#AlertaVenezuela is leading the way in identifying, exposing, and explaining disinformation within the context of one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest crises in recent history, where the fight for control of the information space will continue to pose a challenge for the region.
Maduro regime officials and supporters focus on Colombia to deflect attention away from the internal crisis in Venezuela
In an attempt to divert attention away from the economic and health crisis in Venezuela, regime officials, pro-Maduro media outlets, and pro-Maduro Twitter accounts focused their publications on recent U.S.-led counter-narcotic operations in the region and COVID-19 reports about Colombia between April 9–13.
On March 26, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the Southern District of New York had filed an indictment against Nicolás Maduro and 14 current and former members of the regime on charges of narco-terrorism, corruption, and drug trafficking, among others. On April 7, Colombian President Iván Duque announced 24 countries from the Western Hemisphere and Europe had started counter-trafficking operations in South America. These countries also recognize Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela in opposition to the Maduro regime.
In response, the Maduro regime claimed that the United States government and its allies – including Colombia – were attacking Venezuelans amid the coronavirus outbreak, and insisted the United States’ governmental responseto the COVID-19 outbreak was worse than that of Venezuela.
The hashtag #ElNarcoEstadoesColombia [“Colombia is the narco-state”] trended on April 10 and garnered 3,296 engagements by April 13, according to a search using social media listening tool Brandwatch. The first account that tweeted using #ElNarcoEstadoesColombia was @BontempsCesar, which described itself as a member of Maduro’s PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. @BontempsCesar claimed Colombian President Duque and former president Alvaro Uribe were drug kingpins in Colombia.
#ElNarcoEstadoesColombia was used by 856 accounts, 10 percent of which tweeted 66 percent of all posts (2,189 tweets). In addition, each account posted on average 26 tweets, which suggests that a small group of users posted the hashtag multiple times to make it trend on Twitter. This number is particularly high, given that organic campaigns analyzed by the DFRLab in the past averaged less than four posts per user.
The accounts using the hashtag also tweeted a link from Lechuguinos, a pro-Maduro blog. The publication shows former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying Colombia is the “real narco-state.” Lechuguinos published other posts claiming the Colombian government is linked to drug cartels. They also posted about supposed protests against President Duque’s measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Regarding the latter topic, Lechuguinos does not reference recent measures by Duque, who agreed with healthcare unions and associations regarding the acquisition of medical supplies and tests for medical personnel.
Pro-Maduro blog Lechuguinos posted former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez statements claiming Colombia is a “real narco-state.” (Source: DFRLab via Lechuguinos)
These claims against the Colombian government’s measures coincided with Maduro’s April 8 press conference in which he reported on the number of COVID-19 cases and explained the measures he had taken against the outbreak. Maduro compared the outbreak in Venezuela with that of other countries and falsely suggested that people are dying on the streets in Colombia. The media outlet KienyKe, however, debunked this claim on April 5. Maduro’s statement was tweeted in a video by the pro-regime television channel VTV on April 8; the video garnered 3,600 views, 450 retweets and 253 likes.
Over the following days, VTV also published other statements by Maduro against Colombia. On April 11, Maduro claimed Colombia was the “main source” of COVID-19 cases in Venezuela, and said he would later present proof to support his claim. This tweet garnered more engagement than the false tweet about deaths in Colombia’s streets, with the video accompanying the tweet receiving 27,600 views, 1,000 retweets, and 695 likes.
The narrative comparing Venezuela and Colombia’s fight against the new coronavirus also was used by Maduro regime officials. William Castillo, Vice Minister of International Communications of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,tweeted a table that misrepresented a World Health Organization (WHO) report. The table shows a column of the number of tests made by each country on April 9. Castillo used the misrepresented report to supposedly “destroy fake news about Venezuela,” and he compared the numbers of tests given in Colombia and other South American countries. The tweet garnered 3,000 retweets and 2,600 likes.
Castillo claimed his data came from a WHO report, but it was originally tweeted by the Spanish-language account @COVID19_ES, which describes itself as an independent media outlet focusing on coronavirus news. According to a search using Twitonomy, this account was created on February 22, 2020. The Twitonomy query also showed that one of the accounts @COVID19_ES replied to most often was @RTultimahora, a non-verified account that shares content by the Kremlin-funded outlet RT in Spanish.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On April 10, the New York Times published “Childbirth in Venezuela, Where Women’s Deaths Are a State Secret.” The article reported that Venezuela’s public health system has been in a state of progressive collapse for years due to the dire economic conditions in the country. Similar reports highlighting the health crisis in Venezuela have been published previously. For example, Human Rights Watch’s April 2019 Venezuelan humanitarian emergency reportdescribed the dire situation Venezuelans find themselves in, having to search for medicines, medical supplies, health providers, and basic health services. The New York Times’ article emphasized how critical birthing tools, vital sign monitors, ventilators, and sanitation systems have broken down or just disappeared, leading to doctors to be unable to attend to women. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, official border crossings have been closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, pregnant Venezuelans keep arriving, using informal paths known as trochas to cross the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Also on April 10, the Venezuelan outlet LaPatilla published “Regresar a su país sin nada, la odisea de miles de venezolanos en Colombia.” (“Returning to your country with nothing, the journey taken by thousands of Venezuelans in Colombia.”) The article described Venezuelans returning to their country amid the coronavirus outbreak. According to Colombian Migration, about 2,200 Venezuelans have passed through humanitarian corridors enabled by the authorities to the Colombia-Venezuela land border. Venezuelans in Colombia began returning home after failing to receive enough support to confront the pandemic. In total, they walked more than 530 kilometers from Bogotá to Cúcuta, a Colombian city at the Venezuelan border. The article garnered 21,300 interactions, including shares, comments, and reactions (e.g., likes and emojis) on Facebook between April 10-14, 2020, according to results from the monitoring tool CrowdTangle.
On Social Media
On April 13, Twitter accounts started to tweet about the CITGO Petroleum Corporation, a United States-based refiner and transporter of fuels, lubricants, and petrochemicals, which is majority-owned by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company. The keyword CITGO trended on Twitter after accounts, including pro-Maduro and opposition-related accounts, discussed the lack of gas in the country, demanding that both Juan Guaidó and Nicolas Maduro distribute fuel in Venezuela.
Spokesmen from the Trump Administration woke up out of control today, using Venezuela to distract their public opinion from the tragic humanitarian crisis the US is undergoing. They urgently need a Transition Framework to change their system for one that protects their citizens.”
Jorge Arreaza, Maduro’s Foreign Affairs Minister, posted on Twitter on April 14, 2020. Arreaza’s post included two images from tweets published by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Michael Kozak discussing political prisoners in Venezuela and supporting Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela.
Sostuve una conversación telefónica con nuestro amigo el presidente Xi Jinping, en nombre del pueblo venezolano le agradecí su decidida cooperación con Venezuela. Su solidaridad es un ejemplo claro de que un mundo más humano, sí es posible. ¡La hermandad salva al mundo!”
“I had a phone call with our friend President Xi Jinping. On behalf of the Venezuelan people I thanked him for his commitment and cooperation with Venezuela. His solidarity is a clear example that a more human world is indeed possible. Solidarity saves the world!” – Nicolás Maduro on Twitter on April 10, after his meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping. According to Maduro’s foreign affairs minister, Jorge Arreaza, the phone call’s goal was about joint efforts to face and overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our team in the news
Diego Area, associate director at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, was quoted by the Financial Times on the risks that COVID-19 poses to Venezuelans.
Our #AlertaVenezuela work tracking disinformation in Venezuela made the New York Times this week in an article about the perils of disinformation amid a pandemic in the information age. The article was republished by Que Pasa en Venezuela, and the New Zealand Herald.
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