Colonialism 2.0 in Latin America and the Caribbean: What Is to be Done?

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on August 9, 2018

Full text of the speech at the International Seminar “Latin America in Dispute”, held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on August 8, 2018.

How do we project an image of the future of the left in these ethereal citizenships produced by Colonialism 2.0, capable of mobilizing through the meowing of a cat but anaesthetized in the face of the death or hunger of millions of human beings, how do we communicate with the young people who have digital culture incorporated into their DNA, how do we communicate with politics so that it is not an abstraction or a yawn?

Since the 1990s, Herbert I. Schiller had taken for granted the existence of an “Emerging American Empire” whose missionaries lived in Hollywood. “It’s an empire with a minimum of moral substance, but Hollywood is only the most visible part of that empire. There is already a broad and active coalition of government, military and business interests in the computer, information and media industries. The perception of the world by these actors is decidedly electronic”

In 1993 the policy for the development of the national information infrastructure (NII) was introduced in the United States and since then the corporate communications industry response has been facing promising opportunities with a frantic process of mergers and concentrations, accumulating resources and capital in huge companies. These were accompanied by a series of hasty auctions of the radio spectrum won by the telecommunications giants. Once these material conditions were secured, with the private sector communication giants prepared and encouraged to exploit the newly born digital networks to the full, the conditions were created to meet what US Atlantic Operations Chief Hugh Pope stated in 1997: “The message is that there is no nation on the face of the earth that we cannot reach”

The United States was never more imperial than when it became the czar of the Internet and imposed on us a model of connectivity dependent on the logics of the market and ecological depredation, which codifies human relations, transforms them into data and, therefore, into goods that produce value. Isolated data says nothing, but the enormous mass of data aggregated on a platform acquires an unusual and controversial value in a society that is moving rapidly from the production and trade of physical goods and services to digital services.

The new and intense communicative and cultural concentration is much more global than that of the transnational or national cultural industries we knew.  A single private company in the United States, for example, decides how much a quarter of the world’s population spends about 50 million hours a day. Its differential value is that users are growing at dizzying rates with gigantic rates, not only in gross numbers but also in density and range.

Four of the world’s top five mobile applications – Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger – belong to the company founded by Mark Zuckerberg and collect permanently monetizable data. In the first quarter of 2018, despite the recent scandals and the Wall Street stock market crashes, Facebook had a turnover of $11.79 billion, almost $4 billion more (49 percent) than a year ago. Of this total, about 98.5 percent comes from advertising.

Google, on the other hand, performs nearly 92 percent of Internet searches, a market valued at more than $92 billion. The 10 richest and most powerful companies in the world – five of them in the telecommunications business – have joint revenues of $3.3 trillion, or 4.5% of world GDP. Apple alone is equivalent to the GDP of 43 African countries (one trillion dollars). In fact, there are only 16 countries with a GDP equal to or greater than Apple’s current market value, according to World Bank data.

There are currently few public institutions at the national or global level that can cope with these monstrous transnational powers, which have dramatically altered the nature of public communication. There is no nation-state that can reshape the network on its own or curb colonialism 2.0, even if it implements local antitrust protection regulations and impeccable social, ecological, economic and technological sustainability policies. Even less can it build a viable alternative disconnected from the so-called “information society”, whose shadow – intangible, but therefore no less real – reaches even those outside the Internet.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), our region is the most dependent on the US for Internet traffic. Eighty percent of the region’s electronic information passes through some node administered directly or indirectly by the United States, mainly through the so-called “NAP of the Americas” in Miami – twice that of Asia and four times that of Europe – and it is estimated that between 80 and 70 percent of the data exchanged internally by Latin American and Caribbean countries also goes to U.S. cities, where 10 of the 13 root servers that make up the Internet’s master code are located. 

Latin America is the most backward in the production of local content, however, it is the leader in the presence of Internet users in social networks. Of the 100 most popular Internet sites in the region, only 21 are local content, meaning that, instead of creating wealth for the region, the content transfers wealth to the United States where the big Internet companies are hosted. Experts say that one of the most significant aspects of Latin American digital culture is the intensive use of social networks. In fact, some countries in the region match and even surpass the use of social networks in developed countries. Of the ten countries with the most time spent on social networks, five were Latin American, a ranking that was led by Brazilian, Argentine and Mexican users with 4 hours a day.

Twenty-eight percent of Latin Americans live in a situation of social exclusion in the region; however, the number of Internet users has tripled in this population group compared to the previous five years. Nine out of ten Latin Americans own a mobile phone.  According to research by the Inter-American Development Bank (2017), 57 percent of people who have difficulty getting food are very active on Facebook and WhatsApp, indicating that they have a smartphone in their homes. Fifty-one percent of those who admitted not having drinking water in their homes also frequently use social networks.

