“I believe YouTubers more than journalists.” These words, from a fellow Salvadoran living in California, hit me like a left hook —to my face and without gloves— one year ago. The surprise blow was delivered by a man with a biblical name, whom I’ll simply call Jesús so as not to crucify his real identity in this column. Jesús, a retired 60-something San Salvador native, was driving his gray Ford Escape on I-405 in Los Angeles, talking politics while his cell phone played Christian Nodal through the car’s Bluetooth — a song, I can’t remember the name, about heartbreak and heavy drinking. “It’s just, those guys speak the truth,” he told me, before turning up the volume.
The conversation had swerved this way a few kilometers back, when I made the mistake —or the right decision?— of asking him his view on El Salvador from a distance, living in the U.S. “This government is really doing a lot,” he told me. Catching a glint of ruling-party cyan gleaming from behind his sunglasses, I gave into my academic and journalistic curiosity, and continued asking more and more questions, without betraying my opinions, holding back my reactions, choking on my counter-arguments like so much saliva.
With an air of pride, he told me, for example, about the Territorial Control Plan, about Bitcoin, about Surf City. He complained about opposition politicians, about former President Mauricio Funes (“a corrupt womanizer”), and about the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, which he called a “farce” contrived by two parties (ARENA and FMLN) that only pretended to be rivals but were actually in cahoots all along. In other words: nothing but the official party line. Jesús spoke with such certainty that I couldn’t help but ask: and how did you find out about all this? His answer: social media. He named, to be exact, three YouTube channels that he follows religiously, and whose names, unlike Nodal’s song, I do remember, but which I won’t mention here because I don’t want to bait the trolls. It was right after this that Jesús threw the punch that opens this column.
I’m not going to lie: I don’t have any hard, quantitative data to demonstrate the level of trust people have in the word of YouTubers over journalists. What I do have, however, is my many conversations with other Jesúses, with my former neighbors, with my cousins, with my friends and family who share Facebook memes from a cell phone in Maryland or New York, that qualitatively confirm my assessment: Salvadorans, both at home and abroad, are increasingly getting their news from YouTube influencers, whose videos and narratives then bounce around the echo chambers of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. These social media sites broadcast information that is often neither counterbalanced nor contextualized, but has nevertheless created a fiercely competitive alternative to traditional journalism. These are spaces that are building a narrative delivered down as if it is the word of God, upon the eyes and ears of men and women who, like Jesús, live outside the country, but also to Salvadorans who remain anchored to this land where Roque Dalton, Monsignor Romero, and the soccer player Mágico González are apostles.
There are numerous channels producing media content for the Salvadoran masses. According to Disruptiva, a publication of San Salvador’s Francisco Gavidia University, between February 28 and March 1, 2023, in one 24-hour period, 276 videos alluding to the Salvadoran government were published on YouTube. Of these videos, the ten with the highest view counts were watched a total of 603,000 times. Most of these videos celebrate El Salvador as a safe country, praise the president, and attack the opposition. In other words, and just like Jesús: nothing but the official party line.
Why do some people trust these channels —as my compatriot driving along the LA freeway and listening to Nodal assured me they do— more than media outlets that practice real journalism? I have three hypotheses.
First: these channels are successful because they appeal to emotion. Content creators tell stories, compose songs, spread memes, create soap operas. And they don’t perfume their words. They throw them in your face, smelly and sweaty, frank, like the talk on the street that people like and can identify with. These personalities tend to rant and debate — or more precisely, shout and talk shit — on hot topics that journalism will only coldly recite. They tell their viewers what they want to hear: that Miss Universe will dance in the streets of San Salvador, that foreign tourists are lining up to take pictures in front of the rock on El Tunco beach, and that “El Buki” (a nickname the president shares with singer Marco Antonio Solís) says we’re destined by providence to be the greatest country on earth. They invent enemies to hate and categories to divide: The blessed and the cursed; the citizen and the criminal. And when they have their enemies in their sights, they crush them, they bully them. Even more so if they mark them as the despised “same old suspects” (“los mismos de siempre”) who, according to the official discourse, have forced thousands to leave their homeland (like Jesús), have stolen money from the “people,” and have made pacts with the gangs. Then it’s, “Damn them a thousand times.”
My second hypothesis is that audiences tend to consume media that reinforce our way of thinking. If you were a neoliberal in El Salvador with a certain kind of political consciousness in the nineties, you probably read the mainstream news with your right hand over your heart. If you were seeking the viewpoints of the leftist opposition in the early 2000s, you probably read the young journalist Mauricio Funes — that is, before he awoke one morning transformed in his bed into the President of the Republic, like a character from Kafka. Today, following this same logic, and not knowing whether to turn the left or right cheek, many turn to these channels because they mirror the discourse of the politicians they support (let’s not forget that President Bukele, according to a poll from the Central American University, has a reported 89.9% approval rating, three years into his term). In addition, these channels all have the same style, attack the same politicians, and discredit anyone who challenges them with the same talking points. The reward: “likes” and subscriptions.
My third hypothesis is that these sites and social media accounts drink straight from the same bottle of milk that is El Salvador’s lack of media and information literacy, which our education system has left in the back of the refrigerator to spoil. By literate, I mean knowing how to read the media and being critical of its content. Without the capacity to distinguish between news, propaganda, and information, we are like abductees who wake up suddenly on the streets of Manhattan, barefoot and disoriented. We are blinded by the lights. The skyscrapers make us dizzy. The noise deafens us. The result is that we end up believing that whoever shouts the loudest is the one telling the truth, and that anyone who writes long and complicated stories just wants to wrap us up in lies. And so of course, YouTubers, with their sharp and sensational language, have an advantage over the old-fashioned, awkward and serious media outlets, and their fear of innovation.
I would argue that these three conditions, taken together, are in large part to blame for the audience hemorrhage that is leaving traditional media outlets increasingly anemic, driving audiences into the hands of those traffickers in information we call content creators. So what can we do about it? I see two paths forward.
First, journalists and traditional media need to rejuvenate themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that prestigious news outlets should sink to the level of YouTube influencers and assume the role of social media bullies. That would be completely counter to the ethics of journalism. What I’m saying is that, without losing their integrity and commitment to accuracy, they should package their verified and well-contextualized information into formats that are more attractive to an audience that no longer waits for the 8 o’clock news or reads the newspaper between sips of coffee. Tell stories. Innovate formats. Ditch the cold facts and turn them into emotional stories that your audiences can connect to.
Second, considering the state’s apparent lack of interest in the subject, universities and NGOs must train audiences to be more critical. There is an urgent need for citizens who can distinguish between propaganda and good journalism, who know how to tell the difference between compelling commentators and a devil who only wants to tempt us with the red apple of disinformation. This can only be achieved through persistent media and information literacy programs.
Perhaps someone like Jesús —who at sixty-something years old is perfectly comfortable believing in a messiah who transforms water into wine— will be more difficult to convert. But every day, new generations of students are filling the classroom, and perhaps they can still be convinced of the fact that a journalist can be a YouTuber, but not all YouTubers are journalists. We must insist on it. Insist and insist, until we have a majority that can recognize disinformation and deny it three times before the rooster crows — or before someone turns up the volume on the Christian Nodal song. We must insist, as Nodal does, in another song that played in the car that day on the LA freeway, which I do remember: “Sin marcha atrás, porque sería fatal” — “No turning back, because it would be fatal.” Amen.
Willian Carballo (@WillianConN) is a Salvadoran researcher, professor, journalist, and essayist. He is a research coordinator at the Mónica Herrera School and professor of strategic communications at Central American University.