#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.
Fake cures for COVID-19 in Venezuela: from the online sphere to the streets of Caracas
False diets, cures, and homemade recipes to treat or prevent COVID-19 have appeared on Venezuela’s news outlets, social media, and Maduro regime announcements since February 28, 2020.
These false claims appeared amid the latest warnings announced by the World Health Organization (WHO), alerting that “no pharmaceutical products have yet been shown to be safe and effective for the treatment of COVID-19.” In a March 31 statement, WHO did not recommend “any medicines to treat or cure COVID-19,” though it announced an investigation into potential therapies that could, or will, soon be studied in clinical trials as of March 25.
On February 3, 2020, Sirio Quintero, self-proclaimed “nanotechnologist specialist,” published a “research” paper on COVID-19 that included a description for a treatment based on vibrations and plants. Quintero provided no evidence, however, to support the effectiveness of the treatment, nor was the paper peer reviewed, as is standard for any scientific study. In the paper, Quintero also mischaracterized COVID-19 as a parasite – not a virus – and as a bioweapon created by the United States and the United Kingdom.
Despite the unsubstantiated effectiveness of the treatment, on February 28, pro-regime National Constituent Assembly member Maria Alejandra Diaz Marin nevertheless promoted Quintero’s supposed treatment on Twitter; this appeared to be the first post in Venezuela amplifying fake cures for the coronavirus. Maduro himself also supported Quintero’s “research,” but Twitterremoved his tweet under its newly announced policies to combat misleading information related to COVID-19.
On March 5, Venezuelan media outlet Efecto Cocuyo debunked the effectiveness of Quintero’s treatment, but Quintero’s “research” persists as a link in articles and on the homepage of regime-backed broadcaster VTV.
Stories of a different supposed cure also made their way from Africa to South America as early as the beginning of April. In particular, a story promoting a diet of high alkaline foods as a means of preventing and curing the coronavirus first appeared on African Facebook and WhatsApp, according to an article published by fact-checking website Africa Check on March 25. The infographic from which the diet was taken claimed COVID-19 could be cured using high alkaline fruits and vegetables like lemons or garlic that change the pH of the body and thereby eliminate the virus, but Africa Check found the claim to be false, saying that it is premised on research around a different type of coronavirus and that the novel coronavirus “does not have its own pH.”
As of early April, the story was also circulating on WhatsApp messages chains in Venezuela, as identified and debunked by Efecto Cocuyo on April 2 and April 6. The diet rumor reemerged on WhatsApp in Venezuela in late April, as fact-checking website EsPaja.com felt compelled to debunk it on April 24. EsPaja.com added that this fake cure was promoted over loudspeakers by Maduro regime security forces enforcing the quarantine in Caracas. The fact-checking website also said that the rumor around this supposed diet caused “not only the fruits to be scarcer but also their price to soar.”
According to Colombian independent website La Silla Vacia, the rumor alsoappeared in Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain.
Overall, fake treatments and cures for COVID-19 gained momentum on social media, mainly WhatsApp, after the first cases were confirmed in Venezuela on March 13. Between March 13 and April 25, Venezuelan fact-checking websiteCazadores de Fake News published 35 articles debunking fake content about the coronavirus, of which 11 covered fake cures that had gained popularity through Venezuelan social media accounts and WhatsApp messages chains. Among the other unproven treatments proposed on social media were a special tea, a hot beverage with lime and bicarbonate of soda, and a mix of medicines that WHO has not approved.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On April 24, Peruvian legacy media La Republica published “‘Mejor estar en casa que seguir en Perú’: venezolanos retornan a su pais por la pandemia” (“‘It is better to stay at home than to stay in Peru’: Venezuelans return to their country due to the pandemic”). The article featured interviews with Venezuelans returning on foot to their home country after being evicted from their homes in Peru. The migrants told the journalists that they do not have money to pay the rent, since the quarantine affected their informal jobs (i.e., not in taxable positions) in Peru. According to the Venezuelan embassy in Peru, 226,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees were in the country as of March 2020. The Venezuelans that left Peru had to cross through Ecuador and Colombia, before arriving home. La Republica’s article was the most engaged-with piece about Venezuelans migrants on social media between April 20-27, 2020, garnering 60,300 engagements on Facebook and Twitter combined, according to a search using social media listening tool BuzzSumo. Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian media outlets also published another five articles about Venezuelans migrants that amassed 168,700 engagements cumulatively.