The digital divide is not the same as the economic divide. Internet access is not the same as the capacity to put the so-called New Technologies in function of the development of a profoundly unequal continent. The lack of digital skills and the inability to harness the potential of new technologies contribute to perpetuating this state of vulnerability, even when the poor have the new devices in their hands.

Speaking very early on about these issues, the Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro warned that, hand in hand with a revolutionary technology, “there is a real colonization underway.  America is playing its role with enormous efficiency in the sense of seeking complementarities that will make us permanently dependent on them…” And he adds: “Seeing this new civilization and all its threats, I fear that once again we will be people that do not grow, people that in spite of all their potential remain as second-class citizens.

The United States and its “Effective Connectivity” Operation for Latin America

That’s a first look at the problem. Let’s look at a second scenario: such a scenario is linked to a broader program for Latin America and the Caribbean to control the contents and environments of citizen participation that has been carried out with total impunity, without the left having paid the slightest attention to it. In 2011, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved what in some academic circles is known as an “effective connectivity” operation. It is a plan, declared in a public document of the US Congress, to “expand” the New Social Media in the continent, focused on the promotion of US interests in the region.

The document explains the United States’ interest in the continent’s so-called social networks:

“With more than 50% of the world’s population under the age of 30, the new social media and associated technologies that are so popular within this demographic group will continue to revolutionize communications in the future. Social media and technological incentives in Latin America based on political, economic and social realities will be crucial to the success of U.S. government efforts in the region.” 

This document summarizes the visit of a commission of experts to several Latin American countries to learn specifically about policies and financing in this area, as well as interviews with executives of the main Internet companies and North American officials. It concludes with specific recommendations for each of our countries, which involve “increasing connectivity and minimizing critical risks to the US. For that, our government must be the leader in infrastructure investment”

And he adds: “The number of social media users is increasing exponentially and as novelty becomes the norm, the possibilities of influencing political discourse and politics in the future are there.

What is behind this model of “effective connectivity” for Latin America? The instrumental vision of the human being, susceptible to being dominated by digital technologies; the certainty that in no case are the so-called social platforms a neutral service that exploit a generic service (such as a household appliance, a language, a spoon…), but that they are based on technological and ideological foundations, and are institutionalized and automated systems that inevitably design and manipulate connections.

A few months ago, Facebook finally recognized itself as a media outlet, after years of presenting itself as a generic services platform. Let us hope that the confusion that has reigned in the academic circuits that have refused to see the multinational as what it is, that is, as the Humpty Dumpty of these days, will end. 153 years ago in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll put on the lips of the Marc Zuckerberg of that time an extremely topical parliament: “When I use a word it means what I decide it means: no more no less.”

What the U.S. government calculates with its “effective connectivity operation” is the possibility of these tools creating a grassroots simulation and from there collapsing political systems that are not convenient for them. What part of the “effective connectivity” operation has operated from the social networks in the situation that Venezuela and Nicaragua are experiencing today, and we saw earlier in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina? 

When politics is techno-political

Only large companies have the computing power to process the colossal amounts of data we leave on social networks, with every click on search engines, mobiles, magnetic cards, chats and emails.  The addition of traces and data processing allows them to create value. The more connections, the more social capital. But the fundamental interests of opening up data and inviting people to “share”, to give a “like” or “dislike”, to “hold back”, etc., are not those of the users, but those of the corporations.

This power gives owners a huge advantage over users in the battle for control of information. Cambridge Analytica, the London branch of a U.S. contractor company that has been active in networked military operations for a quarter of a century, took part in some 200 elections around the world. The modus operandi was that of “psychological operations”. Its aim was to change people’s opinions and influence them, not through persuasion, but through “information domination”. The novelty is not the use of flyers, Radio Europa Libre or TV Martí, but the Big Data and Artificial Intelligence that allow locking up every citizen who leaves traces in the net in an observable, parameterized and predictable bubble.

Those who follow this plot will have seen that Cambridge Analytica has acknowledged that it was involved in electoral processes against the leaders of the left in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.  In Argentina, for example, they participated in the Mauricio Macri campaign in 2015. The links between the President’s Chief of Staff and the current head of the Federal Intelligence Agency with this company have been reported, which created detailed psychological profiles and identified people who were susceptible to changes of opinion and then influenced them through false news and partial information selection. As soon as he came to power, Macri, among other decrees with which he severed the legal and institutional basis for the communication forged in Argentina’s left-wing governments, approved one that allowed him to keep the databases of official bodies for use in campaigns on their behalf.

