The recent election was a golden opportunity for fringe media in Colombia — an opportunity they seized
During recent elections in Colombia, entities on all ends of the political spectrum spread misinformation and editorialized to suit varied agendas. The trend was on full display in the sharing patterns of four very partisan media outlets: Elnodo.co, elexpediente.co, oiganoticias.co and voces.com.co. The first three were right-wing biased, while the last was left-wing, specifically anti-Uribista: it had an agenda against the ideas and actions of former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
The top story from Elnodo.co during the presidential campaign (March 12 — June 17) was a version of a 2016 story from El Espectador, a reputable newspaper, that said that Gustavo Petro — the left-wing runner up in the election — claimed to have three academic degrees he did not have, and asserted that “his candidacy was crumbling to pieces“ because of the revelation. El Nodo’s piece was published in March 29 and did not include Petro’s answer to the claims, even when El Espectador published them.
Oiganoticias.com published very short pieces, often written with poor grammar and filled with adjectives. Sometimes it published just a headline and embedded a tweet by former president and right-wing leader Álvaro Uribe or a video without any context.
Its most popular post on social media during these elections was the repost of an institutional video by the Ardila Lulle organization, one of Colombia’s biggest corporate conglomerates. The video was titled “This is how businessman Carlos Ardila Lulle (founder and owner of the group) responds to guerilla member Gustavo Petro”, and was a response to a campaign proposal by Petro, who said he would ask Ardila Lulle to sell land where sugar cane was grown to the government in order to help poor farmers and indigenous peoples.
For elexpediente.co, the top piece was a report of a debt by Nicolás Petro, the left-wing candidate’s son, with a former business partner. The piece itself was properly researched and mostly held to journalistic standards: it showed its evidence and provided Petro’s perspective on the issue as well.
However, its last paragraph claimed that the case showed Gustavo Petro’s “double standard”, because he “said that Uribe’s sons were corrupt and has thrown accusations to them for the Odebrecht corruption”, a reference to the Brazilian construction company bribing of officers throughout Latin America to get big infrastructure contracts. Petro often made such accusations. For instance, he tweeted that “Uribe’s children met with Odebrecht in Panama”. And in a radio interview during the campaign, he said that “Odebrecht was a chain that started with Uribe’s children.”
While Uribe’s children admitted they met with representatives of the company, they were not indicted in the bribery scandal and only appeared as witnesses in the case. The report described a private business gone wrong, hardly comparable to a corruption case where public money was involved.
In general, elexpediente.co had more prolific spread than most other partisan media. It was engaged with on Facebook (liked, commented, reacted to, or shared) more than 37,100 times and had more than 17,900 retweets. According to Buzzsumo, some of the top retweeters were Salud Hernández-Mora, a very influential Spanish journalist based in Colombia, and Jerónimo Uribe, Álvaro Uribe’s son.
Elexpediente.co was run by controversial journalist Gustavo Rugeles, who published several investigative pieces that fed the right-wing agenda in Colombia, and — according to a report by La Silla Vacía — has built a network of media outlets that enabled him to amplify his work, often with the help of other high-profile Uribistas.
The Voice of Anti-Uribismo
Voces.com.co was established in November 2017. According to its “about” page, it was an “independent media outlet” that aimed to “show Colombians another side of the news, something different from what big media conglomerates offer daily.” Its founders were a group of YouTubers, who claimed they were “independent”, but clearly stated their political preferences in this election in their Twitter feeds. Tweets like the following were common:
Its coverage had a stark anti-Uribe and (at least during the presidential campaign) pro-Petro agenda, and most of its posts — pretty much like its right-wing peers — were written in a style more similar to an op-ed than to news coverage. It freely added judgements and opinions next to reported facts, and almost exclusively posted stories that made Uribe look bad or his political opponents look good.
Its most popular post during the election on social media was published on March 12, a day after the legislative election. It was about a tweet by Colombian actress and columnist Margarita Rosa de Francisco, where she invited then-candidates Gustavo Petro, Humberto de La Calle and Sergio Fajardo, “who represent a change for the country” — Voces’ words, not De Francisco’s — to join forces against right-wing runners Iván Duque and Germán Vargas Lleras, “the usual ones” — again, Voces’ words. The post boasted 215,400 interactions on Facebook.
Another revealing post of Voces’ style was a report, based on tweets by investigative journalist Gerardo Reyes and left-wing House Representative Alirio Uribe, about an apartment bought by Duque in Washington in the same month of his confirmed meeting with Odebrecht’s political operative, Duda Mendonça. According to analysis using Buzzsumo, it had 35,800 interactions and was shared some 6,400 times on Twitter.
The vast majority of the post depicted the timeline of the meeting and payment for the apartment, but it reached provided no evidence the events were causal or related. The post speculated that “for many people, this would confirm that there was possibly money received” by Duque. Again, the piece did not quote anyone who makes that specific claim.
Up and Coming
These outlets’ social media reach still fell short of that of more established media outlets, but they got close.
These media outlets had a partisan agenda and a partisan audience; many of its amplifiers were high-profile people within their camps. There was no evidence of botnet-fueled amplification, or of other irregular activity to boost their traffic.
It was also noteworthy that the outlets grew their social media engagement a lot more than most media outlets more established in Colombia, particularly in a moment where most media websites have seen their Facebook traffic fall sharply because of changes in the News Feed’s distribution algorithm.
Audience Growth via Social Media
Voces.com.co was as successful as it was because its posts were shared heavily on large Facebook groups and pages. Per Buzzsumo, the Margarita Rosa post amassed 29,000 interactions in several pages, like “Soy Colombiano” (one million followers), “Colombiano Indignado” (316,000 followers), and “No más Uribe!!!” (279,000 followers).
The second most popular post was a report of a poll for Colombian university students, in which Petro and Fajardo “crushed” Duque. Again, posts in “Soy Colombiano” and “Colombiano Indignado” brought some 31,000 interactions.
This strategy was somewhat similar to the one used to disseminate electoral fraud claims during the elections. These pages were very good at spreading and sharing information that confirmed the biases and beliefs of its audiences. Voces appealed to a young, anti-Uribista and anti-establishment audience. These groups were a perfect culture medium for them to grow.
The success of these partisan media outlets in the recent elections is a testament to the increasing polarization among Colombian audiences. Moreover, it also shows how these new online-only media startups are emerging and took a good chunk of the traditional media’s audience and advertising cake.
Misinformation researchers should keep a close eye on these and other “news” websites: their increasing popularity, explicit and aggressive bias, and — in most cases — lack of journalistic standards that hold them accountable for what they publish, make them an attractive tool for potential misinformation operations. In fact, some of them already played that role.
Now that the campaign is over and Iván Duque was sworn as President, these outlets will likely keep playing a role in shaping the public debate about his presidency. Their biased coverage, and the extent in which they align with political interests, has the potential to significantly shape Colombian political discussion, most likely in an unhealthy way.
Jose Luis Peñarredonda is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at @DFRLab.
#ElectionWatch in Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
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