#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.
Twitter accounts supporting Colombian businessman Alex Saab attacked Colombian and Venezuelan journalists
Following his arrest, two accounts supporting Colombian businessman Alex Saab attacked Colombian and Venezuelan journalists using violent language and threats on Twitter, which is prohibited by Twitter’s policy on safety. One of the accounts – @DenunciaJulio – also showed possible links to Colombian law firm De La Espriella, which represented Saab until July 2019.
Saab is a lawyer and businessman close to Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle. Cape Verde authorities arrested Saab under an Interpol red notice on June 12, 2020. Saab could be extradited to the United States, where he has been indicted for money laundering and other charges linked to a network of corruption. Although journalists as well as the Colombian and U.S. justice departments have exposed corruption cases against Saab, the Maduro regime has come to his defense, asking the Cape Verde government not to approve the extradition to the United States.
On July 31, 2020, Colombian independent media La Silla Vacía reported that Saab and his lawyers had been suing or threatening journalists since April 2015, when Venezuelan independent outlet Armando.info revealed that the businessman had signed contracts with the Maduro regime. (Armando.info is partner with the Atlantic Council on #AlertaVenezuela.) Armando.info staff have been living in exile from Venezuela since November 2017, after Saab sued them under Maduro government’s judiciary system. Saab also suedColombian journalists Gerardo Reyes, who works for Miami-based Univision, and Daniel Coronell, who published a story on Saab for Colombian magazine Semana.
The negative content targeting the journalists also appeared on social media. After Saab’s capture in Cape Verde, @DenunciaJulio and @TarnasDenuncia pointed to journalists who have investigated Saab. Reyes and Coronell have been targeted alongside Venezuelan journalists such as Roberto Deniz and Joseph Poliszuk (both from Armando.info), as well as Carla Angola. For instance, on July 13, @DenunciaJulio posted that Deniz was looking for asylum in the United States or Canada, to which @TarnasDenuncia repliedwith an insult and claiming that Deniz’s “day will come soon.” Twitter considers this threat a violation of its policy.
A DFRLab search using social media listening tool Brandwatch showed 93 percent (515 tweets) of 555 posts by @tarnasdenuncia were replies between December 1, 2019, and August 2, 2020. This percentage suggests that the account was explicitly created to target posts by other accounts. The query showed, for example, the most used keywords by @tarnasdenuncia were insults; all of them appeared in replies.
It is also possible that @DenunciaJulio and @DeLaEspriellae – the account of the law firm De La Espriella – are related, as there is overlap in their common followers and conversations. The accounts have in common 50 followers, according to a query using TweetBeaver. Moreover, @DenunciaJulio tagged @DeLaEspriellae in 16 tweets, quotes, and replies between June 8 and August 2, 2020.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On July 30, British news outlet The Guardian published “A dollar for sex: Venezuela’s women tricked and trafficked.” The article showed the situation of Venezuelan migrants in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia during the pandemic. The Guardian described women “have been the most vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, trafficking, and violence.” In Ecuador, Venezuelan women were reportedly offering sex for as little as $2.00, and health centers stopped giving out condoms and health checks, according to The Guardian. Nongovernmental organizations consulted by The Guardian found an estimated 70,000 refugees who remain stranded in Colombia close to the border with Venezuela and who “are reported to be eating dogs, cats, and pigeons to survive.” The Guardian reported that parents are “selling” their daughters –some as young as 12 years old– into sex work. According to The Guardian, an estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled their country as of July 30, but, without international intervention, “the number of Venezuelan refugees is predicted to exceed 6 million by the end of the year.”
On August 2 in Venezuela, independent website Tal Cual published “Tienda iraní Megasis vende en dólares hasta productos ‘hechos en socialismo’” (“Iranian store Megasis sells in dollars even products ‘made under socialism’”). The article describes the opening of Iranian megastore Megasis in Caracas on July 29. According to Tal Cual, 15 percent of the products are from Venezuela, while the other products are from Iran. Tal Cual mentioned that Iran imported the products on a ship that sailed into Venezuela on June 21, despite U.S. sanctions against both countries. Tal Cual highlighted that Megasis is linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, and that the Iranian government had bought the premises from Tiendas CLAP, a sale Alex Saab (see Top Story above) likely helped to facilitate. Tal Cual highlighted that all prices are shown in U.S. dollars, and the checkers accept only cash in bolívares or dollars. According to Tal Cual, “megastore Megasis shows that a sanctioned country can be productive when it is not governed by someone like Maduro.”
On Social Media
The hashtag #NoEsPorLasSanciones (“This is not because of the sanctions”) trended on Twitter between July 31 and August 2, pushed by accounts opposing the Maduro regime. The hashtag was used to claim that chavismo had led to the failure in constructing public works projects well before the United States sanctioned Maduro and his closest officials. The first account that used the hashtag was @17RAVGuerrera06 on July 31, which also postedother anti-Maduro content. The most active accounts using #NoEsPorLasSanciones appeared to support Juan Guaidó.
Si los cubanos se van mañana, el régimen [de Maduro] cae al día siguiente. Es muy importante dirigir la presión sobre las FARC y el ELN, sobre los narcoterroristas, cortar esa vía de financiación. Si Trump prestase más atención a América Latina, se aseguraría que otros Gobiernos también mantienen la presión.”
“If the Cubans leave tomorrow, the [Maduro] regime will fall the next day. It is very important to focus the pressure on the [Colombian guerrillas] FARC and the ELN, about narcoterrorists, to cut off this channel of financing. If Trump paid more attention to Latin America, he would make sure that other governments also kept up pressure.”
– John Bolton, former National Security Adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, in El País on August 3, 2020.
Vamos a luchar unidos por elegir el destino de nuestro país. Nadie acepta imposiciones de un régimen en agonía. Desde la unidad rechazamos la farsa, ahora debemos movilizar esa mayoría que quiere vivir con dignidad. ¡Juntos vamos a vencer al régimen!”
“We will fight together to choose our country’s destiny. No one accepts the impositions of a regime in agony. We reject the farce with unity, now we must mobilize the majority that wants to live in dignity. Together we will defeat the regime!”
– Juan Guaidó on Twitter on August 2. In the tweet, Guaidó also shared a press release by the National Assembly announcing that 27 opposition parties would not participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6, 2020.
Our Team in the News
Venezuelan independent media, Runrun.es – which partners with the Atlantic Council on #AlertaVenezuela – published an investigation about 274 Cuban and Venezuelan Twitter accounts pushing five hashtags to trend in Venezuela in April 2020. Runrun.es based its research on findings shared by the DFRLaband the digital activity observatory Probox. Runrun.es article was also published by Tal Cual and El Carabobeño.
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