Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Media Influence Efforts in Latin America
In recent years, China, Russia, and Iran have increased their disinformation campaigns in Latin America to advance their political agendas through social media and state-sponsored media outlets, according to a 2021 Global American report. Russia Today (RT), Sputnik Mundo, Xinhua Espanol (China), and Hispan TV (Iran) convey the sharp power of these governments to project a positive image and encourage anti-western sentiment by fueling local unrest. Due to its proximity to the United States, Latin America is a favorite target of influence and information operations for China, Russia, and Iran. Moreover, several countries in the region, such as Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia have close political ties to these foreign actors and have a vested interest in promoting their propaganda which presents the US as a failing power. Venezuela, for instance, will host a ground station for Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system as part of a political agreement on cooperation in exploiting and using outer space, similar to the American GPS and the European Galileo systems.
Beijing is more nuanced in criticizing the US in Latin America since China has already expanded its trade and investment in the region at the expense of Washington. According to Beijing's Global Media Influence 2022 report, researchers found few indications of Chinese cyber army activities in the region. Although China, Russia, and Iran share a somewhat similar anti-American and multipolar stance, their digital infiltration strategies in Latin America are vastly different and reflective of their relations with the region. Russia and Iran are more interested in spreading social dissension and turmoil than Chinese disinformation, which prefers to portray the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a trusted ally.
In the past, Russia has sold weapons to Venezuela, sent warships and nuclear-capable bombers, and ordered Rosneft and Gazprom to pump South American crude oil. In June, the Nicaraguan government authorized the entry of Russian personnel, ships, and planes involved in humanitarian relief, military drills, and operations against illegal activities. Furthermore, Venezuela hosted Russian International War Games in August for the first time in Latin America. This year's participants also included Cuba, Iran, and China.
Due to this regional policy, Russia emphasizes and amplifies posts and reports critical of US-allied democracies in the region. Social protests, acts of repression, and human rights violations are frequently mentioned in narratives portraying democracies in a negative light. The street protests and social unrest that rocked Chile (2019-2021), Colombia (2019-2020), and Peru (2019-2020), the Colombian elections, and Chile’s constitutional referendum in 2022 were exploited by an aggressive Russian disinformation campaign to stir up social unrest.
Actualidad RT, the Spanish-language branch of Russia Today, has been a runaway success since its inception in 2009. With more than 18 million Facebook followers and nearly six million YouTube subscribers, the company has offices in Venezuela, Cuba, and Argentina. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, RT was blocked from social media in Europe, yet nearly 50 Spanish-language YouTube channels have reuploaded its videos. BRICS TV, established in Moscow and dedicated to the BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, has among its main partners Russian news agency Sputnik and Chinese news agency Xinhua. It has established local partnerships in Brazil with TV Cultura and REDE TV.
In addition to the official media, Moscow employs "disseminators" of Russian narratives, such as Inna Afinogenova. She is a Russian journalist who, until May 2022, served as deputy director of RT's Spanish-language website and RT-affiliated channel Ahí les va (“So it goes”) and whose videos justified the Russian government's persecution of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Afinogenova also posted a video against Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and several videos on the Colombian social protests of November 2019 and September 2020 criticizing the allegation of Russian influence. These videos were published by Actualidad RT on Twitter and became the content with the most interaction, with more than one million retweets. Even Venezuela's President Maduro retweeted them.
Since June, Afinogenova has collaborated with the digital daily Publico's program The Base (La Base), which is hosted by Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spanish party Podemos. According to former Venezuelan intelligence officer Hugo “el Pollo” Carvajal, this Spanish political party was funded by Nicolás Maduro's government, which Afigenova admires. Afinogenova also participates in Macondo, a program in the Uruguayan web magazine Caras y Caretas. Additionally, she has recently launched a YouTube channel under her name.
Afinogenova has criticized the “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) investigation, which shook Brazil's political and business establishment and led to the imprisonment of former president Lula. Also, she has backed former President Cristina Kirchner against recent corruption allegations. Some experts rejected Aifigenova's claim that she left RT in May to avoid being a tool of Russian propaganda.
“Afinogenova was or is the deputy director of RT, which implies she is or was the right-hand woman of Margarita Simonian, Putin's renowned propagandist,” according to the Spanish publication El Confidencial. “Yes, she could have left office and Russia without a trace, but one would have expected an act of repudiation from Moscow or, at the very least, from his colleagues at RT. Not only has this not occurred, but her videos have remained on the Russia Today platform for months.”
After the COVID-19 Sputnik vaccine propaganda, Russian disinformation exploited its Latin American diplomatic effort to capitalize on the war with Ukraine. Before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin held phone conversations with his counterparts in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and several high-ranking Russian officials visited these countries. In addition, Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernandez, and his Brazilian colleague, Jair Bolsonaro, traveled to Moscow.
