For every natural disaster, every mass shooting, every armed conflict, every spasm of social disorder, there are certain individuals who dispassionately assess the situation and wonder, “How can I make it worse?”
So it was this past week, when President Lenín Moreno botched his government’s rollout of a planned fuel subsidy cut and produced convulsions of violence unlike any Ecuador has seen for more than a decade.
I won’t speculate on the politics that gave us this moment. It’s my first direct experience with Latin American civil unrest. I don’t understand the cultural frustrations that are, as I write, manifesting in waves of brutality from both sides of the argument. I certainly do not know enough about the subsidiary interest groups who have no personal stake in rising fuel prices but find in this disturbance an opportunity to advance their agenda. I am very much the extranjero, watching from the outside with equal measures of fascination and alarm.
It’s the social media experience of this event that worries me.
Chantal and I live in a remote rural area along the Pacific coast, one hour south of Manta. We are not in the Sierra, where looting and violence continue. But we are affected. Our grocery shelves are bare. Water and gas deliveries are spotty. There is still no public transit. Manta is quiet but we don’t know for how long, or if the roads into or out of the city are blockaded. We must rely on our technology to tell us the things we can’t see for ourselves.
If there were a proper use for Facebook or Twitter, beyond sharing cat videos and bitching about liberals, it would be for occasions such as this. The hive mind with its million eyes. Are the roads clear? Yes, and the taxis are running. Has Megamaxi restocked? Not yet, but I saw food on the shelves at Tia.
You would think this is social media’s natural strength. And yet, to witness the torrent of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news – that is, news about things that aren’t real, not news I don’t like because I’m a radicalized asshole – is to understand from social media that tremors in the global order attract interest from some seriously shadowy individuals.
I don’t mean the eyeroll-inducing interview with a Trumpanzee in Cuenca, who moved here when he could no longer afford life in his perfect free-market state, and who spent his airtime moaning about the manifold sins of socialism. I also do not refer to the legions of armchair analysts who know nothing of the politics of this country but feel compelled to wonder, in public, how else this might shake out if y’all was allowed to carry ArmaLite rifles.
No, I’m talking about widely shared and quoted RT America “opinion” pieces on how the International Monetary Fund keeps emerging liberal democracies, like Ecuador, in perpetual debt. Oh, and Lenín Moreno is a traitor to his people pass it on.
I’m talking about strange posts that appear simultaneously across multiple Ecuador expat groups, asking: “Do you like living in Ecuador now?” Visit the poster’s Facebook page and it’s a textbook example of far right batshittery. If indeed this is a real human being. For all anyone knows, it’s a bot.
There are videos that claim to be of police, shooting indigenous protestors and tossing their bodies from bridges. They show nothing of the sort.
There are very official-looking proclamations from President Moreno that cancel national holidays in October and November. He did no such thing.
There are tweets from a former vice-president of Uraguay, José Mujica, that accuse Moreno of treason. Mujica does not have a Twitter account.
False claims of road closures when roads are open. Bogus reports of violence in areas where no violence has occurred. Photos of grotesque police aggression that appear, very much, to have been staged. Although they might be real. Who knows? That’s the point.
I am unnerved to think we merit this level of third-party meddling. Perhaps it’s the Internet Research Agency, testing some kickass new mayhem in anticipation of the 2020 US election. Maybe Vlad and his merry band of sociopaths have a more-than-passing interest in destabilizing our vulnerable petrostate. Possibly China is flexing a muscle.
Does it matter which? Not really. The situation is officially inflamed, and we can’t trust anything we see online. Not even if it’s true.
The effect is absolutely disorienting. All we want is information. Instead, Facebook delivers chaos.
The news is scary. The unhelpers are legion. If only we knew where they are taking us.