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

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Douglas Guzmán, a TikTok influencer, used to post workout routines and videos showcasing his favorite parts of El Salvador. However, his content changed drastically about a year ago when El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele came under fire for violating human rights and attempting an unconstitutional bid for re-election. Shortly after Bukele announced his candidacy for a second term, Guzmán’s TikTok feed was flooded with videos praising the leader and defending his actions. His videos gained immense popularity, and Guzmán saw it as his mission to counteract negative media coverage of Bukele.

Guzmán is just one example of the expanding network of social media personalities who act as megaphones for President Bukele. While Bukele has cracked down on the press, he has embraced these influencers who help create an informational echo chamber, further fueling his popularity. This strategy is reminiscent of the tactics used by 21st century autocrats, who utilize social media to control the narrative and extend their rule.

Under Bukele’s leadership, El Salvador has built a sophisticated communications machine, shutting down access to alternative information and employing former journalists to produce high-quality videos promoting the government’s actions against gangs. The government has also created an army of tech-savvy contractors, known as “trolls,” to spread propaganda and harass critics. Bukele’s strong-handed approach to gang violence has gained traction not only within El Salvador but also in other crime-ridden countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As a result, an entire industry of pro-Bukele influencers has emerged, earning significant amounts of money through their content. These influencers create hours of pro-Bukele videos that often contain false or misleading information, amplifying the government’s narrative. The accounts’ content is consumed not only within El Salvador but also by the Salvadoran diaspora in the United States.

The government has even opened its doors to social media personalities, granting them access to major events and providing them with press credentials. This has empowered influencers like Guzmán, who now feels like an integral part of the government’s media apparatus. However, this cozy relationship between the government and influencers poses a significant risk to press freedom and democracy in El Salvador.

Critics argue that this atmosphere created by Bukele sets a dangerous precedent for other leaders in the region who may seek to mimic his tactics. The increasingly hostile tone of these influencers towards journalists and independent media outlets signals a further deterioration of press freedoms. News organizations, such as El Faro, have faced attacks and harassment for their investigative reporting on Bukele’s administration. The situation has become so dire that some media outlets have been forced to move their operations to other countries due to the escalating harassment.

If Bukele remains in power after the upcoming elections, it is feared that the free press in El Salvador will be at even greater risk. Bukele may seek to eliminate any obstacles he perceives within the country, and freedom of the press could be one of his main targets. This would not only silence critical voices but also hinder the ability to hold those in power accountable.

As social media becomes an increasingly powerful tool for controlling the narrative, it is crucial to recognize and challenge the dangers it poses to press freedom and democracy. The case of El Salvador serves as a cautionary tale for other countries grappling with the impact of social media on their political landscapes.

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