In Venezuela on April 26, independent media outlet Runrun.es published a story providing a readout of a report from digital activity observatory Probox, which analyzes trends on Twitter in Venezuela, that looked at pro-regime accounts supporting Maduro’s illegitimately installed National Assembly President Luis Parra. According to the report, 53 percent of the accounts that pushed the supportive hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui (“Luis Parra in Anzoategui,” in reference to a state in Venezuela) to trend also used hashtags supporting chavismo. Probox analyzed 1,503 tweets and 169 accounts using #LuisParraEnAnzoategui on February 10, in which 25 accounts (14.79 percent of the total accounts under observation) were identified as bots, according to Probox’s methodology. According to Runrun.es, Probox also mentioned that Parra, whose account has been suspended since April 10, changed his political position in 2020 to support Maduro regime and attack Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as interim president of Venezuela.
On Social Media
The hashtag #Saqueos (“Lootings”) trended on Twitter after citizens in different Venezuelan states looted markets because the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated the already endemic lack of food. Independent media outlet El Pitazo reported on lootings that took place on April 23 in the Venezuelan states of Bolivar and Monagas.
Una dictadura de corruptos e incapaces nos trajo a una crisis en la que los campesinos pierden sus cosechas mientras en los barrios las familias se mueren de hambre. Convirtieron al país más rico de la región en un infierno. Saldrán de ahí, ya el sacrificio ha sido suficiente.”
“An incompetent, corrupt dictatorship created a crisis in which farmers lost their crops, while in the cities families are starving to death. They turned the richest country in the region into hell. They must leave; the sacrifice has been enough.” – Guaidó, on Twitter on April 24, 2020.
La Federación Internacional de la Cruz Roja afirma que las sanciones de EEUU dificultan el ingreso de insumos humanitarios a Venezuela. La verdad se impone. Nadie puede negar lo que es evidente. EEUU debe levantar las sanciones en momentos de pandemia.”
“The International Federation of the Red Cross affirms that U.S. sanctions hinder entering humanitarian supplies to Venezuela. The truth prevails. Nobody can deny what is evident. The United States should lift the sanctions during the pandemic.” – Jorge Arreaza, the Maduro’s minister of foreign affairs, posted to Twitter on April 24.
Por falta de gasolina 62 por ciento del personal de salud no pudo ir a trabajar; 84 por ciento del personal de salud no pudo echar gasolina; y 66 por ciento pasó entre ocho y 20 horas en cola para echar gasolina. Si no se garantiza el acceso a la gasolina al personal más importante en esta crisis, que es el personal de salud, ¿cuál es la capacidad real para atender esta enfermedad?”Á
“Because of a lack of access to fuel, 62 percent of healthcare personnel cannot go to work; 84 percent cannot fill up their tanks; and 66 percent spend between eight to 20 hours in line to get gas. If access to fuel is not made absolutely accessible to healthcare personnel – who are at the frontlines of this crisis – then how much capacity is there realistically to address this pandemic [COVID-19]?”. – José Manuel Olivares, opposition representative of the National Assembly, on El Pitazo on April 4.
Our Team in the News
Articles covering a conversation held between the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and Juan Guaidó (see “Recent Analyses” below) appeared, most notably, in EFE, a regional news agency; El Nacional in Venezuela; El Comercio and La Republica in Peru; NTN24 in Colombia; Deutsche Welle Español in Germany; Europa Press and ABC España in Spain; Infobae in Argentina; and VOA Noticias, Miami Diario, and the Washington Examinerin the United States. So far, 74 articles have been published and republished online in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Germany, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela.
From the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center:
On Thursday, April 23, the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center hosted Juan Guaidó for a one-on-one conversation about the impact of COVID-19 in Venezuela and what is next for a peaceful democratic transition in the country.View the full video recording and read more about the event. The event was a part of the Atlantic Council’s #ACFrontPage series and Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center Leaders of the Americas Series.
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