Interview with Eliana Quiroz
Eliana Quiroz considers herself a translator, of sorts. An activist, leader, and technologist, Eliana takes international themes of digital literacy and rights and actively translates them for her Bolivian counterparts and context. In this interview, Eliana speaks with former Data and Politics co-lead Varoon Bashyakarla about her journey into activism, the disinformation ecosystem in Bolivia, and how her organisation, Internet Bolivia.org is working to expand the digital rights conversation in Bolivia to include all citizens.
About the Speaker:Eliana Quiroz is an activist and researcher based in Bolivia as well as a co-founder of Internet Bolivia.org. Eliana’s work is focused on digital rights and literacy, the identification of disinformation ecosystems and the political and monetary interests that fuel false content systems. Connect with Eliana on Twitter.
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Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Before we dive into talking about your work, I'm curious, what led you to take an interest in digital issues?
Perhaps my first contact with the Internet was through my brother, who is a computer science engineer. It was back in the 1980s, he used to tell me about international communities that he was involved in. And he was coding and hacking and sharing knowledge, and it sounded so cool to me but it also had this sense of contributing to a cause. So it has always been there for me, but it was in 2008 when I went to a meeting here in Bolivia, when I really became engaged with this world. It was a meeting of bloggers, activists and people with social interest. It was really amazing. From there I became a Twitter user, a Twittera in Spanish.
And from that moment I fell in love with this world and then I began a job at the United Nations with amazing people who gave me the opportunity and support to develop projects around democracy and technology. At that time, there weren't many projects using technology for anything related to development or democracy in Bolivia. It was amazing to have that opportunity, and from that point my life changed completely. Even though half of my life was in the bureaucracy, I also defined myself as an activist for digital rights. So I guess that's kind of my journey.
I suspect that around 2008, there was very much this sense and promise and belief in the democratizing force of the internet, and I hope that hasn't been lost completely, but I think we've learned many lessons the hard way along the way.
Yes, it was very different because it was still small; there weren’t very many people on Twitter. There were people who were very curious trying to have to collaborate between them and also trying to be good for the world. So it was a very nice place to work on.
After that we found that of course there was also some hate speech and then the fake accounts... but in that very moment, it was not the case. It was a very nice space and we did things like a campaign calling for peace and dialogue and also sharing information about political dialogue.
Now it's not possible to do something like that without taking into account that there are other, not so good, intentions on social media.
Explain what makes working on digital rights in South America or in Bolivia unique. Are there particular challenges or opportunities to the context?
There's a point where it's very similar to other people’s, in that being an activist is overwhelming. We always need to be informed and understand the size of all these things that are popping up. We have to look for opportunities to bring our topics and our positions to the table.
I have the feeling that I'm always translating – not only translating the language but also the cultural experiences and the reality of my country. It's a poor country, even though we have grown in the last ten or fifteen years. Around 70% of the people use the internet but only around 30% have an internet connection at home. Of course, I'm trying to compete with similar development issues, like water and sanitation services or even food.
Also, we live in an under-regulated reality. For example, about six years ago, Facebook ran an experiment here where they made some changes to the platform that led to problems with the news and public information. Of course, since we are underregulated, Facebook doesn’t face any consequences when run experiments here.
I find that very interesting. So much of the scholarship is in English, so it must feel like a never-ending act of translation to consume it, digest it and understand it, and then to try to communicate how it's different in your local reality and then translating it back to these communities.
Is zero-rating common in Bolivia? Which is a practice where a mobile data provider or an internet service provider doesn't charge people for their data use on particular websites and services. So you're confined to the particular service that they're not charging you for. For example, if someone sends you an article on WhatsApp, you don't really have the ability to go to the Internet and fact-check it independently.
We don't call it zero-rating or free basics. The companies just say that WhatsApp or Facebook is for free. Almost all the companies offer that. When a user’s credit runs out, they still have WhatsApp. It's not the case only that people cannot browse any news, but also that they don't know how to, they don't know that that that world exists. For so many people, WhatsApp is the internet. What they do in WhatsApp is the internet and and they don't relate WhatsApp with the internet. If you ask them, “Do you use the Internet?”, they will say no. But if you ask, do you use WhatsApp, they would say yes.
So it's kind of it's amazing. It's another reality. And it's not only users. Some authorities even think like that. So with some of the problems that we are working on, such as personal data protection, it's difficult because I can't find an example from the lives of the people who I am talking to. Similarly, when we look for funding, some funders don’t always understand this reality.
And we cannot really try to solve these basic problems. So sometimes we find ourselves as activists working on issues that are kind of “cool” in our field, like artificial intelligence, which aren’t exactly the biggest problems or apply to our reality here.
Tell me about Internet Bolivia.org, the organization you founded, it's work and maybe even some highlights or successes you and the team have had over the years.
