Opinion | When Chaos Erupted in Ecuador, Disinformation Followed

Opinion | When Chaos Erupted in Ecuador, Disinformation Followed

This spasm of violence began on a Monday morning with news of the prison escape of Adolfo Macías, better known as Fito, the leader of one of the many powerful criminal gangs in Ecuador. That night, attacks by gangs were reported in several cities, along with the kidnappings of dozens of prison guards. By Tuesday morning, news had spread that Colón Pico, a leader of another gang, had also escaped from prison.

It was an alarming series of events, but the onslaught of fake news stories that followed depicted an exaggerated situation of almost total chaos, inflaming panic. Disinformation isn’t new to Ecuador; like every other country we have to sift through our fair share of false information online. But this was different, as the flood made it hard to tell the difference between legitimate reporting and pure rumor in a moment of crisis. Though it remains unclear whether who, if anyone in particular, was behind the fake reports, for a few hours, it felt impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction — or to objectively discern the gravity of the situation.

One social media user erroneously reported a shooting near the presidential palace. Another warned falsely of the takeover of a subway station in Quito, and yet another incorrectly suggested masked gunmen had invaded a university and hospital. By the end of that week, city officials said 53 violent gang-related incidents had been reported nationwide, but only 18 were found to be substantiated.

Amid the cascade of fact and fiction came the president’s emergency decrees. Though previous presidents have been lambasted for regularly declaring states of emergency, Mr. Noboa faced almost no resistance from his political opponents. One of his predecessors, Rafael Correa, initially offered his “total, unrestricted support.” The leader of the chief legislative opposition, María Paula Romo, noted she had some doubts about Mr. Noboa’s moves but stressed that we, as a nation, were obligated to support the president in this uncertain moment.

Overall, the reaction in both political circles and civil society to Mr. Noboa’s raft of security measures to contain the crisis — and expand his executive power — has been worryingly muted in a region where other countries are starting to give up personal freedoms in exchange for personal security.

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