Nicaragua has discovered a vaccine for fake news

MANAGUA—If the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of insurrection is fake news.

Just ask Nicaragua. In three weeks of nationwide protests, Nicaraguans have uprooted the government’s bogus media narrative faster than a fake forest of metal trees.

The family dictatorship of Daniel Ortega lost control of the story as soon as it lost control of the streets. When the regime opened fire on student protesters on April 19, killing between 45 and 59 people (and counting), it also shot holes in the myth that Nicaragua is living her best life.

Social media videos, pictures, and livestreams of brutal repression unmasked the government’s lies about peace and reconciliation under President Ortega. Nicaraguans went into the streets and held up their cellphones like a thousand tiny mirrors for the country to see its true self. And it wasn’t a pretty sight.


“Social media has shown that the emperor has no clothes,” says Nicaraguan media analyst Alfonso Malespin. “The Nicaragua that the presidential couple was selling didn’t exist.”

What Nicaraguans saw was appalling. Police opening fire on students with AK-47s. Police supplying rocks to Sandinista Youth paramilitaries to terrorize residents. Police stopping cars and raiding restaurants to steal water and food from innocent people.

Three days of citizen social media undid a decade’s worth of government efforts to brand Nicaraguan cops as the “most professional police force in Central America.” The hashtag #SOSNicaragua deflated Nicaragua’s claim as the safest country in the region.

Veteran Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro says his country’s “national narrative is now dominated by a collective construction on social media.” Nicaraguans are documenting what he calls “the force of reality” — the repression, the massacre, the protests, the student uprising— in a way government media never did.

In fact, government media is doing the opposite. They’re inventing an alternative reality that is increasingly dependent on fake news. But they’re not very good at it.

One of the government’s fake news strategies is to manufacture chaos, then blame opposition “vandals”, “delinquents” and “gangsters” for disrupting the peace. For example, when business leaders called for a march on Managua on May 23, the government sought revenge by sending its partisan paramilitaries to loot stores across Managua, creating a lawless frenzy that the regime then blamed on the opposition. Their strategy backfired, however, when images circulated on social media that apparently showed the police participating in the looting.

A second method in the government’s fake news campaign is to criminalize and discredit the opposition by staging crimes and pinning them on others. On May 7, police and government paramilitaries staged a bus-jacking, then burned the stolen vehicle outside the Upoli campus in an ill-fated attempt to blame the students holed up inside.

That, too, backfired when people posing as frightened passengers on the hijacked bus forgot their scripted lines and couldn’t say what bus route they were on, as if they had been randomly riding buses around Managua at night without knowing their destination. Social media quickly identified the alleged passengers as Orteguista partisan loyalists, and started making memes mocking the farce by urging Nicaraguans to pay closer attention to route numbers before climbing aboard random buses to nowhere.

bus to nowhere

A third fake news strategy is to defame individuals by accusing them of being delinquents or foreign agents. Individual defamation is a harder thing to defend against, especially when the government hurls accusations without any evidence. It’s an old authoritarian ploy intended to establish a presumption of guilt and put the burden of proof on the accused.

Last week, I was accused by Ortega’s operatives of being a CIA agent posing as a journalist in Nicaragua — a dangerous accusation at a time when the president is blaming his country’s civil unrest on foreign agitators. I know I’m not CIA, but I don’t know how to prove that to people who are convinced otherwise. It’s hard to prove a negative. Still, many Nicaraguans came to my defense, posting messages of support and solidarity on social media and ridiculing the government’s CIA smear campaign as tired and trite.

Social media has become the new vox populi — a vaccine against the government’s fake news efforts. This is new phenomenon in Nicaragua. When Ortega came to power in 2007, fewer than 5% of Nicaraguans were connected to the internet, nobody had a smartphone, and social media was just starting to catch on. It would have been impossible for Nicaraguans to do then what they’re doing now.

Today there are more than 2.9 million smartphones in a country of 6.7 million people, and more than 30% of the population is online, according to the Nicaraguan Chamber of Internet and Telecommunications. Roughly 80% of Nicaraguan internet users are on social media, and 100% of the country has 3G coverage.

All that adds up to a great technological leap forward for Nicaragua— one that’s allowing the country to access information and expose government lies like never before. The regime has lost its monopoly on the truth, and with it all remaining credibility.

The process seemed to happen overnight, sometime between April 18th and 19th. But it was more likely a slow boil. Critics say most Nicaraguans probably weren’t buying the government’s lies in the first place; they just tolerated them until they didn’t.

“What we’ve seen over the past three weeks of protests is that the official government discourse never really penetrated the population, even though they control the major TV channels, which is how most Nicaraguans get their information,” says Eduardo Enriquez, editor-in-chief of the leading opposition daily La Prensa. “The image that they painted was of a country that’s ‘living pretty,’ which is the slogan of first lady and vice president Rosario Murillo. But one thing is what people saw on television, and another thing is what they experienced in person, in their real life.”

Ortega-Murillo’s fake news media dynasty

For the past decade, the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo has tried to control the truth in Nicaragua by consolidating a national media empire that’s run like a family PR firm. Through a series of aggressive acquisitions funded with Venezuela petro-dollars, the Ortega-Murillo clan cornered the television market, buying up control of seven channels, while at the same time censuring independent media and canceling international network coverage.

The result was a TV dial controlled by the regime, with the exceptions of independent news programing on Channel 12, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s Esta Noche and Esta Semana news programs, and 100% Noticias, which has recently evolved into a fierce critic of the regime. Every other channel on the dial is a variation of the same Sandinista buncombe, starring Rosario Murillo, the government’s chief propagandist.

Murillo is an eccentric self-styled poet who speaks in riddle about peace, love, and unity. Given Ortega’s penchant for prolonged absences (the president can go weeks on end without making any public appearances or statements) Murillo is the everyday voice and face of the government. And she loves it. Afternoon news broadcasts on government television feature Murillo calling into all the station to deliver and breathless and rambling soliloquy that can last five to ten minutes, then ends abruptly when she hangs up the phone.

Since Ortega returned to power in 2007, Murillo has increasingly wiggled her way into an equal power-sharing arrangement with her husband, changing her job titles every few years to reflect her upward crawl. A decade ago, Murillo started with the ludicrous and unwieldy title of “coordinator of communication and citizenship council for development and social welfare.” Now she’s vice president.

Though her business cards have changed, her messaging has remained consistent. Murillo has tried to rebrand the FSLN’s image from a party of bellicose and aging socialists to one of happy kids linking arms and singing about peace and love. She also gave the party a color palette makeover, substituting the revolutionary red-and-black with soft pastels in shades of pink, yellow, and blue. Murillo even writes the lyrics to Ortega’s campaign songs, which are usually remixes of familiar tunes.

But Murillo’s messaging apparently wasn’t as effective as she hoped.

“The official monologue of Rosario Murillo has never been effective, and neither has the machinery of the official government media,” says journalist Chamorro. “They’ve never proven their influence or credibility.”

Now the government is learning that it doesn’t have much of either.

Says Malespin, the media expert, “For the first time Daniel Ortega is facing a real opinion poll. And it’s not good news for him.”

For The Fusion Feed’s full report on the situation in Nicaragua, click here.