The first word that comes to my mind thinking about my my organization, Fundacion Internet Bolivia, is that it's a warm place. I have the best team ever. We founded it with Cristian León and Cielito Saravia in 2008. We are working on gender-based violence and digital security; data protection; and digital inclusion. We are also looking at the digital economy that and trying to understand the implications for digital rights on digital economy, and digital government.
One thing I'm proud of is that we managed to put data protection as a concept in the media and in the institutional agenda. When we started working in data protection, nobody was talking about that and nobody knew about that in Bolivia, at least not in the in the public sphere.
Our oldest project is around gender-based online violence. We are the first ones and still the only ones giving attention to victims of digital violence. Because of this originality, a lot of public institutions and NGOs ask us for advice and like us to share our experience with them.
We also work on how digital rights look in the in a rural context with indigenous people who have very poor connections or are not connected. So talking about, for example, what personal data protection looks like in a small town or a rural community.
Thanks for sharing that. It was interesting to hear you say that you're focused on municipal and local governments and not on national governments. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
We began working with all these topics on the national level, but with the problems that we had with the political crisis and then the also with the pandemic, it was impossible to move anything along on the national level. So we said, okay, if we want to do something, perhaps the local level is a very nice place to go.
And we found there that the national problems were not necessarily big issues in some localities. So we began talking with the local actors to find out what their problems were. For example, when we were working on the issue of data protection in the municipality of Coroico, we found that they don’t have databases in the municipality. Everything is on paper. So they said, “Your idea is very interesting, but how can we work on protecting data protection online if we are not online?” So we found a middle level between their interests an ours, which was transparency. We said, “Okay, let's help you modernize your public administration and build some databases. But these databases will have privacy by design. So the process will include notions of data protection from the very beginning.”
The idea is also that the debate is global, but that people live their daily lives on the local level. There should be a way to connect these global debates that will always take place in the global space, let’s say, with the people who are suffering at the local level.
You were just talking, Eliana, about the political crisis in Bolivia from October 2019 to October 2020 and that you were focused on identifying disinformation ecosystems during that time.
I thought I would try to give a very brief summary to help set the stage a little bit: In October 2019, elections were held in Bolivia and afterward there were mass protests when allegations of fraud and voting irregularities emerged. The president at the time, Evo Morales, faced rebellion from the police and the military asked him to resign, which he did.
After that, a transitional government under Jeanine Añez came into power with the support of the military. But under her, Bolivian state forces seemed guilty of human rights violations for suppressing protests and killing dozens dozens of indigenous Bolivians, detaining countless people, persecuting political opponents, intimidating the press, arresting journalists and so on. And so new elections were scheduled, but ended up being postponed three times due to the pandemic.
They finally took place in October of 2020, and Luis Arce, the former finance minister, was elected as president. And if I understand correctly it seems that Janine and the the interim head of state have meanwhile been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for breach of her constitutional duties. It sounds like the decision is going to be appealed. Is that an okay summary?
It is. It is interesting to listen to other people talking about this because, of course, it's a very emotional moment that we Bolivians lived through.
And this was the period of time that you found that there were certain political interests that were using money to promote illegitimate behavior?
Yes. Bolivia is a poor country, so we don't really have a lot of money to invest during elections. During this period, we not only had a crisis but also three election processes and a lot of international actors. It was a very good period to research because it's not common in Bolivia to have so much money and so many international actors.
So my research is about identifying a national ecosystem of disinformation. I identified 10 types of actors with ambitions to be on a national ecosystem of disinformation. We have these financial donors, let's say, and we have people who are preparing and making political strategies, not only for the campaign, but specifically for the digital political campaign.
And what we found, and it’s not really common in the literature, is these data providers and data analysts, because if you want to run a disinformation ecosystem, you need data. And here in Bolivia there are not really many databases that you can use, but there are some. So it was very interesting to try to understand what a data provider or data analyst in Bolivia looks like. It's a very underdeveloped market, but we found some.
And then once you have these databases, you need the communications team, no? The people who are producing communication and then spreading the information—massive actors, interactive actors, and also citizens—in a sphere that are sharing information and spreading information and making information go viral.
But before that, I found something interesting: there are the credibility providers. Because this whole ecosystem only works if some people believe in the information that is circulating in the ecosystem. So you need some figures who are bringing legitimacy and credibility to the whole system and especially, of course, the messages that are being spread.
These can be, for example, political authorities, based on the trust the citizens gave to them when they elected them—like Trump, or Bolsonaro in Brazil. They are spreading this information and people believe them based on the status they have when they have been elected.
But also you will find some people like influencers. The case of the Philippines is very interesting, with the Mocha girls, who were K-Poppers with millions of followers on social media. So, some people trusted these girls and teenagers, especially young people. And they used their platform to support Duterte. So you have again a credibility actor there. Perhaps what they were saying was not really the truth, or it was half-truth, but teenagers that were following them, they would believe everything they said.
And then you have journalists and the “intermediate media” that are not really mainstream or independent media; they are like clickbait media. Especially journalists—because in Bolivia journalists are going through a period where they are stressed because of this need to adapt to the digital world. Very few a media have found a way to not lose money and to maintain themselves in the digital world.
The most common cases are media that have very few journalists maintaining their positions on staff. So you have a lot of journalists looking for jobs. And in the case of Bolivia they were not really being paid well. You will find a lot of people who know about the the information ecosystem, but they don't have a job, so they are kind of easy to convince to play a role in this disinformation ecosystem. So these type of actors are bringing some kind of credibility and some kind of legitimacy to the ecosystem.
In the case of this second category—these kind of influencers or micro-influencers—are you aware of any exchange of money?
The way that I built this ecosystem scheme is by reading as much literature as possible about it from outside Bolivia. After that, I tried to find information from Bolivian reality to check if this scheme works here. The first step to building this scheme of influencers is, usually, local. When a marketing company is beginning to develop a disinformation campaign in a country, one of the first things that they will do is to identify these local influencers and try to pay them for spreading some information. But sometimes, as in the Philippines with the Mocha girls, I think perhaps they receive money from the government. They really support Duterte because the leader wanted to get into politics and actually the president hired her for the communications ministry—I don't remember the exact name of the public institution. So it was political interest.
But I found some information about some influencers that have been paid for digital marketing or PR communications or whatever. So I asked myself, if I am contracted for a disinformation campaign, what steps would I take? If I'm doing these as a professional, let's say, what will I do? And the first thing is to duplicate media sites—not only websites but also pages in Facebook and accounts on social media. So I would try to attract people by making them think these sites or accounts are the real ones.
And then the second thing to do is to try to find these local influencers and local content creators, because you will need some local communication pieces. If they’re saying something on WhatsApp in Bolivia, for example, they will be speaking as we are speaking in the south of La Paz, because we have different ways of it speaking or pronouncing the “r” in La Paz. So it was amazing to understand that they were building these communication pieces so locally, with the sound we make with the words. They need these cheap content creators and influencers, so they try to understand who they are, first, to hire them—for the production of the media, but also for spreading the information.
You were saying that any disinformation scheme requires data, and the data market in Bolivia is quite underdeveloped, but you found a few. What kinds of organizations were these? And were they based in Bolivia?
In the US there are a lot of data brokers. But data brokers are not really regulated in the US—they found a way to be legal. They say that they are not selling data, but they are renting data. So you can find these data brokers and you can legally buy personal databases from them.
But in Bolivia we don't have these data brokers. If you need databases here, where do you go? First, there are some leaks. For example, it's very famous here to say that the databases of voters have been leaked many times. So if you go to a black market here—and everybody goes there, we go there to to buy our stuff—you will find this database there, on a CD, and it will be like $5 to buy that. Not only this one of voters but also databases of anything—supermarkets, or perhaps some public database from people who were hired to do some analysis, and they kept a copy and then they sell the database. It's kind of easy in that way. It's a very enthusiastic black market.
And if you need to develop a database that can show some profiles of voters, you will also use information from Facebook. And you will also have some more formal companies that are not based here. And they mention one, Booker DB, which I guess is based in Uruguay. They say that they [allegedly] have one thousand clients in South America. And they are [allegedly] selling profile services for political campaigns. But also for commercial campaigns.
And you will [allegedly] find a lot of companies in Mexico. Mexico seems to be the country that has more know-how on this. And actually I found three companies here in Bolivia that were [allegedly] hired for disinformation campaigns and all three are based in Mexico.
Also you will also find analysts: let's say you need to be here and ask who has some database and you will get some database and you then you need a data scientist to organize all this data and to clean it, to have a sense of what you are looking for and profiling. Campaigns are aware that they need data. They are getting data and they are analysing that the data for political objectives. And of course they differentiate the campaign A and the campaign B. The campaign A is the clean one and the campaign B is the dark one. So data is used for both types of campaigns.
I understood that this is a market thing. So, yes, it's important data, but also it's important these media producers, you know, small and local ones. But also for example, we we had here some media pieces that were produced in Ecuador or Venezuela, so they are not all local all the time. So this the whole ecosystem is driven by money. It's a market thing. They are proud, for example, that they have a lot of clients, because it's a marketing company. A marketing company without these disinformation services will act the same – they are selling services. But it’s the whole system. So if somebody has money to contract service, they will find companies.
Is it possible to stop this? I'm not sure really, it's a market-driven thing. But perhaps these credibility actors are one key to diminish the impacts of the ecosystem. But anyway if you neutralize or eliminate some of these credibility actors, other ones will pop up, because the system needs that to function. So we should think about answers for the whole ecosystem.
Yes, I totally agree. It is an industry and it is market-driven.
And when a campaign doesn't have enough money, they find ways, for example, to oblige a public staff to create voter files. So again, it’s the business of disinformation. It's good to understand. Not all the people who write about disinformation have this understanding of that it is a market – it is an ecosystem driven by money.
Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.
This interview was edited by Cassiane Cladis.