As free press withers in El Salvador, pro-government social media influencers grow in power

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Douglas Guzmán’s TikTok feed was once filled with workout routines and videos showcasing his favorite parts of El Salvador. However, about a year ago, Guzmán’s content drastically changed. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele faced criticism from rights groups, civil society, and even some officials for human rights violations in his crackdown on criminal gangs. Furthermore, his unconstitutional bid for re-election was seen as a threat to the country’s democracy.

Shortly after Bukele announced his bid for a second term, Guzmán’s feed was flooded with videos praising Bukele as the “future liberator of Latin America” and showcasing his “mega-prison” for accused gangsters. Guzmán, a member of Bukele’s party, saw an opportunity to counteract the negative press about the president and became part of a network of social media influencers promoting Bukele’s agenda. These influencers have become a megaphone for the millennial leader, and as Bukele cracks down on the press, his government embraces these influencers to shape the narrative in his favor.

Bukele, a 42-year-old leader known for his modern political messaging and charisma, has capitalized on social media to rise to power and maintain high approval ratings. However, his tactics mirror those of 21st-century autocrats who use social media to control the narrative and spread propaganda. Under Bukele, El Salvador has built a sophisticated communications machine that limits access to information contradicting the government’s messaging and employs tech-savvy contractors to create fake social media accounts and spread falsities.

An industry of pro-Bukele influencers has emerged, with some YouTube accounts earning substantial amounts of money and collectively having more followers than the population of El Salvador. They produce hours of pro-Bukele content, often containing false or misleading information, which is consumed by Salvadorans both within the country and abroad. This flood of content serves to drown out critical voices and create an echo chamber supporting Bukele’s agenda.

Bukele’s government has also targeted independent news organizations and journalists investigating his administration. El Faro, an award-winning news organization, has faced harassment and attacks for its investigations into Bukele, including evidence of negotiations between the government and gangs. The government has opened a case against El Faro for tax evasion and journalists’ phones have been hacked with spyware. The increasing hostility towards the press raises concerns about the erosion of press freedoms in El Salvador.

As Bukele seeks to hold onto power in the upcoming elections, there are fears that press freedoms will continue to deteriorate, putting journalists at greater risk. The flood of disinformation from pro-Bukele influencers threatens to overshadow critical investigations and manipulate public perception. If Bukele remains in power, it could lead to further obstacles for the free press in El Salvador.

In conclusion, Bukele’s use of social media influencers and propaganda tactics poses a threat to democracy and press freedoms in El Salvador. The government’s control over the narrative, coupled with harassment and attacks on independent media, creates an environment conducive to autocratic rule. As Bukele’s playbook is emulated by leaders in the region, it becomes crucial to address and counter the spread of disinformation and protect press freedoms.

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