the Americas might spell trouble. This is a region, after all, where the rule of law, accountability and democratic governance require strengthening, where distrust of institutions, politicians and political parties remains high and where media and watchdog organizations still face important constraints. Sooner rather than later, Latin America will be forced to dedicate greater bandwidth to cybersecurity, to understanding how global power relationships are being reshaped by these forces and implementing holistic measures to confront these tectonic shifts."

Alberto Arebalos, senior vice president at MileniumGroup Inc. and former head of communications at Facebook Latin America: “Microtargeting is a powerful tool for advertising, and politics, but in the wrong hands it can be a deceitful weapon. The problem is not only data breaches, although privacy has been a concern for more than a decade but if society, collectively wants a free Internet (and that seems to be the case) somebody has to pay. And the public pays with its privacy. But having said that, technology today allows for a finely tuned political campaign that can disseminate wrong and fake information, reduce participation or discredit democracy in general. In order to do that, a cunning political campaign doesn’t need any data breach. The tools, all legal, are there to be used, and abused. That should worry governments. Controls and regulations have to be put in place sooner rather than later. Latin America is a particularly young region, with more than 50 percent of its population under 35 years old and heavy users of social networks. Facebook and others have to be seen as media, with the same obligations as newspapers, magazines or TV channels related to the content and advertising they run in their services. Pretending that, because they want to call themselves ‘tech companies,’ they do not have an editorial role, is kidding ourselves. Most people get their news from Facebook these days. Perhaps it is not a media company, but it should be regulated as one."

Annagrazia F. Cotrina Pegorari, CEO of the Behavioral Economics and Data Science Team in Peru: "Not only is the integrity of general elections at risk but also that of other democratic decision-making mechanisms like referendums, plebiscites and recall elections. To believe that Cambridge Analytica is the only organization that has allegedly made improper use of citizens’ data to try to influence their decisions is naive. The active participation in response to this scandal must come from all organizations that manage user data, including private companies and governmental entities. Citizens also have to let their voices be heard in protest to these wrongful actions. Organizations must improve their practices and security protocols to protect user data. Otherwise they will be destined to fail, as they are held accountable to their users. Exposing or compromising data as a result of wrongful practices or vulnerable systems can result in millions of dollars in financial losses or even dissolution. Governments must implement and reinforce public policies and programs to promote digital education from a comprehensive perspective based on rights, aimed at empowering citizens so they are conscious of the positive and negative implications of their behavior in the digital era. Our efforts should not focus on regulating today’s technologies but on preventing and acting against those behaviors that harm democracy like fake news, discrediting campaigns and dishonest tactics. Data, science, law and psychology are not problems but tools. Questionable professional and ethical standards by those who use these tools are the problem. Working together on this issue is fundamental to achieving the digital society that we need and hope for."

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