Purpose: To explore the digital demographic connection to reversing Russian and Chinese subversion of democracy and liberty in Latin America.
Before Covid19 spawned a pandemic, Russia and China had been plying influence operations and digital authoritarianism to pressure Latin America’s governments, elections, nationalists, businesses, security biases, attitudes toward democracy, and relations with the United States.
As Robert Gates pointed out in his recent book, The Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World, China has overtly offered the world an authoritarian capitalist alternative to U.S.-style democracy. It has used a subtle and shifting mass suasion strategy around its Belt and Road Initiative extending China’s mercantilist, imperial power, for example, at the Davos World Economic Forum.
Russia, dismissed and downplayed at peril to democracies in Europe, has prosecuted its own overt and covert agenda for geopolitical expansion of its power in Latin America in a pragmatic partnership with China. It is part of the axial threat to hemispheric security.
Then came Covid19, interrupting routines, systems and courses of life and commerce on every continent. The virus was also a catalyst for Russia’s early Covid19 information warfare aimed at driving the United States and China toward conflict and corroding trust in public health in the United States.
Yet Covid19 may have also checked great autocratic powers’ information warfare progress, due to the chaos and uncertainty that its origins, nature, and future imposed on the credibility of propagandistic narratives, and its motivation of popular focus on more tactile concerns. This interruption is temporary, yet also an opportunity for democracies to reverse losses to the respect for liberty in the Western Hemisphere.
Covid19 Effect on the Digital War for Latin American Hearts and Minds
After Covid19 won the West, retailers closed or restricted operations to slow the pandemic, inaugurating waves of new digital consumers ordering food, goods and services via internet. Such increases in digital commerce likely also occurred in parts of Latin America to adapt to Covid19, augmenting cash exchange as the majority transaction. Each increase in digital commerce reliance broadens digital reach for external nations using the internet for influence operations.
Yet Covid19 will also impose itself as a modifying, delaying factor in the reading of human behavior data, including information about digital consumption, governance, trade, and security, key areas over which China and Russia desire influence or control in Latin America.
As Western analysts and health officials suspend conclusory thoughts on Covid19 digital market behavior and vaccines, autocracies in China and Russia are adapting rapidly to use their fast-tracked (or pre-existing?) Covid19 vaccines to win influence with emerging nation populations, including young Latin Americans. Russia is supplying Brazil and Mexico, while China supplies the Middle East with mass produced vaccines not yet out of large scale, Phase 3 human trials. Meanwhile, U.S. health authorities are reluctant to rush a vaccine before large scale, 3rd phase human trials are done, and results in. The geopolitics of vaccine evangelism and reticence involve a scary dose of gambling.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Trump Administration reportedly plans not to share an American vaccine with Latin Americans while China has stepped-up negotiations with Latin American leaders to do just that.
If the Chinese and Russian vaccines prove efficacious without safety failures, it could influence increased faith in the efficiency of autocracies for Latin Americans even as they gradually reduce exposure to the United States in the age of tariffs and immigration insults. How might this happen via digital influence operations? Pre-Covid19 findings by Euromonitor International yielded some insights into the thinking and preferences among Latin America’s digitally savvy consumers, and some, likely future leaders.
Pre-Covid19: Rising Digital Class of Latin America
In 2017, two years before the publicly known inception of the covid19 outbreak, Michele Evans of Euromonitor International mined for key “characteristics, motivations, and preferences” of digitally savvy Latin American consumers, finding the greatest concentration between 25-34 years old, with incomes triple that of their non-digital counterparts. This group could theoretically supply tomorrow’s leadership in Latin America, and Russia and China would be interested in cultivating influence in this group.
These young, comparatively wealthy Latin American respondents shared three characteristics, according to Evans: (1) they preferred social media to email communication; (2) two-thirds did not see targeted ads and their implied personal data issues as a privacy concern; and (3) most, especially Brazilian respondents, were motivated by simplicity in navigation during digital shopping to save time and money.
Evans concluded that companies supporting high quality online experiences, simple navigation, and strong social media presence would more successfully cultivate influence with Latin America’s young digital demographic. And these lessons could apply not only for businesses marketing to Latin Americans, but to foreign governments seeking to reach, sway, influence, and in some cases, control them.
Analysis and Preliminary Recommendations
Russia has demonstrated its power and acumen with social media active measures, and if Evans’ findings that digitally savvy Latin Americans prefer social media are accurate, this demographic trait will play to the advantage of Russian intelligence agencies pushing social media content.
For democracies’ efforts at influencing Latin American audiences, picking social media platforms with elegant site navigation will help balance the autocrats’ troll army onslaughts with more credible-feeling content to counter their agitation and negativity. We recommend appealing to the aspirations to liberty and freedom with one’s prosperity in the 23-37 year old age group, expanding the freedom message with long term investment in culturally intelligent media in Latin American markets. This assumes also a diplomatic capability to appreciate the wry wit and unique intelligence of curious, well-read Latin American audiences pursuing digital information.
Young Latin Americans, two-thirds of whose representative respondents downplayed privacy risks in targeted advertising, present a theoretical susceptibility to gradual increases in authoritarian government spying, intrusion, and personal data manipulation. This advantages China, which has developed intensive social control and monitoring technologies and services for sale to Latin Americans, to their governments, companies, and proxies.
Democracies seeking to counter digital authoritarianism while American companies do similar things for government will find it difficult to take moral high ground on liberty and privacy grounds, and will need to focus on the divergent, limited policymaker use of such information from that of the Chinese communist government and the People’s Liberation Army.
As Covid19 comes under control, influence operations will shift to a post-Covid19 Latin America. Approaches to the information battle that will follow for Latin Americans’ hearts and minds will turn in part on the outcome of Russian and Chinese vaccines; and on whether the United States reestablishes a dedicated, friendly diplomatic posture toward Latin America to end an era of “benign neglect”.
Neither will democracies reaching out to Latin Americans wish to underestimate the value of “respeto” (literally “respect,”yet a cultural value set beyond a single word) in hemispheric engagements. To fail to meet our hemisphere’s neighbors halfway, and to get to know values that are important to future digital consumers risks losing the Western Hemisphere to chauvinism and national socialistic tendencies in societies and governments.