On Sunday, Guatemalans elected right-wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei as their next president. The campaign, however, was plagued with hoaxes related to the electoral process — and even some false information “imported” from Mexico.
“In five months, we published a total of 72 fact-checked articles,” said Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán, the journalist who coordinates Fáctica, a new fact-checking initiative based in Guatemala City. “During the first round of the campaign, we had 19 presidential candidates, and our biggest hit was the article where we fact-checked and showed what each one of them had previously said about the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Some were really controversial.”
Created by the United Nations in 2006, the CICIG consisted of an international body responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious crimes committed in Guatemala. In January, however, the commission was unilaterally terminated by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales over CICIG’s alleged participation in illegal acts and abuse of authority. The UN rejected that termination, and there is a discussion about the commissions’ future (if any) in the country.
Giammattei is known for the work he has done in Guatemalan jails. From 2005 to 2007, he directed the penitentiary system and, since then, has maintained a strong and conservative voice against crime and criminals. On Sunday, he won. However, more than half of Guatemalans — 57% — didn’t vote, resulting in one of the country’s highest abstention rates.
“We had a lot of misinformation surrounding the electoral process itself, especially on Facebook and WhatsApp,” said Gutiérrez Valdizán. “One of the scariest tactics we saw here was how Facebook pages would just simply change their names to look more ‘newsy,’ keep their followers and, from one day to the other, start posting false news in favor of one candidate.”
According to Gutiérrez Valdizán, Facebook pages suddenly named El Informante or El Informador (The Informer) would post that the leftist candidate Sandra Torres, who lost in the second round, would expropriate people’s property and cars. Those websites would even suggest that this information could be found on her official list of proposals to make the post look more reliable.
“People also started to doubt the electoral authorities due to the amount of false information circulating in the country,” said the fact-checker. “When a truck full of votes had an accident, the photo went viral as if it was proof of fraud. Some people even started doubting on the crayon we use to mark our votes! But that fake news had been spread in Mexico last year.”
For Gutiérrez Valdizán it was funny to see that, in the attempt to believe in electoral fraud, Guatemalans didn’t even notice the change in language.
“The text that went viral here talked about ‘plumones’. But, in Guatemala, we don’t use that word. We say ‘crayones’ or ‘marcadores’ when we want to refer to the pencil we used to vote. But few people here noticed this. We had to put out a fact check.”