Andres Oppenheimer

Are most Latin American elections rigged?

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks during a press conference in Copenhagen on Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks during a press conference in Copenhagen on Thursday, April 14, 2016. AP

The Panama Papers, a massive leak of 11.5 million documents from a Panamanian law firm that expose the ultimate owners of thousands of shell companies, have drawn a lot of public attention in recent weeks, but I’m just as intrigued by the lesser-known Bogota Papers.

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The Bogota Papers? Yes, that's how we may want to refer from now on to the emails and other documents held by international political hacker and cyber-disinformation expert Andres Sepúlveda. He says he has influenced — if not manipulated — the outcomes of recent elections in Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Venezuela.

Sepúlveda sits in a Bogota prison right now, serving 10 years for hacking and spying for a leading opposition candidate in Colombia's 2014 elections. A few weeks ago, he gave a revealing interview to Bloomberg/Businessweek in which he claimed, among other things, that he had worked for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s campaign, and that hackers like him are working right now for U.S. presidential hopefuls.

Sepúlveda says that, in Mexico, his team of hackers installed spyware in opposition offices and manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision to help Peña Nieto win the election, according to the story.

“My job was to do actions of dirty war and psychological operations, black propaganda, rumors — the whole dark side of politics that nobody knows exists but everyone can see,” Sepúlveda told Bloomberg.

The Mexican government denies Sepúlveda’s claims. Bloomberg says it saw some of the emails and other documents shown by Sepúlveda, and that independent experts said they appear authentic.

But regardless of how much of Sepulveda’s story is true, his testimony should ring alarm bells everywhere. It’s a harsh reminder of how political spying has grown since the days of the Watergate scandal, and of how little we know about the political use of anonymous internet attack campaigns that are often total fabrications.

The governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and the previous government of Argentina have been reported to use teams of hired “cyber-militants” to plant false stories about political opponents in social media. They are probably not alone.

Before the digital age, when political campaigns were limited to television, radio and newspapers, negative campaigning consisted of “opposition research:” A politician hired a team of researchers to look into a rival’s public records, found an arrest for drunken driving or a similar offense, and used that information in negative campaign ads.

But those attack ads were based on facts. Now, in social media, hired hackers and disinformation experts often launch massive anonymous attack campaigns based on total fabrications. Google, Facebook, and Twitter filter many of these hoaxes, but not enough.

What’s more, people often believe these anonymous attack campaigns more than what they read in mainstream media. One of the most interesting statements by Sepúlveda in the Bloomberg interview is his assertion that “people believe what the Internet says more than reality.”

Asked what to do about this, Inter-American Press Association director Ricardo Trotti says the worst thing we can do is allow governments to regulate social media. That’s exactly what the authoritarian rulers of Venezuela and Bolivia want to do, and what Ecuador and Cuba have already done, he said. Social media are the last refuge of free expression in most authoritarian countries, and should be protected as such, he added.

“Fortunately, there is a natural process of self-correction,” Trotti told me. “It's true that many hired ‘cyber-militants’ are spreading false information on the internet, but it’s also true that growing numbers of people are double-checking fabricated news, and correcting them. This process is bound to gain ground.”

My opinion: I agree that government regulation of social media is a bad idea. Instead, we should fight against trash on the internet by promoting fact-checking websites such as Politifact.com and factcheck.org, which rate politicians’ statements according to their degree of accuracy. We should expand these and other similar websites so that they can fact-check dubious claims that get traction in social media.

Already, several fact-checking groups are popping up in Latin America, including Chequeando in Argentina, Lupa-revistapiaui in Brazil, El Poligrafo in Chile, El Sabueso in Mexico and Ojo Público in Peru. But most of them are newspaper or website sub-sections, which should have much greater visibility.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea to take a closer look at Sepúlveda’s Bogota Papers. That would help start a serious discussion on how to uncover and denounce anonymous political attack campaigns and disinformation in social media, without restricting freedom of expression.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Follow Andres on Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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