Technology can be used as a force for democratization when it allows citizens to become more aware of their elected officials and candidates' work and when it provides them with new opportunities for civic engagement. However, two stories out of Latin America have demonstrated the use of modern technology to undermine democracy in countries like Guatemala, countries that were already struggling to deepen democracy. The first article came from 2016's coverage of Andrés Sepúlveda's
alleged effort to rig elections throughout Latin America.
Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.
His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Campaigns mentioned in this story were contacted through former and current spokespeople; none but Mexico’s PRI and the campaign of Guatemala’s National Advancement Party would comment.
An update of sorts to the election rigging comes from Danielle Mackey and Cora Currier for The Intercept
with The Rise of the Net Center: How an Army of Trolls Protects Guatemala’s Corrupt Elite
It was the Guatemalan version of a form of information warfare now familiar the world over, with a homegrown name: the net center. Interviews conducted in Guatemala with researchers, journalists, activists, and other sources, as well as reports in the Guatemalan press, show how net centers are now used routinely and relentlessly to harass and intimidate opponents of Guatemala’s entrenched elite. They also reveal what precious little intelligence has been gleaned on the ground about these shadowy operations, which leave little or no paper trail and which appear to operate with protection from the nation’s powerful business interests, long allied with the military.
Details vary, but net centers often involve dozens of young men managing hundreds of fabricated accounts, are often attached to more conventional online marketing businesses based in Guatemala City — and usually operate on behalf of the far right. The name net center is a riff on “call center,” which is a big business in Guatemala, especially for English-speaking deportees from the U.S. The ultimate funding of the net centers remains murky, but they’ve come to stand for the latest technologically-enabled iteration of Guatemala’s long experience with violent campaigns to crush democratic organizing. And despite the fact that well under half the country’s population is online, the falsehoods still quickly contaminate the broader public discourse, observers say.
According to Mackey and Currier, the targets of the net centers are usually journalists and activists. Nomada and Martín Rodríguez Pellecer have had their Facebook and Twitter accounts hacked.
In the 1950s, the US sought to destabilize Guatemala through a disinformation campaign using radio and mass distribution of pamphlets. The activities laid the groundwork for the 1954 invasion. During the civil war, the Guatemalan military spread dangerous rumors
about foreign agitators who were allegedly organizing the guerrillas. These efforts to discredit foreigners escalated in the 1980s and 1990s to involve robachicos
. Blonde-haired foreigners were not just guerrilla leaders, but they were now there to steal babies. Talking to foreigners, whether they were aid workers or journalists, could get you killed and your babies taken.
Separating fact from fiction in Guatemala has never been easy. The country's political, economic, and military elites have used that knowledge to protect themselves, with the use of net centers their most recent tool.