Last September, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to reject a draft constitution that would have turbocharged President Gabriel Boric’s progressive agenda. Boric’s leftist allies blamed “fake news” for misleading the electorate. Ahead of another constitutional referendum this December, the government quietly published a decree to establish an Advisory Commission Against Disinformation. The initiative has sparked deep unease among free speech advocates and an outcry from Boric’s political opponents.
Chile, like all pluralistic societies, is increasingly exposed to misinformation and disinformation. The tumultuous events of recent years—the late 2019 social uprising, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the constitutional referendum—offered fertile ground for the phenomenon at a time of diminishing trust in traditional news media. In a November 2022 report, Ciper investigative journalists showed how disinformation tainted the 2022 constitutional campaign. Some of this disinformation also comes from abroad. Global Americans illustrated how Russian and Chinese state-owned media “use the omission of data, the selective treatment of facts, and propaganda with political intentionality” in Chile, Peru and Argentina. Russian state media, in particular, “engages in a very direct fashion often to stir up social discontent and sow discord.”
Trying to tackle this phenomenon through a top-down commission that is beholden to the government will be at best ineffective and at worst abusive, say experts such as Claudio Alvarado, Director of the Instituto de Estudios de la Sociedad. Chile would be better served by fostering media literacy, multilateral cooperation, and independent research into the increasingly complex information landscape, with the goal of empowering its citizens from the ground up.
Issued on the eve of a national holiday with no accompanying public announcement, the controversial new decree was signed by Science Minister Aisén Etcheberry and Cabinet-level spokesperson Camila Vallejo. Etcheverry, in consultation with Vallejo, will designate the nine commission members. These will include two representatives of state-run universities, two from private universities, one from a university based outside of Santiago, three representatives from civil society, and one representative from a fact-checking organization. Etcheverry will convene and preside over the commission’s sessions in order to “orient” the debates and serve a tie-breaking role if required in the absence of one of the members.
The commission is tasked with advising the science minister and the government’s chief spokesperson on the “analysis of the global phenomenon of disinformation and its local manifestation in Chile.” It will cover the impact of disinformation on the quality of democracy, education and disinformation/digital literacy, disinformation on digital platforms, best international practices and comparative experience, and public policy and disinformation.
Critiques of the Commission
The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) warned that the government-appointed commission, however well-intentioned, “could fall into the temptation of establishing censorship mechanisms.” IAPA President Michael Greenspon stated that “Commissions, observatories or other forms of government surveillance tend to look at reality through ideological lenses, advising discriminatory public policies with adverse effects on the freedom of expression and of the press.”
José Miguel Vivanco, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ex-Ante that governments targeting fake news could “stifle any criticism by imposing a single and unquestionable official truth.”
Critics are especially suspicious of Vallejo, the commission’s intellectual architect. A former student activist like Boric, Vallejo is a prominent member of Chile’s Communist Party, a political affiliation associated with strict censorship in communist-run Cuba and China. The party is a core member of the far-left flank of Boric’s governing alliance.
“Is it not paradoxical, to say the least, that the main proponent of a Commission Against Disinformation is a member of one of the last Communist parties left in the world?” noted Chilean intellectual Cristián Warnken in an open letter to Vallejo. “Does someone who is a member of a party like that have any moral authority to denounce the misuse of information and toxic and lying propaganda?”
Vallejo’s official crusade against disinformation started shortly after Boric took office in March 2022. In July last year, she launched the “More Voices” campaign to expand Chile’s “media ecosystem” from what the left has long derided as a conservative media oligopoly. Speaking on a panel about disinformation at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Global Leaders Forum last November, Vallejo said, “we can’t just approach this from the logic of technocracy, data and measurements. We need to approach this in the first place as a political decision.”
Such language primed the opposition response to the disinformation commission when it was decreed months later. As Senator Ximena Rincón of the center-left party, Demócratas noted, “Selecting a group of people at the whim of the government in power, to decide how to exercise these freedoms, is openly restrictive.” The center-right Evópoli and Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) parties are challenging the initiative on constitutional grounds. Allied party Renovación Nacional congresswoman Camila Flores warned that “the government is looking for institutional mechanisms to try to decide what is true, what is a lie, what is the correct information, and what is disinformation.”
For her part, Vallejo denied these intentions. “This is not about censorship or the media, but rather how we approach this problem that is mainly present in digital platforms and which has affected different countries,” she said. In an interview with La Tercera newspaper, Etcheverry said the body would not assess content or create regulations, but rather help to understand the disinformation phenomenon in Chile.
Disinformation is becoming more prevalent in response to artificial intelligence, posing risks to political participation and democracy. Against this rising tide, Universidad Católica (UC) communications professor Eduardo Arriagada noted that there is little scope for direct government action against disinformation and more promise in multilateral efforts and academic research.
To that end, Chile is already part of the OECD DIS/MIS Resource Hub and the new Swiss-based International Panel on the Information Environment (IPIE). Notably, the first chair of the IPIE’s methodology panel is UC Professor and Data Scientist Sebastián Valenzuela. In a recent study conducted in Chile, UC academic Ingrid Bachmann and Valenzuela show how fact-checking reduces people’s misconceptions, but at the cost of diminishing trust in the news media overall.
Such rigorous research together with educational programs, rather than a government-led commission, will help to better discern and diminish the toxic influence of misinformation and disinformation. “Any entity that seeks to replace the formation of independent judgment will be ineffective,” Alvarado of the Instituto de Estudios de la Sociedad told the author. “In the end, rational and independent judgment is the only thing that can save us from the problem of disinformation to the extent that this is possible.”
Patricia Garip is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile.