Latin America is in the middle of what has been called an electoral super cycle. Presidential and legislative electoral processes have marked the political and news agenda in most of the countries of the region since the beginning of last year and will continue to do so until 2024. And their results dictate the trends and strategies that citizens are choosing for the second half of a decade that is in danger of being considered “lost.”
In their ideal form, elections should be platforms for political parties to express the proposals that they offer citizens as solutions to problems. But in their real form, electoral campaigns are, to a large extent, a concert of disqualifications, spectacles, and polarization. Nowadays, they can also be seen as a war of narratives where, above all else, they seek to consolidate a narrative of power.
Digital media plays an ambiguous role in the field of political communication, but it can be a key factor for the dissemination and criticism of those platforms. However, they can also contribute to the misrepresentation of these through the dissemination of fake news and the establishment of a post-truth era.
Digital communication technologies have allowed audiences to stop being mere consumers of information and become creators of content and information. Hence, it is possible for anyone to deliberately, algorithmically, and massively distribute false information.
In this context, as Cristian Salmon has noted, all statements are in a state of permanent uncertainty because, given the ease with which information can be manipulated, it is almost impossible to verify its veracity or falsity. The only criterion we have at hand is a “regime of verification” that is defined by the number of reproductions, “likes”, “shares,” or “replies” a piece of content receives. In this situation, the power of words weakens, and facts give way to a state of uncertainty where whoever has a greater reach will have the power to create a truth, or to oppose it to others and emerge triumphant.
In this context, the following electoral processes will take place, but in what situation are their protagonists? From the different surveys and reports on democracy in Latin America, we know that trust in political parties and politicians is at its lowest level since measurements began to be recorded
But this decline is not strictly due to the erratic management of the pandemic. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the national political narratives of countries in the region have been perceived as increasingly distant from the daily lives of the governed. This distance implies the existence of a profound discrediting of the governments, especially when we realize that no government of any orientation has managed to alleviate our hurtful inequality.
It is not by chance that the recent social protests in Colombia and Chile have had policies implemented from directives issued by politicians as their detonators. People know that political power is diminished and, more than promises, we demand concrete actions. In the context of a state of uncertainty, everything seems to indicate that this demand will only be satisfied if, in the battle for truth, the political narrative is worthy of our attention and appreciation in order to obtain approval and its reflection in the vote.
The distrust towards political narratives has added to the state of communicative uncertainty in which we find ourselves, according to Salmon. Consequently, it has established an era of confrontation where political communication is understood as a process of disqualification and destabilization of other political actors in order to annul them as adversaries and impose one’s preferred narrative as the only legitimate one.
While it is true that the disqualification or fabrication of crimes is a common practice among politicians that increases at election time, we must not lose sight of the fact that in our state of communicative uncertainty, evidence or judicial investigations do not matter. What matters is the construction of a narrative that positions the target not as a political adversary, but as an “enemy” to society and its welfare.
It is simply unnecessary to provide proof of the crime. Instead, what matters is to narrate it through memes, fake news, images, chain messages, or bots so that it is seen by the largest number of people. In turn, this all serves to impose a new narrative. In this sense, the upcoming political campaigns in our region will likely enter a war of narratives if they use fake news and post-truth as strategies to gain credibility.
The dispute for power that elections involve is no longer played out in rallies or television debates. The digital network is the new arena of that contest, and the advantage that the narrative has over formal messaging is that, with the tools of that digital network, it is possible to create an “enemy”, a face “guilty” of all the crises, injustices, inequalities.
In light of the upcoming elections, it is important, for the sake of democracy, that proposals outweigh disparagements, especially in the context of the health, economic and political crises that Latin America is going through. But in the era of confrontation, where truth is built from its virality, we will probably only see the creation of a moral disqualification narrative that will overshadow the concrete political proposals that we need so much. Knowing how to criticize the narrative and demand proposals is our challenge. We will have to be vigilant.
Translated from Spanish by Alek Langford