Putin's initiatives produced quick results. The Venezuelan state broadcaster VTV justified and relativized Russia's invasion of Ukraine by pointing out that the United States has engaged in similar actions in recent years. Former President Lula and President Bolsonaro have spoken out respectively against Ukrainian President Zelensky and Russia sanctions, incidents quickly emphasized by RT. Both are main contenders in the October 2 presidential race, for which concerns over foreign influence are mounting. The former Electoral Supreme Court President Edson Fachin warned in February of Russian hacking and disinformation on Telegram channels ahead of the election.
A few months later, in São Paulo, Russian national Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov was sentenced to 15 years. Dutch intelligence identified him as a Russian spy attempting to enter the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague as an intern and sent him back to Brazil. Since 2010, Cherkasov’s covert activities have been carried out under the false Brazilian identity of Viktor Muller Ferreira. The Cherkasov case may represent a repeatable threat in Latin America whose strategic position and natural resources may entice individuals to infiltrate the region, while utilizing social media as a complementary tactic.
In a 2017 post in Portuguese on his geopolitical blog titled "Politics of Us," Cherkasov denounced the government of Brazilian president Michel Temer, the country's center-right political class, and the corruption of Lula's Workers' Party. He was only interested in the controversial abolition of the National Copper Reserve and its associates (RENCA), which was established in 1984 to prevent the exploitation of copper, titanium, gold, and uranium by private enterprises. The 2,829 comments appear to be spam simulating engagement with the text.
In Colombia, for the first time in the country’s history, the leftist contender in the upcoming presidential election and a former M-19 revolutionary member Gustavo Petro won the country's March presidential elections. Before the vote, US Ambassador Philip Goldberg warned of potential Russian interference.
“There are countries like Russia that have meddled in elections. They did it in 2016 in the United States and they tried again in 2020. Also in Europe. It is necessary to be on alert and we work with Colombia to protect the electoral process from cyber attacks or disinformation from abroad,” said Goldberg.
In March, Colombian authorities arrested Russian national Sergei Vagin in Bogotá for funding political unrest and anti-government protests in the country. Vagin was caught with five Colombians and another Russian. His arrest occurred about a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to Semana columnist Alejandra Carvajal, among Russia's interests in the country, national oil company Ecopetrol was a concern for Moscow because it represented an option to Europe in case of a gas crisis caused by the Ukrainian conflict.
While Russia's economic role in Latin America is limited, China is a key commercial partner and foreign investor in the region through infrastructure investments and the rise of Huawei in Latin American telecom markets. As a result, the Chinese government's disinformation campaign prioritizes economic and business-related posts and reports that show Beijing as an ally.
China Radio International, China Central Television, China News Service, and the official news agency Xinhua all have regional offices, mainly in Brazil. Recently the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its proxies have employed more sophisticated and aggressive techniques to influence media narratives and restrict critical reporting about sensitive topics like the Hong Kong protests, according to Beijing's Global Media Influence 2022 report. In the following years, this trend will likely spread to other regions, such as Latin America.
Beijing's Global Media Influence 2022 report also revealed that Chinese digital influence is most pervasive in Argentina, followed by Chile, Brazil, and Colombia. Beijing emphasized this relationship with the ruling Justicialist Party of Argentina and has supported Argentina’s claims to the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, currently under the control of the UK.
US social media analytics company Graphika tracked a pro-Chinese propaganda network, named Spamouflage which reached Argentine audiences for the first time in early 2021 and was boosted by regional influencers like the former Venezuelan Culture Minister Ernesto Villegas Poljak. This campaign's Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts primarily interacted with Chinese officials, businessmen, and left-wing Latin American commentators about issues such as U.S.-China rivalry, arms control, and economic development.
Beijing's strategy is regional and multidimensional. Chinese embassies launched Twitter and Facebook profiles before or during the pandemic to promote COVID-19 propaganda and bolster Beijing's credibility. For instance, former Chinese ambassador in Brazil Yang Wanming propagated false human rights narratives.
In Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, Beijing's Global Media Influence 2022 report highlighted Chinese media influence efforts through official media and diplomats who propagate false narratives to local audiences. In Brazil, propaganda emphasized bilateral ties, vaccine diplomacy, and China's role in Brazil's future development, especially its 5G rollout. While in Chile researchers have discovered fake national accounts enhancing engagement with Chinese state media Spanish-language accounts on Twitter, Beijing's media impact in Colombia is minimal due in part to the country's close ties with the United States. Chinese propaganda emphasizes international collaboration and economic partnership.
Also, local media partnerships are growing. China Media Group (CMG), a 2018-founded Chinese state media platform, has already infiltrated the Latin American media landscape. Through information published as undifferentiated inserts in the main media of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, CMG disseminates the CPC's political orientation and core values.
Clarín, Argentina's leading daily, collected 97 reports about the Communist Party of China on its website. The dominant topics were the CPC and the Chinese model's merits, including reducing poverty and cooperating with developing countries. Grupo América, Argentina's second-largest media conglomerate, has ties to Chinese official media and publishes China Daily's "China Watch" supplements. Similar partnerships can be found in Brazil (Folha de Sao Paulo, Band tv), Chile (El Mercurio and La Tercera), and Peru (Diario el Peruano, Agencia de noticias Andina, and TV Perú).
