On June 30, 2020, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, in partnership with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), Transparencia Venezuela, and Universidad de Navarra, hosted the event “Trust in Elections and Disinformation in Venezuela.” The virtual public discussion focused on disinformation operations in Venezuela amid a complex humanitarian crisis and their possible impact on the December 2020 parliamentary elections. The event was part of the #AlertaVenezuela project, an Atlantic Council initiative to identify, expose, and explain disinformation in Venezuela.
Diego Area, associate director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, moderated the discussion. The conversation featured Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, a professor from Universidad de Navarra and political consultant; Jordi Rodriguez-Virgili, professor and associate dean of the Communications School of Universidad de Navarra; Mercedes de Freitas, executive director of Transparencia Venezuela; and Daniel Suarez Perez, research assistant at the DFRLab.
Area kicked-off the conversation by summarizing the recent actions of the Nicolás Maduro regime to promote parliamentary elections slated for later this year after the Venezuelan Supreme Court unconstitutionally appointed a new board to the Electoral Council and replaced the leaders of the two main opposition with regime-friendly politicians. Maduro also expelled the ambassador of the European Union in Caracas, further eroding Europe’s role as a mediator in future negotiation talks between the regime and the opposition. The Organization of American States (OAS) rejected the regime’s actions stating that they move Venezuela farther away from a resolution to its political crisis.
The regime´s authoritarian practices are not limited to controlling institutions and attacking opposition political parties. The regime has increasingly engaged in online disinformation and censorship to push self-serving narratives that help maintain its grip on power. Area asked Suarez about the regime´s tactics to influence the public conversation on social media. Suarez identified three audiences in Venezuela who influence political debates online: those who support Maduro, those who oppose him, and foreign actors. He identified bot accounts that help the regime to disseminate its public narratives and to attack opposition leaders. For example, the same Twitter profiles that support Maduro, attack Juan Guaidó, and propped up Luis Parra in his unsuccessful move to take over the presidency of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Suarez also spoke about multiple accounts related to the Cuban government that promotes hashtags in support of the Maduro regime and regularly attack the United States. Other nefarious foreign actors such as Russia, China, and Iran help amplify these narratives. Russia plays a preeminent role, through its digital platforms Sputnik and RT, in these digital conversations in Venezuela and across Latin America.
Universidad de Navarra and Transparencia Venezuela recently released “The phenomenon of digital disinformation”, a report describing social media disinformation in Venezuela. Referring to the report, Carmen Beatriz Fernandez mentioned that the majority of Venezuelans (38.7 percent) rely on radio and television as their main source of information, while 25.3 percent of Venezuelans rely primarily on social media. She also pointed out that disinformation practices transcend social media. The academic defined that the most vulnerable population to disinformation are the less educated Venezuelans that use radio and television as their main information source. The report also shows that political affiliation significantly correlates with the citizens´ preferences on information sources. More than half of Maduro supporters rely on television, significantly greater than those who oppose him (26 percent). Analogously, social media is the main source of information for 39 percent of self-identified members of the opposition, while only 15 percent of the regime’s supporters rely on it. Maduro exploits this difference, as his regime combines censorship and disinformation practices for audiences in each platform.
In addition to online disinformation, the Maduro regime persecutes and harasses journalists, a practice that has increased amid the pandemic. Mercedes de Freitas commented that since the beginning of the lockdown 840 Venezuelans were detained, including 22 journalists. Leading up to the December parliamentary elections, De Freitas expects further repression of free speech, including targeting civil society activists demanding transparency from public officials in Venezuela.
Disinformation, trust issues, and hoaxes are not new. Professor Rodriguez-Virgili mentioned that these have existed since the very beginning of politics. Still, they became more salient after the 2016 Trump election and the Brexit referendum. The academic pointed out two factors that have helped amplify these issues: the technological disruption of social media and the progressive diminishment of traditional media. Rodriguez-Virgili commented that “we currently live in the post-truth era”, where citizens tend to assign higher value to their emotions and biases, putting aside objective elements and concrete facts.
In his final remarks, Area highlighted the importance of raising awareness about the constant threats to democratic values in Venezuela, especially in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections, and urged the international community to continue its efforts to restore democracy in the country.