Digital Directions: May 2024

By Maya Recanati | Edited by Beth Kerley and Adam Fivenson

Bimonthly insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. If you like this newsletter, share it on social media or forward it to a friend.


Authoritarian Collaboration in Latin America’s Information Space

by Abigail Skalka, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies

Throughout Latin America, foreign and regional authoritarian actors have leveraged new technologies, news platforms, and social media to amplify their anti-democratic narratives. Russia, China, and Iran have found fertile ground for such efforts in Latin America’s fragile democracies, where information operations fortify both their own autocratic narratives and those sowed by regional authoritarian countries like Venezuela and Cuba. The International Forum has highlighted these trends and the critical civil society responses needed to address them throughout the past year.

As Maria Isabel Puerta Riera asserts in Power 3.0, “[t]he influence the Kremlin and the [Chinese Communist Party (CCP)] exercise is global, but it is especially evident in Latin America” where “narratives are designed to challenge and confront what many in Latin America view as renewed imperialism and colonialism.” The two powers—perhaps increasingly in collaboration with each other—leverage the region’s long and complicated history with the United States to push illiberal narratives that seek to question the viability of democracy itself, working in conjunction with regional actors to do so.

For example, in July 2023, reporting on that month’s joint European Union and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, Russian media highlighted criticism by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro that the agenda paid too much attention to the war in Ukraine, at the expense of topics of greater common interest among Latin American countries and Europe. In doing so, they reinforced the “multipolar world” narrative that is popular among antidemocratic Latin American leaders, Iria Puyosa explains in the Forum’s November 2023 report “Deepening the Response to Authoritarian Information Operations in Latin America.” Xinhua Español’s coverage of the summit, while smaller in scale, dovetailed with that of Russia by calling attention to a “rebalancing in Europe-Latin America relations.”

State-affiliated PRC and Russian media outlets also seek to push their regimes’ own political agendas to Spanish-speaking audiences. The CCP-affiliated Xinhua Español and CGTN promote regime-friendly rhetoric designed to garner support for China’s strategic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. In January 2022, just before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian government-owned outlets published 1,600 posts that referenced Ukraine for Spanish-speaking audiences. These outlets pushed narratives, for example, that falsely framed the imminent conflict as a “Western plot to drum up arms sales.” Posts from Kremlin-affiliated outlets accounted for nearly 40 percent of all engagement on Spanish-language stories about the conflict.

Similarly, Iran, like China and Russia, has used state-owned HispanTV in tandem with its curated social media accounts to proliferate its preferred narratives across mainstream media. These networks of manipulated information are not just a handful of spam accounts working in isolation; they are partnerships between allied authoritarian powers, leveraging major media outlets, state spokespeople, academics, think tanks, and social media profiles alike.

Regional awareness of these trends, unfortunately, is low. According to Julio Martínez Ellsburg of Expediente Abierto writing for the Forum alongside three other Latin American civil society experts, “It is seldom understood by Latin American audiences that these outlets with regional channels, such as CGTN news or Xinhua, are controlled directly by the main propaganda body of the CCP.”

To face this multi-pronged challenge, civil society must strengthen current initiatives like fact-checking and media literacy campaigns with cutting-edge strategies and technologies. As Mariví Marín Vázquez writes, unmasking “the sources of antidemocratic information initiatives—revelations that a smear campaign against a local political candidate in Latin America is funded from Russia, for example—can help news consumers reach their own conclusions about that item’s validity.” Part of the democratic response to these threats should also include open-source intelligence (OSINT) training for journalists and researchers, educating them on how to harness publicly available data to expose information campaigns and local actors complicit with antidemocratic authoritarian powers.

For more on the Forum’s research about authoritarian information manipulation in Latin America:

1. Borrowing Boats: How are Key Influencers in Latin America Amplifying CCP Narratives About Authoritarian Models?

2. Deepening the Response to Authoritarian Information Operations in Latin America

3. Amplification Among Allies: Russian and PRC Information Operations in Latin America 


Podcast: Lessons from Ukraine

In this Power 3.0 podcast, the Forum’s John Glenn and Adam Fivenson sit down with Ksenia Iliuk, co-founder of LetsData, to discuss the use of artificial intelligence and cross-sectoral collaboration in combating Russia’s information operations concerning its invasion of Ukraine. Listen to the podcast here.

