Earlier this month, Guatemalan journalist Marvin Del Cid found himself at the center of a small firestorm after criticizing President Alejandro Giammattei on Twitter. “A president who provides no explanations and attacks reporters,” wrote Del Cid. “A president and officials who refuse to be held accountable.”
Most of the comments under the tweet were supportive, but a user with a long string of numbers in his handle replied, calling Del Cid a “son of a bitch” who was just as corrupt as the politicians. All across Del Cid’s Twitter account, suspicious handles accused him of being paid by the opposition and of being a limosnero — a street beggar.
In Guatemala, government corruption is the dominant political issue. In 2006, following a public scandal over a clandestine intelligence group, the United Nations set up a body to investigate graft. It was perhaps too successful: Giammattei’s predecessor expelled the international commission for supposed overreach in 2019. After that, independent journalists became the last professional line of defense against impunity — and the government shifted its vitriol accordingly. Five months after it was kicked out of the country, hinting that it knew who would be targeted next, the U.N. commission published a report detailing the rise of so-called netcenters — government-sponsored armies of bots and trolls that harass reporters to dissuade them from muckraking. Although social media is contentious across the world, in Guatemala, the abuse across online platforms is linked to a history of coordinated violence.
“Sometimes, I feel intimidated,” Del Cid told Rest of World. “It bothers me that they tell lies and attack me, anonymously, with cowardly and hateful messages.”
Journalists are not the only ones who are increasingly fed up with the government. Recently, as Guatemala’s economy has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes, another sector has mobilized to demand transparency: the public. Last month, Giammattei proposed a budget that would cut funding for health care and education — but increase politicians’ meal allowances. Demonstrations organized on social media erupted across the country.
As opposition to the budget grew, the government found that just attacking reporters on Twitter was no longer a sufficient social media strategy. In the past four weeks, the administration appears to be using online platforms to not only harass critics but also to spread an alternative reality to discredit protesters and discourage others from joining them.
On the first day of demonstrations, November 21, a group of protesters broke into the National Congress building and set it ablaze. The images went viral throughout social media, and the government capitalized on the perception of rampant violence. Giammattei took to Twitter to condemn the destruction of property, promising to prosecute the guilty parties — a strategy that Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, characterized as “twisting the narrative around the nature of the protests.” It worked. International media followed suit, and outlets around the world described the largely peaceful protests as violent before losing interest in the uneventful marches that followed.
The harassment of reporters continued as well. Although netcenters allegedly ended with the previous administration, Del Cid and Pia Flores, another independent journalist, believe they are still operating. “And they’re more aggressive than ever,” Del Cid added. He knows that social media abuse of journalists is prevalent across the Americas, but he emphasizes that, in Guatemala, these efforts are not only encouraged by but likely coordinated at the highest levels of government. Del Cid pointed to far-right groups that have turned out in force during the protests to defend the government. “Their tone is completely aligned with the administration.”
Online efforts to weaken the protest movement are widely perceived to have worked. Although demonstrations still take place each weekend, they are now markedly smaller in size. In a statement to Rest of World, presidential spokesperson Francis Mašek disputed the idea that the administration was deliberately undermining the opposition. She also denied any government links to the netcenters. “This administration has promoted an open-door and transparent policy to the benefit of institutions and the citizenry,” Mašek said.
Regardless of its involvement in netcenters, the administration clearly views social media as a politically sensitive arena. On December 14, several independent journalists and organizers reported that they had been blocked by key political figures, including the president of Guatemala’s Congress. In a Twitter thread, Del Cid described this as part of a larger pattern of abuse, wherein public officials skirt their responsibility to the public and obfuscate the truth.
“One of the tools used by a government like Guatemala’s is fear,” Del Cid told Rest of World. He believes the online intimidation is having an impact on protest turnout, although he doesn’t have concrete evidence. “It’s pure perception,” he said.
But on social media, perception matters. Protests can flag for any number of reasons: fatigue, concessions from the government, an uptick in Covid-19 cases, even the holiday season. Ironically, in Guatemala, it may be the perception of a government crackdown that keeps the movement going into 2021.