Disinformation in the Chilean constitutional process

9 minutes
Disinformation in the Chilean constitutional process
"Art collage of the Chilean flag that embodies a sense of chaos and tech, incorporating newspapers, ballot boxes, and screens," interpreted by Dall-E.
By: Chiara Sáez B.‍

This Sunday, December 17, a plebiscite will be held for the second time to vote on the Constitutional Process in Chile, which seeks to replace the current Constitution, after the rejection of the text drafted by the Constitutional Convention in the plebiscite of 2022.

The possibility of a new constitution was the majority option voted in plebiscite by the citizenry in 2020 as a response to the crisis generated by the social outburst of 2019. Seen today, the Constitutional Convention was an anomaly in relation to the country's history: a body composed on a parity basis, with an overwhelming progressive and leftist majority, including parties with low parliamentary representation, political collectives and social movements.

Since its inception, the Convention has been the subject of misinformation that has circulated widely on social networks and messaging systems -sometimes amplified by traditional media-, as well as of digital gender-based violence against the women who were elected as representatives. Both facts have been documented by the national and international press, as well as by surveys of Convention members and public opinion studies.

An example of this is that last September, the Electoral Service (Servel) sanctioned Google for not providing the required information on who or which entities contracted electoral propaganda on its platform during the 2022 plebiscite, as well as for not making transparent the amounts involved in such agreements. The fine was of approximately 6,600 dollars, a tiny amount considering the level of profits of the company, but which put into debate the legal loopholes to counteract the dissemination of disinformation in electoral contexts.

The constitutional process that culminates this Sunday has been very different. In the first place, its management obeyed much more to the logics of traditional politics. An expert commission approved by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate developed a preliminary draft of the constitutional text, which was worked on by the Constitutional Council and by a Technical Committee on Admissibility to ensure that the institutional bases established in 2022 were not infringed. Unlike the previous process, this one had a right-wing majority, including extreme right-wing parties.

According to the president of the Electoral Service, Andrés Tagle, less disinformation has circulated in this process than in the previous one. In this observation agrees the agency Fastcheck, which quantified 83.6% less disinformation than in the 2022 process. These data allow us to think of some hypotheses about the origin, direction and financing of the false information that the academic research will have to finish determining. Paradoxically, all polls predict the rejection of this new text as well.

In parallel to the institutional itinerary, Camila Vallejo, Minister Secretary General of Government, announced the incorporation of Chile to the Mis-and-disinformation Hub, a working group of the OECD on disinformation that has among its objectives the exchange of good practices and effective measures against disinformation, understood as a threat to democracy.

As part of the implementation of these commitments, in May 2023 a temporary "Advisory Commission against Disinformation" was created by presidential decree to advise the Minister of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation and the Secretary General of Government on matters related to the analysis of the global phenomenon of disinformation and its development in Chile.

The body was composed of nine experts representing public, private and regional universities, as well as civil society and fact-checking organizations. Its responsibility was to focus on the impact of disinformation on the quality of democracy, digital literacy, its dynamics in digital platforms, international best practices and public policies.

Once its creation was announced, the very idea of an Advisory Commission generated criticism, resistance and fears from some sectors regarding an alleged violation of freedom of the press. Even the Senate made a request to the Constitutional Court, which was rejected. There were also university academics seeking to close the debate even before opening it. These are evidences of the difficulty that still exists in Chile to debate the challenges to freedom of expression in the current social, informational and technological context. For its part, the commission received important international support, such as that of Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Julio Bacio Terracino, head of the OECD's Public Sector Integrity Division.

The commission presented two reports. The first, published at the end of August, was a general diagnosis of the phenomenon of disinformation in the world and in the Chilean context. The final report, released on December 4, highlights the threat of disinformation in social networks and proposes 72 recommendations, including: strengthening cooperation with international governance bodies that are addressing the problem; guidelines to the State regarding electoral processes, cybersecurity and public health; various information, media and digital literacy measures; and measures to strengthen the media and research on disinformation.

In short, it is a 360-degree report with recommendations that touches on multiple aspects of this phenomenon. The document assumes that disinformation is not only a problem for democracy, but also a big industry and therefore must be addressed at various levels, with strategies for regulation, co-regulation and self-regulation.

In reviewing the text, there is practically no mention of creating new laws, much less laws aimed at controlling the press as its worst doomsayers had predicted, but rather it diversifies into various initiatives that can and should be promoted by the State. Furthermore, the report assumes that part of the problem of disinformation has to do with the precariousness of journalistic work, but also with social media platforms that operate with little or no oversight. The framing of the traditional media to the results of the report has been in the request for greater attributions to the Servel. So far, the recommendations have passed with little criticism and controversy, which speaks well of the work done and the tenor of the proposals.

This final report should be seen as a program of action on the subject, with a country perspective that should not end with the change of government, but should be understood as a problem of public interest; that is, as a common good for all, even against an immediate private interest, representing a benefit for society above individual satisfactions. In May 2024, Chile will host the next global conference on press freedom organized by Unesco. It is to be hoped that this program of action against disinformation will receive international backing in this instance and will allow progress in the implementation of the proposed recommendations at the national, regional and global levels.

This article originally appeared in Botando Corriente, our newsletter. You can subscribe here:

Chiara Sáez

Sociologist, PhD in Communication and postdoctoral fellow in Public Policy. Associate Professor at the University of Chile. Co-founder of the Observatory of the Right to Communication and researcher responsible for Convergent Regulation.

go home