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Trolling, Threatening, Hacking: Pre-election Online Behavior in Nicaragua

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(All links in Spanish unless stated otherwise.)

Central America is not a region where politics can be discussed in a casual manner. Granted, nowhere in the world really is.  However, our polarized societies don’t make it any easier either to openly discuss politics or find reliable sources of information on our own: you may think you have found a  good newspaper only to discover that it is actually run by someone affiliated to a political party and that what you are reading is, in fact, propaganda. It’s pretty impossible to know what’s going on in any of the other countries in the region if you’re not directly informed by locals. So while there are striking parallels between the ways Central American countries behave politically, only a few very well-informed people are aware of it. Yes, even though we do have internet access.

Last August, when I attended a regional conference for young adults using information and communication technologies for social change, I was lucky enough to befriend two Nicaraguans involved in non-partisan, political activism. Here’s a brief article about their project.  While only 10% of Nicaraguans have internet access (link in English), online pre-electoral animosity is alive and kicking. Although it may seem unfair to say that political activity online mimics real-life interaction, political statements – and disputes – are as heated online as they are in face-to-face conversations, if not more. And the government is quite aware of it.

Nicaragua is to hold presidential and municipal elections on November 6, but one cannot really say that these mean that there is a functional democracy. This is the fifth time that the current president Daniel Ortega is running for office despite being unconstitutional [i] and his political party, the former guerrilla Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN. Link in English) is trying to get him reelected by all means. Although Ortega is much loved by his former comrades, a significant portion of society levels allegations of electoral fraud, corruption, nepotism and rather autoritarian behaviour against both Ortega and the FSLN.  This swathe of the population is mostly young and since all opposition is shunned by the regular media, they have opted to express their discontent with the government online.

Dissidents spread their messages through blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook groups as does the FSLN. In fact, their online presence is strong, oh-so-very strong. Dissidents claim the FSLN has appointed some of its militants to tweet live from public meetings, create fake Twitter profiles in support of Ortega, disqualify public opposition statements by trolling their blogs or – in a drastic turn of events –  even to hack into a dissident photographer’s Facebook account and leave him a none too friendly message. When Anonymous hacked into ten government websites four days later, the FLSN was quick to state that the attack was orchestrated by the opposition, starting a merry-go-round of allegations. Serious allegations.

You might think that this is no big deal, considering that only 600,000 out of 6 million Nicaraguans have internet access, so the effect of any hacking, trolling or online threats is not so serious. But three big questions arise and need an answer:

1. Is it OK for either the ruling political party or the opposition to go as far as hacking into their rivals’ private accounts?

2. Is it acceptable to infiltrate a government website to make a political statement?

3. And most importantly, what effect is this having in Nicaragua’s  already weakened democracy?

[i] According to Nicaragua’s Constitution, a citizen cannot run for president or vicepresident if s/he has been elected as president twice already. Click here to read more on this.


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