The Rise of Digital Repression in the Indo-Pacific

ARTICLE19 highlights how, through the Digital Silk Road, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), aided by private-sector tech partners such as Huawei, Alibaba, and ZTE, is seeking to build an authoritarian “China-centric global alternative” to existing digital governance models. Specifically focusing on Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand, the report outlines how China’s provision of hardware is facilitating repressive behaviors, such as mass surveillance and information controls. Separately, USIP outlines how PRC companies are also making inroads elsewhere in the world, including Latin America. Read the full ARTICLE19 report here.

The GDC Zero Draft: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In an article for Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, Konstantinos Komaitis analyzes the recently released zero draft of the UN’s Global Digital Compact (GDC), which seeks to establish a framework for an “open, free, and secure digital future.” While Komaitis commends some features of the draft, such as its commitment to cross-border data flows and interoperability in public-sector tech solutions, he argues that the text falls short on issues of internet governance. The draft omits any reference to an “open,” “global,” and “interoperable” internet, indicating a potential acceptance of authoritarian-backed internet fragmentation. Discussions on the Compact will continue this month. Read the full article here.

A Roadmap to Democratic AI

As AI technologies proliferate, their development and deployment for democratic purposes is not a given. The Collective Intelligence Project (CIP), an organization working at the intersection of tech governance and public participation, recently released recommendations on developing AI tools for democratic governance and democratic approaches to governing AI. The authors advocate for collectively fine-tuning AI models; expanding public input into AI development; increasing engagement between organizations working on open-source tech and public participation; and deepening public engagement through AI-enabled citizen’s assembliesRead the full report here.


Monitoring the Impact of New Election Technologies

Check out this new toolkit from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which provides a framework for election observers to monitor the impact of emerging election technologies. Read the full toolkit here.

The Expanding Role of Social Media Influencers During Elections

Tech Global Institute outlines how political campaigns are increasingly turning to influencers to amplify campaign messaging. For example, during the 2022 Philippine elections, then-candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. paid influencers to whitewash his father’s abusive and corrupt time in power as a “golden age.” Current social media platform policies lack transparency requirements for influencer-delivered political messaging, leaving the door open for information manipulation to undermine elections and democracy more broadly. Read the full report here.

How Russian Telegram Framed Taiwan’s Election

A recent Doublethink Lab report analyzes how pro-Kremlin, Russian Telegram channels covered the Taiwanese elections. Pro-Kremlin channels falsely portrayed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the instigator of hostilities between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and framed the U.S. as a provocateur seeking to stoke cross-strait tensions. This effort mirrors the Kremlin’s ongoing campaign to portray Ukraine and NATO as aggressors instead of victims of Russian aggression. Prominent Russian commentators also questioned the integrity of the Taiwanese elections by emphasizing the DPP’s failure to garner 50% of the vote, falsely implying that Taiwanese citizens’ true preference is for stronger ties with the PRC. Read the full report here.  

Countering Disinformation Effectively: An Evidence-Based Policy Guide

How should platforms, democratic governments, and other stakeholders tackle threats to the integrity of the information space? A new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers a high-level, evidence-based evaluation of ten policy interventions, ranging from fact checking to sanctions. Authors Dean Jackson and Jon Bateman conclude that there is no silver bullet to tackle information manipulation but argue that “democracies should adopt a portfolio approach to manage uncertainty” around the effectiveness of responses. Read the full report here.


The Business Case for Digital Rights

A new report from the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) explains why digital rights are central to today’s digital economy and how the private sector can contribute to creating an open, free, and global online ecosystem. Read the full report here.

Thanks for reading Digital Directions! If you enjoy this newsletter, forward it to a friend or share on social media so that others can subscribe.