On April 14, 2016, a cable released by the Spanish news agency EFE informed the world of the confiscation of 401 kilograms of cocaine in Panama's Colón port, arriving in a container from the Cuban port of Mariel, that had Belgium as its final destination.
After conducting the relevant investigations, including the revision of x-ray images and other procedures established for the inspection of containers, Cuba's General Customs categorically refuted the assertion that this container, during its presence in Cuba, carried drugs within its structure or the metal barrels inside, which were, in fact, full of honey.
EFE reported Havana's clarification, but the updated news was ignored by the vast majority of media outlets, which three days earlier had highlighted the report entitled, "Panama confiscates 401 kilos of cocaine coming from Cuba, headed to Belgium."
Several months before, October 18, 2015, Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had denounced media reports of the alleged presence of Cuban military troops in Syria, a country which has been embroiled in civil war for almost a decade. In its official statement, the Ministry debunked the story disseminated irresponsibly by the U.S. broadcasting network Fox News, and later repeated by other media.
The practice of deliberately spreading fake news has expanded, as communications media have increased their capacity and the speed with which they circulate information. The false reports of "sonic attacks" on U.S. diplomats in Havana, which have had serious consequences, are a clear example.
Although scientists had publicly refuted the possibility of an attack of this kind, more than a few U.S. citizens believe that Cuba has such sonic weapons, which far removed from reality, appear to have emerged from a James Bond movie. This misguided perception is the product of what has been said by communications media.
But this is not a new development. Cuba has for centuries been a target of informative poisoning operations, as a strategy to politically and socially destabilize the country.
The explosion of the battleship USS Maine, February 15, 1898, in Havana's port, is perhaps the oldest example of fake news used by the United States as a pretext for military intervention, with which the country inaugurated a new stage of imperialist expansion in contemporary history. The ship was deliberately sunk to justify an opportunistic declaration of war against Spain, precisely when Cuban independence forces were about to put an end to colonialism on the island.
Appearing for the first time with this "news" was the infographic, as sensationalist press magnate William Randolph Hearst accompanied the report with a full-page drawing of the Maine enveloped in flames, to give the news as much impact as possible. Since then, the dissemination of images has been one of the technological innovations which has done the most for fake news, giving reports the appearance of credibility.
THE POWER OF FAKE NEWS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
The advent of social media has exponentially expanded the reach of such lies, affecting the traditional media's control of information. Experts have stated that, at the current rate, within just two years, 50% of the news circulating on social media will be false.
"We can now talk of mechanisms that are truly massive, and very easy to use," explained Pablo Sapag, a History of Propaganda professor at Madrid's Universidad Complutense.
"As journalism itself has lowered its guard," he adds, "those who are using new technologies for other purposes are winning the game. This is a golden age for propaganda in this sense."
In other words, in these times of photoshop, of filters, social media have allowed many to become accustomed to seeing doctored photos, eroding critical judgment. The view that the era of Facebook has democratized the news has been widely accepted, when in reality, given the overabundance of both real and erroneous information, propaganda is often more effective, especially when professionals are at work. Those who have the ability to pay for a campaign are not usually individuals, but rather governments and organizations interested in the economic or political impact of an idea.
Examples abound. For decades, our principal leaders have been the target of these campaigns, purposefully designed to confuse the citizenry, which now proliferate with impunity on social media, and on occasion manage to expand beyond cyberspace and take to the streets.
Unfounded reports of an alleged reduction in the exchange rate at Cuba's currency exchanges (Cadecas), ran like wildfire through Sanctí Spíritus in April of 2016. After the number of people at banks skyrocketed, representatives of these institutions were obliged to clarify to the population that no such modification to the exchange rate had been approved.
Likewise, a false rumor was started on social media about a supposed change to Cuba's Social Security Law no.105, in effect since 2009, which generated much uncertainty.
While this past November 11, the Ministry of Education was obliged to publicly deny the closing of Vladimir Ilich Lenin Pre-University High School of Exact Sciences, one of Cuba's flagship institutions, after concerns about the issue were raised online.
Deputy Minister Margarita McPherson quashed the rumors about a possible closing of the Lenin on her Facebook page, November 7, 2017, clarifying that, on the contrary, the school would not "disappear, but teaching and living areas are being readjusted, taking into account current and prospective enrollment."
Half-truths, rumors, and false statements coexist in a universe in which fake news travels with the speed of a click. Institutional sources and journalists must become allies, now more than ever, to rapidly debunk these reports that appear and sound real. Timely information continues to be the best antidote to avoid the spreading of lies, a virus wreaking havoc in the world today.