Noise or signal? Social media’s role in Bolivia’s coup

 

 

COMMENT

The role of social media in the recent coup d’état in Bolivia illustrates the associated risk of amplifying narratives that support de facto actions based on half-baked truths. Social media extends its influence beyond its capacity to influence public opinion. This was evidenced in the referendum for Brexit or the election of Donald Trump in the United States, among other cases.

Social media has become an extension of our regular communication, a space where we share what we consider essential. It does not come as a surprise that different political parties and actors have made use of it in democratic and non-democratic contexts. But the use of social media to justify and support non-democratic actions, such as the recent coup in Bolivia, illustrates how such tools can also be manipulated to support less institutional alternatives beyond elections.

The noise

There are not only semantic but also political differences in the use of the terms anomaly and fraud. Anomality signals something that is suspicious and requires attention, but that can be corrected and amended. Fraud refers to something irreversible, deliberate and false. Thus, suggesting that in an election there were anomalies speaks of failures in the process as something that could have been amended. Fraud, on the other hand, signals an entirely void electoral process. Speaking of an election in which there were anomalies in the process flags failures in the process but not necessarily in the outcome, whereas speaking of fraudulent elections denotes a forged process, results of which are foul.

There were anomalies in the latest elections in Bolivia. Questions emerge with regard to the role of institutions that allow a president-candidate to run for the presidency while having access to public resources. It also brings into question the possibility that anomalies in a given number of voting precincts could define the likelihood of a victory in the first round of elections or the necessity of a second round.

It is crucial to analyse the possibility of irregularities in voting tables and how they could relate to the distribution of votes for each candidate to better understand if there were anomalies in the electoral results. Regional tendencies should be considered in a context in which location and ethnicity might influence observed votes and percentages. In the Bolivian case, the support for Evo Morales seems to be stronger in remote areas, predominantly indigenous, such as Cochabamba.

Voting stations in which Morales obtained close to 100% of the votes deserve particular attention. From a total of more than 30 000 voting tables, such anomalies are present in about 274 voting stations. At most, 1.45 % of all the voting stations had irregularities. These irregularities challenge the magnitude of Morales’ victory but are not enough reason to dismiss it.

Such a percentage is critical since it could have determined the need for a second round between Morales and his opponent. According to the Bolivian legislation, for a candidate to win on the first round, he requires an advantage of more than 10 percentage points. Morales won on the first round with an advantage of 10.57 percentage points. Thus, anomalies in 1.45% of the tables matter. But these close election results were used to challenge the complete electoral process (ignoring the remaining 98.55% of the voting stations) and were used to justify narratives that called for a coup. Whereas these narratives initially mobilised the population to put pressure on Morales, resulting in Morales calling for new elections, they were later used to justify and gather support for a coup.

Actions by the military forces and the Bolivian police, supported by some political parties, followed the accusations voiced on social media after the denunciation by the Organisation of American States (OAS) of anomalies in the electoral process. But bypassing institutional channels on the assumption that what is being shared on social media is true, equals to accepting as truthful information what is merely noise. Institutions such as the OAS ignored this difference. Whereas their posts spoke of anomalies and refrained from using the term fraud, they failed in supporting institutional solutions and denouncing the risk of a coup.

But it should be noted that the insistence of Morales on a fourth term, the result of changes to the constitution to allow for his re-election, fractured the institutions. Besides, Morales failed to lead a democratic succession process beyond his presidency. The outcome of all this is a coup, the assassination of protesters by military forces, and an ex-ante amnesty to members of the police and the army who now aim to pacify the country through violence.

The signal

The tension between the electoral results and the challenge to institutions in Bolivia should be placed in a context of discontent with an extractivist model of development, which also brought pressures on the institutions.


The state became the orchestrator of a process that aimed to bring about development through the extraction of natural resources. The government of Morales sought to legitimise the extraction of natural resources with an increase in social investment, having as a long term objective the diversification of the economy and lower dependence on extractives industries — or at least, that was the promise.

Different sectors of the population welcomed a stronger presence of the state and a change of developmental agenda. According to United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean data, Morales reduced infant mortality from 40.6% in 2006 to 21.8% in 2018, poverty dropped from 59.4% in 2007 to 35.1% in 2017, and inequality decreased, as the Gini coefficient of 0.58 as of 2007 was reduced to 0.46. But such gains were uneven: poverty in urban areas dropped from 51.3% to 25.4%, whereas in rural areas, it decreased from 74.5% in 2007 to 57.1% in 2017.

This model of development, in which the state takes a central stage, poses as a risk for institutions. It places too much emphasis on a particular government and the individual who is in charge, to advance a process heavily reliant on the extraction of natural resources. Not all social groups benefited under this model, which explains the change in political support or the silence of various sectors during the upheaval. Whereas the coup is by no means institutional, such realisation does not redeem Morales, who even with democratic elections could have driven Bolivia towards an illiberal democracy.

Morales’ regime managed a significant reduction in poverty. But he did not manage to deliver the promise of alternative development nor tackle some of the structural inequalities in Bolivia. The sustainability of extractivism is also questionable, given that the capacity of the state is limited by external forces, including highly volatile commodity markets. Such a model is also problematic, given the innate dependency on the continuity of Morales in power. The exit of Morales carries the risk of generating new inequalities and deepening historical divides. Several social groups find their livelihoods at stake, which helps to understand the mobilisation of those who improved their living conditions (or expected to do so) during Morales’ presidency.

Processes of exclusion might intensify after the coup in Bolivia. With 40.6% of the population identifying as indigenous, a null representation in the interim government is a significant reason for concern. Mobilisations led by indigenous populations are rooted in fear of losing the scant chances of a better life in light of a regime that operates with racist and fundamentalist tropes. Their call for new elections and demands for a democratic solution is urgent.

Amplified?

The tensions that followed the elections in Bolivia over the past weeks signal the role of social media in framing public opinion and the challenge it poses for institutions in democratic systems.

Morales seems to have brought development at the cost of weakening institutions. In the middle of political tensions, schism and violence, institutional fractures are more visible than ever. Institutions have to prevail above the noise and the false narratives constructed by politicians and political actors. Bolivia’s ability to strengthen institutions beyond polarisation will define the path to overcome uncertainty and conflict.

Fabio Andrés Díaz is a research associate at the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. María Gabriela Palacio is an assistant professor at the faculty humanities of Leiden University in The Netherlands

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