June 2, 2022

In Colombia, leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro entered the first round of voting as a clear front-runner. But despite clinching a plurality of votes of 40% — over 10 percentage points more than the second-place candidate — he emerged as an underdog in the runoff against populist businessman, former mayor and 77-year-old TikTok sensation Rodolfo Hernández, whom The New York Times has deemed “Colombia’s Trump.”

Journalists in the region compared the election to a schoolyard food fight, noticing multiple trends in mis- and disinformation being slung from left, right and center. Unknown actors spread doctored photos linking candidates to late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and fabricated tweets in the name of certain candidates. There was also an uptick in personal attacks against both presidential and vice-presidential candidates this cycle, particularly against Francia Márquez, the Afro-Colombian human rights advocate, lawyer and running mate of Petro.

“You discover one and there’s so many new outlets for spreading misinformation, and some of them not only against the right or the left, but against everyone,” said Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres, director of Colombiacheck, a Colombian fact-checking outlet and verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. “And if you shut them down, they come back as two or three, like gremlins.”

Fact-checkers have seen a high volume of decontextualized photos on a range of candidates — from Márquez to Petro to Federico Gutiérrez, the former mayor of Medellín and presidential candidate, who has since endorsed Hernández after his May 29 loss.

“Photos of candidates during their time as students or youngsters with bad friends, like with narcos or guerrillas or current politicians. Some are real, but many have the context wrong or are totally fake,” said Gutiérrez Torres. “Every candidate has been put side-by-side with Pablo Escobar. It’s not only bad Photoshop, but impossible — they would need to time travel to be in a photo with him (as they are depicted).”

Gutiérrez also said the candidates themselves are rarely the source of misinformation.

“Not the candidate, but their closest friends — senators, congressmen or congresswomen — are the usual disseminators of misinformation,” Gutiérrez Torres said. “So it’s not the candidate who assumes the burden of spreading false information, but his friends. There’s safety in it because it’s not the candidate who is lying.”

Moreover, since there’s not a common, agreed-upon past for many historical events in Colombia — history was even removed at one point as its own subject from Colombia’s curriculum — many false claims revolve around alternate historical models.

“In Colombia — like every country — we have a lot of historical myth,” Gutiérrez Torres said. “We still don’t know what the narcos, what the guerillas, what the army, what the paramilitary did exactly. It depends on your party; it depends on your political preferences. So misinformation about historical events is really useful, really easy to spread and really easy to believe.”

The runoff between Petro and Hernández will occur June 19.

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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