Online Extremism in Latin America- An Overview

Online Extremism in Latin America- An Overview
13th February 2020 Dr. Alexis Henshaw
Dr. Alexis Henshaw
In Insights

A look at the landscape of online extremism in Latin America stands to add to our overall understanding of this phenomenon. Use of the Internet by groups in the region illustrates several understudied aspects of the phenomenon, as highlighted in an earlier insight. Briefly, we can use the regional context to better understand the use of online communications by a broad range of groups, the variety of goals pursued by such organizations, the strategies they employ, and the responses to their online engagement.

In terms of the diversity of groups, security in Latin America is characterized by both fragmented security states and a range of armed non-state actors. In a region where Internet access has expanded rapidly, the barriers to entry into cyberspace are low. Leftist armed groups, jihadists, right-wing paramilitaries, criminal syndicates, and autodefensas or vigilante groups have all entered into the online space.

At the same time, there are indications that the goals of these organizations as they move online are different or more diverse than what we might observe elsewhere in the world. Existing literature often focuses on proximate concerns about online recruitment, fundraising, or the use of the Internet to plan attacks. This has certainly occurred in Latin America as well, as illustrated by cases where extremists have used apps like Telegram or WhatsApp to plan attacks. Yet for some organizations the goals are different. In the case of autodefensas groups in Mexico, which are generally local in nature, online communications are public-facing and seem to serve primarily to expose the failings of the state and justify calls for greater local autonomy. The narratives of heroism cultivated by these groups also leverage cultural themes, masking concerns about the involvement of militias in extortion, extrajudicial killings, child recruitment, and other abuses. In Colombia, we have seen leftist armed groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) pivot their online presence toward peace advocacy, calling for the public support of peace agreements or ongoing attempts at negotiation.

In line with this range of goals, the online footprint of armed actors in the region varies widely. Some groups, like the FARC and the ELN, have a well-developed presence that includes accounts across social media platforms as well as websites, blogs, and online publications. In other cases, engagement is more sporadic or less sophisticated. Some groups maintain but rarely use social media accounts. In some instances a low level of Internet literacy has worked to the advantage of law enforcement, as demonstrated by initiatives in Honduras and El Salvador which have successfully used geolocation to track the movement of gang members via social media.

Also important are the range of responses to online extremism in the region. As noted above, analysts and authorities have in some cases successfully used the online presence of armed groups to expand their knowledge base about their activities and counter their behaviour. The initiatives in El Salvador and Honduras, for example, led to more comprehensive mapping and the decoding of language used to conceal criminal activity. At the same time, content removal seems to be a low priority, especially for social media companies. Cases like Twitter’s decision to ban the ELN in 2016 appear to be the exception rather than the rule, and some armed groups and prominent figures continue to reach a substantial audience.

In all, Latin America’s experience with online extremism reinforces the understanding of many global trends while also highlighting some region-specific challenges. The potential relevance of further regional study should not be overlooked by scholars pursuing a broader understanding of extremist behavior