Chile’s constitutional referendum undermined by right-wing disinformation campaign

September 7, 2022
Yo Apruebo rally in Chile
A huge mobilisation of supporters for the draft constitution in the capital Santiago ahead of the referendum. Photo: @rduqueoyarce/Twitter

Chileans voted on a new draft constitution on September 4. Within hours, it became clear that 62% of voters had rejected the document.

The draft would have replaced Chile’s current constitution — introduced in 1980 during the United States-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — which favours neoliberalism and denies constitutional rights to Indigenous people and women.

Less than two years ago, 79% of Chileans voted to change their constitution.

The proposed constitution — drafted by a 155-member gender-equal Constitutional Convention — would have enshrined gender parity in public institutions, Indigenous self-determination, universal healthcare, the rights of nature and nationalised public education.

Since the Convention was established in July last year, right-wing groups embarked on a campaign of disinformation to undermine support for the “Approve” vote.

Right-wing senator Felipe Kast — son of Miguel Kast, who served under Pinochet — claimed in June that the new constitution would permit abortions up to the ninth month of a pregnancy.

In reality, the draft constitution codified the guarantee of reproductive rights while leaving the specific details of any abortion laws to legislators.

Other fake news included that the new constitution would allow money to be taken away from pensioners, people’s houses to be seized and the national flag to be changed.

A website mimicking the Convention’s website claimed that the draft constitution’s provisions against water privatisation would prohibit people from buying bags of ice or bottled water.

Conservative mainstream media helped fuel the spread of disinformation and distortions in the lead-up to the plebiscite.

Corporations, often representing entrenched neoliberal interests, own more than 80% of media outlets in Chile. Media conglomerates El Mercurio and Copesa own more than 90% of newspapers.

There were coordinated media attacks against Convention members and particularly its president Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche woman and Indigenous rights activist.

Even US House of Representatives members wrote an open letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok on September 2 to express “grave and urgent concerns about disinformation” being shared on social media about the proposed constitution.

“Chilean journalists have meticulously documented what amounts to a ‘digital war’ against the Constitutional Convention in an attempt to delegitimise and discredit the proposed constitution,” the letter said.

“Even more troubling, these attacks often use hate speech to target women and Indigenous leaders of the Convention.”

“From day one, the campaign against the new constitution manipulated what I said and sowed lies,” Loncón said. “What they want is to silence and minimise us. All of the Mapuche women in the convention were subject to these attacks.”

Chilean President Gabriel Boric vowed to continue working on “a new constituent assembly plan that will produce a text that takes into account what’s been learned in this process, and better interpret the will of the vast majority of the citizenry”.

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