What all this shows is that in Latin America and the Caribbean too, politics have become techno political, in its most cynical form. With total impudence, the right-wing governments that have re-plugged in recent years boast of having communication teams hired in Miami, Colombia and Brazil. Alexander Nix himself, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, prided himself on his Latin American clients that in order to convince “no matter what the truth, what is said must be credible”, and underlined an unquestionable empirical fact: the discredit of mass commercial advertising is directly proportional to the increase in advertising in social media, highly personalized and brutally effective.

Now, I have the impression that with is happening with Cambridge Analytica is what happened with Blackwater, the US war army. It fell into disgrace in order to efficiently serve the operation of rendering invisible the mercenary industry of subcontractors dedicated to security, intelligence, maintenance or training tasks, which has expanded and continues to be very useful to the US government and its allies.

Take the time to check out the Facebook Marketing Partners page and you’ll discover hundreds of companies that buy and sell data, and trade it with the blue thumb company. Some have even specialized in geographic areas or countries, such as Cisneros Interactive – of course, the same Cisneros Group that participated in the coup d’état against Chávez in 2002 -, a Facebook reseller that already controls the digital advertising market in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

What to do in the face of Colonialism 2.0

Communication is not only a matter of technology.  We have to be in the streets, knocking on doors like Morena has just done in Mexico, so that politics can express itself on social networks and confront conservative restoration and the imperial offensive. But the digital scene is a not an inconsiderable way to reconnect the left with its bases, particularly with young people. As the Argentinean director Tristan Bauer said recently in Havana, “networks are not decisive for winning, but they are being very useful when it comes to losing the elections”

Unfortunately, these issues are still far from the professional debates and programs of the continent’s progressive movements. There is no need for demonizing or, on the contrary, hypnotized discourses that describe the new technological civilization – to use Darcy Ribeiro’s term – but there is a lack of strategies and programs that allow us to challenge and intervene in public policies and generate lines of action and work defined to build a truly sovereign model of information and communication on our continent.

Let us put concrete tasks on the horizon. It has not yet been possible to achieve a specific fiber optic channel in the region, which was a dream of Unasur and is still a pending issue in Latin America. We do not have a systemic strategy or a homogeneous and reliable legal framework that minimizes U.S. control, ensures that network traffic is exchanged between neighboring countries, promotes the use of technologies that guarantee the confidentiality of communications preserves human resources in the region and removes obstacles to the commercialization of digital tools, content and services produced in our backyard.

Unfortunately, no progress has been made on a common, supranational communication agenda. If we talk about communications, Internet governance, copyright, issues that are strategic for the future such as technological sovereignty, innovation, the development of our cultural industry, the importance of incorporating contemporary aesthetics into our political narrative, we will necessarily have to put together a common agenda and spaces where it can take shape.

We need networks of observatories that, in addition to offering basic indicators and warnings about the colonization of our digital space, will allow us to recover and socialize good practices in the use of these technologies and the actions of resistance in the region, based on the understanding that success or failure in the face of these new inequalities depends on political decisions.

It is unlikely that a country of the South alone – let alone an isolated organization – could find resources to challenge the power of the right mobilizing at the speed of a click, but a bloc of left-wing professionals, organizations, movements and governments would be better able to develop levels of response, at least to assert regional sovereignty in some critical areas.  It would allow more negotiating power against the powers in Artificial Intelligence and Big Data and their companies, as well as challenging the global instances where governance policies are defined.

We have to take over the big data. It costs much less to organize a central communications command than to finance a television channel. Therefore, the creation of a school of political communication of the Latin American and Caribbean left, which would allow us to share knowledge about the power networks behind the media, the need to democratize them and the opportunities offered by the new information technologies, should be a key issue in political and professional debates on communication, and particularly in those where equity and development are discussed. Because there are opportunities and there are specialists very prepared with their little hearts on the left, duly condemned for heretics – as Roque Dalton said. They exist as also exist paradigmatic experiences of the left in the articulation of networks, but sometimes they pass through our lives as solitary comets and institute nothing or almost nothing.

I have stopped at the gaps in the debate to stimulate the perception of risk among us. That debate about apocalyptic and integrated into mass culture has long since been transcended. The stable world described by Umberto Eco no longer exists. There are several worlds on the horizon and one can be the one in which we come to create our own liberating tools. But the search for and construction of alternatives is not a techno-scientific problem, it depends, as I said before, on “collective action” in the short and medium term, with tactical and strategic perspectives in face-to-face and virtual communication that facilitate the change of social relations and technical frameworks in favor of our people.

Let’s do it, because we don’t have much time.