You can't trust the media on Evo Morales

Socialists are being taught an important lesson in skepticism towards international reporting.

When the BBC broke news this morning that exiled Bolivian leader Evo Morales has been accused of rape, I didn’t believe it. I wasn’t skeptical of the charge because I had any countervailing evidence about what had happened. I didn’t harbor doubts because of some personal judgment about Morales himself, though as far as I can tell he seems to be a profoundly decent and honorable man. And I didn’t even dismiss it because of something suspicious about the reporting, which on its face seemed quite damning.

The reason I was skeptical about this news is simple: the right uses fabricated allegations of crimes and atrocities in order to advance its agenda all of the time. And this is particularly true in the international arena, where tales of horrors perpetrated by Official Enemies of the beltway blob and its corporate sponsors bubble up constantly. At first these narratives can seem extremely convincing, and the pressure to accept them and condemn their targets is always extraordinary — yet time and after time, it turns out that they were exaggerated, or outright fabricated.

That appears to be the case once again with Morales. Ollie Vargas, the founder of Bolivia-based Kawsachun News, reports that the supposed victim

has informed Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman that police illegally arrested & assaulted her and forced her to testify that she’s ‘Evo’s girlfriend’. If she refused, they threatened to charge her with ‘terrorism & sedition”, she had no lawyer for the interrogation…The original source for this ‘story’ is a magazine *in Spain* (Okidiario) which is run by fascists who are leading members of VOX.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be just another open-and-shut case of character assassination targeting the left, ginned up by actors on the right and credulously (or sympathetically) signal boosted by corporate media.

The lesson of Morales

For media and activist pundits on the US liberal-left, it will be tempting to simplify the case of Morales into yet another tragic story of cancel culture run amok. Once again, some poor individual has been victimized by a public that is wokely credulous about scandalous accusations and sadistically eager to destroy the reputation of offenders. Coming hot on the heels of another story that has been discussed in the same way — the fabricated allegations of sexual impropriety against Congressional candidate Alex Morse — the parallels are hard to miss.

But instead of just feeding this incident into the usual cancel culture discourse, I’d like to propose a slightly different takeaway: socialists should encourage skepticism about conveniently provocative allegations of crimes and atrocities abroad. Not because such things never happen — of course they do — but rather because the allegations themselves are so often unreliable, and the consequences for accepting them are so severe. The Morales incident is just the latest reminder that even prestigious mainstream media sources routinely traffic in extremely inflammatory misinformation, and any socialist who accepts this point has to proceed with that in mind.

What does an attitude of healthy socialist skepticism about international news actually mean?

  • Rejecting appeals to outrage. It is of course not an accident that Morales was accused of statutory rape — this is an extraordinarily serious charge, and it would be monstrous to defend him if the allegations were actually true. The right often wields inflammatory allegations like this because they want to intimidate skeptics as atrocity apologists, and because they want to rely on public outrage to overwhelm a careful consideration of the evidence. This was also a go-to tactic during the runup in the war to Iraq, for example, when the right aggressively smeared antiwar activists as apologists for the crimes of Saddam Hussein.

  • Questioning evidence. The case against Morales didn’t simply rely on a rehearsal of accusations; regional media, for example, also circulated supposed screenshots of texts between Morales and his alleged victim. Yet it is trivially easy to fabricate screenshots of texts, just as it is trivially easy to coach, coerce, and cherry-pick witnesses. And in recent years it’s even become possible to forge more sophisticated media using video and audio deepfake technologies, among others. Today, socialists have to reserve the right to be skeptical of evidence that might have been seen as a smoking gun only a few years ago.

  • Questioning sources. Misinformation on international affairs can’t always be traced back to blatantly suspicious sources, as Olllie Vargas was able to do in this case. Just as often, it is laundered through respected outlets like BBC, or through third party NGOs and academics who have either been corrupted or duped; other times, it isn’t even “laundered” in some deliberate sense, but simply works its way into the mainstream through lazy reporting and dubious sourcing. Regardless, socialists should challenge the demand that certain sources of information about international affairs be treated as authoritative and unquestionable.

  • Tolerating mistaken skepticism. When BBC first reported the Morales story, several socialists who I follow online immediately voiced their skepticism. Here, what I want to insist is that even if their skepticism was not vindicated — even if it turned out that Morales was guilty of this crime — their skepticism still would have been justified. Doubting charges like this is a completely reasonable analytical posture for socialists to take simply because we know that they are so often fabricated against enemies of the beltway blob, and because the consequences for accepting them are often so catastrophic.

    Undoubtedly, if Morales was proven guilty, people who voiced their skepticism of the charges would have been aggressively smeared as rape apologists by his opponents. And credulous liberals who are inclined to accept reporting like this at face value would have almost certainly joined in the pile on. But when the media reports that foreign figures or countries have committed deeds that warrant our outrage and condemnation, socialists need to fight for the right to be cynical — and that means insisting that even when some socialists happen to get it wrong, their suspicion of official narratives was justified.

This is not the first lesson that Evo Morales has had to teach us about maintaining skepticism about international reporting, and sadly it probably won’t be the last. Let us hope in any case that socialists take it to heart.