Trump administration officials and Democrats in Congress cannot agree on almost anything, but they are increasingly voicing the same concern when it comes to Latin America: Russia will try to influence the upcoming elections in Mexico, Colombia and other countries in the region.
After returning from a five-country Latin American tour, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday: “We see some of Russia’s fingerprints around elections that have occurred in Europe. … We are seeing similar activity in this hemisphere.” He added, “There are a number of important elections in this hemisphere this year.”
Tillerson did not cite any specific Latin American country, but Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland – a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – told me in an interview Wednesday that he has no doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to interfere in this year’s elections in Mexico and Colombia.
Cardin recently released a 206-page Senate Foreign Relations Democratic staff report entitled, “Putin’s assymetrical assault on democracy in Russia and Europe.” It details Russia’s efforts to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential race, as well as actions to sway elections in Germany, France, Spain and other European countries.
When I asked Cardin whether he found any indications that Russia may try to do something similar in Mexico – where leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading in the race for the July 1 elections – he responded, “We would expect to see that in Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere.” He added that Putin “would like to have a government in Mexico that is not friendly to the United States.”
Cardin also said that, “We are certainly seeing evidence of Mr. Putin’s activities in our hemisphere.” He cited Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. 2016 elections, which, despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to play it down, have been publicly confirmed by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and Trump’s own CIA director, Mike Pompeo.
“It’s not just an attack on the election process in the United States in 2016, or a potential attack of influencing the Mexican elections. It’s an overall game plan to assault democratic institutions, to allow a vacuum to be created in which Mr. Putin’s influence can be greater,” Cardin told me.
According to Cardin’s Senate report, Russia’s disinformation operations include deliberate fake news spread by government-run Russia Today (RT) and the Sputnik news agency. In addition, the report cited “troll farms,” disinformation factories that spread conspiracy theories through fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
A troll farm in St. Petersburg, known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), employs hundreds of young Russians. They work 12-hour-a-day shifts and are expected to publish five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts – to establish credibility – and up to 200 comments on other workers’ posts. They make between $800 and $1,000 a month, a good wage for recent graduates, the report says.
I am often skeptical of reports about foreign interference in elections, but this one looks credible. Except for Trump – who, for some reason that history will reveal one day, goes out of his way to defend Putin – people with access to intelligence reports across the political spectrum agree that Russia is running a state-sponsored foreign disinformation machine.
And the tech companies themselves are saying it. Facebook admitted recently that misleading ads and social media posts produced by Kremlin-backed groups reached 126 million Americans and possibly millions of others in more than a dozen Western nations. And Twitter said that Russian-linked bots shared Trump’s tweets almost a half-million times during the final months of the 2016 election, almost 10 times more than Hillary Clinton’s tweets.
To be clear, I don’t think that Mexico’s leftist candidate, Lopez Obrador, has anything to do with this – it would be stupid on his part to be even remotely linked to Russia’s fake-news machine.
But Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies should be held responsible for profiting from fake news campaigns such as Russia’s. Otherwise, social media will continue to create havoc in this year’s Mexico and Colombia elections, among others, as they did in the United States.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.