Iran was one of the first foreign actors to support extensive digital warfare in Latin America. Since the 1990s, the former Iranian cultural attaché at the Embassy of Iran in Buenos Aires, Mohsen Rabbani, has promoted pro-Iranian information channels in Argentina and Chile. Interpol issued a red notice against Rabbani for being the mastermind of the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) bombing that killed 85 people. Over the years, the Rabbani network grew into YouTube, websites, and social networks. Two of Rabbani’s disciples, Argentine convert Abdul Karim Paz and Suhail Assad or Mohsen Ali, active in Chile and Argentina make regular appearances on Hispan TV. This is the Spanish arm of Iran-state-owned Press-TV, which targets Latin American audiences by painting the United States and Israel as enemies and sharing narratives with the revolutionary left in Latin America. Hispan TV has extensively covered recent attacks by Mapuche armed organizations in the south of Chile. They have interviewed the now-jailed leader of one armed group, Hector Llaitul, referring to him as a "warrior" and to Chile as a "terrorist state."
According to a 2022 report of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) the two Rabbani’s disciples also collaborate with the Shia community news website of AnnurTV. As highlighted on its webpage, AnnurTV is linked to the Argentinian Islamic Organization (Organización Islámica Argentina). Suhail Assad manages the website Casa para la Difusión del Islam and features on the Chilean YouTube channel ARABTV13, which "promotes Arab traditions" according to the YouTube profile.
Furthermore, an ICT report says that Hezbullah's Al-Manar TV highlights in Spanish Hezbullah's activities in Latin America and those of Bolivia, Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Its director, Wafica Ibrahim, collaborates with Venezuelan regime-affiliated TeleSur and the Cuban government's Cubavisión Internacional and Canal Caribe. Even Chinese CGTN signed a deal with Venezuelan Telesur, to produce “Prisma Cultural,” a program to promote China in Latin America.
China, Russia, and Iran disinformation backed Cuban and Venezuelan propaganda. Cuba and Venezuela have become regional digital facilitators to promote the political models of China, Russia, and Iran as a better alternative to the West. The loss of Venezuela's traditional media infrastructure, deteriorating public utilities, especially government-controlled power utilities and the internet, and, consequently, the population’s limited ability to compare information have encouraged government disinformation efforts in Venezuela and across the region. In late 2019, the then-vice president of Colombia, Marta Lucía Ramírez, accused Russia and Venezuela of inciting protests via social media campaigns.
According to a March 2022 Nisos report, Venezuelan leftist organizations drove social media narratives in support of leftist Colombian presidential candidate and former revolutionary member of the M-19, Gustavo Petro. The study indicates that the influential suspended Twitter account @ChalecosAmarill lobbied for Petro and spread Russian, Venezuelan, and Cuban disinformation. The profile is associated with Venezuelan Rafael Nuñez, according to the report. Nuñez is the Community Manager for "Comunicacion Digital VE," a company initially involved in developing pro-regime applications. Its CEO, Jason Rauseo, previously served as social media director for Venezuela's Ministry of Communication and Information.
Venezuelan military accounts associated with the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) also used Twitter to promote the government's operations, despite the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela prohibiting the National Armed Forces from participating in propaganda. Many Venezuelan military accounts employ face masks, emojis, and thumbs up suggesting a recognition strategy on Twitter.
The Venezuelan Ministry of Communication is known to push out daily hashtags through Telegram channels. It pays users for using or retweeting them by depositing money into their government digital wallets, according to a Digital Forensic ResearchLab report. These initiatives allow the Venezuelan government to control Twitter trends. According to cubanet.org, a Miami-based online publication, Cuba, Venezuela's major ally in the region, might be adopting this approach to establish pro-regime militias accounts.
For example, the Cuban account @DeZurdaTeam, which previously coordinated anti-US and pro-Cuba government disinformation activities, is now active again. The hashtag #DeZurdaTeam is frequently related to hashtags #TropaChe, #TrincherasDeIdeas, #ALBAUnida. They promote Cuban government support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for Iran and China, and other key Latin American political events and politicians, including the Brazilian presidential election and leftist candidate Lula.
Latin America has been an attractive target for digital and media infiltration by foreign players, not only due to its cyber-vulnerability (cyber-attacks increased by 21 percent in 2021) but also because of the democratic erosion of its governments. According to Latinobarómetro, fifty percent of its inhabitants would tolerate a non-democratic government if it solved the country's problems. Foreign actors will likely exploit this social need to foment divisiveness and increase mistrust in democratic regimes. The United States should cooperate with local governments and civil society to improve democracy in the region, including fostering independent digital media outlets committed to free expression and information. Building expertise on Iranian, Chinese, and Russian disinformation techniques, promoting investigative journalism, and strengthening media ownership transparency will likely help in the development of an effective response strategy.