Misinformation abounds as Chile prepares to vote on new constitution

By John Bartlett – The Guardian

Chileans will cast ballots on Sunday to approve or reject a progressive document to replace the Pinochet-era constitution

Chile is heading towards a historic plebiscite on a new constitution to replace the document drawn up during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, but the vote will take place amid a climate of uncertainty driven by a storm of falsehoods and divisive campaigns.

For weeks, television advertising spots, street canvassers and social media campaigns have attempted to sway opinion towards the two options which will appear on the ballot this Sunday: “approve” or “reject”.

“We’re inundated with a tsunami of information,” said former advertising executive Eugenio García, 69, “Nowadays, it’s hard to tell what’s true, false, biased or malicious.”

García helped craft the campaign calling on Chileans to say no to eight more years of Pinochet’s rule in a previous plebiscite in the spring of 1988. They did so by a narrow margin.

“There are similarities between then and now in that they want to change the moral fabric of the country,” said García, “But what is at stake this time is actually far greater – it is part of a global change.”

Over 12 months, a democratically elected gender-equal convention, representing a vast range of agendas and political stances, worked to draft the new constitution.

The result of the process, presented in July, is a remarkably progressive document enshrining gender equality and Indigenous rights, expanding social protections and guaranteeing environmental protection.

However, criticism has been levelled at its shake-up of the political system, which detractors argue was not the cause of the country’s discontent. Others have labelled the proposed constitution a “wishlist” of rights that will be hard to put into practice.

Polling has consistently suggested that Chileans will reject the proposal in the referendum, in which everybody aged 18 or over must vote.

But if the constitution is approved, it will replace the 1980 document which, despite significant reforms, retains the ideological fingerprints of the Pinochet dictatorship under which it was drafted without democratic input.

Mapuche Indigenous people hold flags of approval of the new constitution in Temuco, Chile, this month.

An insidious trend of misinformation has weighed heavily on the process since October 2020, when Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of drafting a new constitution.

“With the first plebiscite there was a boom of misinformation,” said Valentina Matus, the editor of Contexto Factual.

“Even though there wasn’t anything written yet, they were already saying that you could have your house taken away,” remembered Matus.

During a televised campaign in 2021, a rightwing party falsely claimed that the new constitution would change Chile’s national anthem, flag – and even the name of the country.

Online, the daily swirl of false announcements and misleading interpretations of the text have made fact-checking difficult.

“There are constant examples of statements that I don’t consider outright lies, but rather exaggerations,” said Eduardo Arriagada, an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Catholic University’s communications faculty in Santiago.

“Constitutions don’t usually give details, they give broad definitions and allow for a range of scenarios for the law to sort out later, but that leaves them open to interpretation.”

Predictably, the most emotive topics have been foregrounded.

In May, Senator Felipe Kast claimed that under the new constitution, abortion would be permitted up to the ninth month of a pregnancy. The text enshrines reproductive rights, but explicitly leaves the details up to the law.

Another recurring falsehood has been that private property could be confiscated under the new constitution.

Among the more outlandish claims, a website whose design mimicked that of the constitutional convention claimed that deprivatising the country’s water rights would outlaw the sale of bottled water and bags of ice for summer barbecues.

In response to a wave of false social media posts, one congressman even presented a bill in late July that would sanction sharing fake news about the constitution with a fine of around 33m pesos (£31,000).

“From day one, the campaign against the new constitution manipulated what I said and sowed lies,” said Elisa Loncón, who represented the Indigenous Mapuche people in the convention and was elected its first president.

“What they want is to silence and minimise us. All of the Mapuche women in the convention were subject to these attacks.”

Confidence in the process was also rocked by scandal when a delegate was dishonourably excluded from the convention in September last year.

A newspaper investigation revealed that Rodrigo Rojas Vade had falsely claimed to suffer from a rare form of leukaemia – the premise for his election as a campaigner for serious illnesses – and eventually resigned his seat.

More recently, activists on the fringe right have copied the tactics of the far-right leaders Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, attacking Chile’s electoral service and hinting that they may not accept the result of the referendum.

Despite the campaign, few seriously doubt the integrity of Chile’s electoral process. In its 2022 country report on Chile, the Freedom House NGO gave Chilean democracy a rating of 94 out of 100 – the second highest in Latin America – concluding that “Chile’s electoral framework is robust and generally well implemented”.

But efforts to allow Chileans to make an informed choice on Sunday have often met with resistance.

“With misinformation getting there first, it’s hard to make sure the truth or fact-checking has the same reach,” said Matus.

“Lies about emotional subjects will always outrun efforts to debunk them.”