#AlertaVenezuela: August 19, 2020

#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.

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Pro-Maduro media amplified Iran’s false claims about U.S. “lies”

After U.S. authorities seized four vessels carrying fuel from Iran to Venezuela, pro-Maduro media in Venezuela amplified Iran’s claim that the United States “lie[d]” and that the Iranian shipment had no direct connection to Iran. Kremlin-funded media outlet RT published articles and social media posts blaming U.S. authorities for “piracy” and were the most engaged-with content on the topic on social media.

On August 13, 2020, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the United States had seized, for the first time, a shipment of fuel from Iran amidst a U.S. government “campaign of maximum pressure” against both the Iranian and Venezuelan regimes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the operation took place after U.S. federal prosecutors filed a suit on July 1 to confiscate the fuel Iran – or, more specifically, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – was sending the Maduro regime. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed the operation on August 14, revealing the ships’ international maritime organization numbers but not confirming the location of the operation. After the U.S. announcement, the Iranian regime denied any connection to the tankers. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangane, however, argued semantically that “the fuel was Iranian, but it had been sold to Venezuela and its payment had been cleared,” according to an August 17 Bloomberg article.

In Venezuela, the Maduro regime declined to issue any statements on the incident, but local pro-Maduro media amplified the Iranian regime’s self-contradicting claim that the operation was not real nor was it related to Iran. Maduro-funded media outlet VTV quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as saying that “[the U.S. statement] was a lie and psychological warfare” on August 15.

La Tabla, a self-described “fact-checking” media outlet supporting Maduro, also amplified Rouhani’s claim and partially “debunked” the DOJ press release using conflicting arguments. In the first paragraph, La Tabla suggested that the four vessels sailed from “enemy country” Israel and incorrectly claimed that the DOJ confirmed that the ships – instead of the “fuel shipments” – hailed from Iran. In the body of the article, however, La Tabla showed the results of queries using Marine Traffic, which showed the departure ports for the ships as the United Arab Emirates. A search on Marine Traffic by the DFRLab, however, showed that two of the vessels (the Luna and the Pandi) were in Omani waters, near Iran, between May and July. Although the information from Marine Traffic is limited and not conclusive, the locations shown in the DFRLab’s search coincided with an August 17 statement from Vice Admiral James Malloy, commander of the U.S Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. As reported in the Bloomberg article, in his statement, Vice Admiral Malloy said that the Luna and the Pandi had been stopped in the Gulf of Oman as they transferred the fuel to other ships and that two other ships, the Bella and the Bering, had been stopped near Mozambique while also transferring fuel.

Marine traffic readout showed the latest position of the Luna (left) as in the Gulf of Oman on July 29, 2020, while the Pandi (right) appeared in the same location on May 25. (Source: DFRLab via Marine Traffic, left and right)

La Tabla’s article was presented by Iran-backed media HispanTV as “research” that proved that the DOJ statement as well as related press articles on the tankers’ confiscation were “false.” La Tabla also posted the article in a Twitter thread that was retweeted by Maduro’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jorge Arreaza.

RT in Spanish articles were among the most engaged-with on social media amplifying the Iranian regime’s claims against the United States between August 13 and August 17. The Kremlin-funded outlet’s article about the U.S. authorities’ confirmation of the seizure and the subsequent response by Iranian Ambassador to Venezuela Hojat Soltani was the second most engaged. The article, published on August 14, garnered over 19,100 interactions on Facebook and Twitter combined. Moreover, another two articles by RT in Spanish on the topic were among the top 10 most engaged-with on social media.

Table showing RT in Spanish articles (orange boxes) on the seizure of the fuel shipments among the websites and blogs with the most engagements on social media. (Source: DFRLab using BuzzSumo) 

According to a search using CrowdTangle, a post by RT in English claiming the U.S. seizure was related to “geopolitical piracy” received the most comments on Instagram between August 13 and August 17.

RT’s Instagram post garnered 449 comments and was the most commented on regarding the U.S. seizure. (Source: DFRLab using CrowdTangle)

Talk of the Country

In the Media

On August 14, British news outlet BBC in Spanish published “Derrame de petróleo en Venezuela: “El mundo está preocupado por el de isla Mauricio pero en Venezuela hay uno el doble de grande” (“Oil spill in Venezuela: ‘The world is worried about the one in Mauritius but one in Venezuela is twice as big’”). BBC described how an oil spill of almost 20,000 barrels had been contaminating the Venezuelan coast since mid-July. According to experts and former workers of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, as quoted by BBC, the oil slick apparently started in the El Palito refinery and had spread 80 kilometers into natural ecosystems and recreational areas. Since the Maduro regime had not release an official statement on or images of the leak,BBC reached out to regime officials but did not receive a response. Eduardo Klein, the coordinator of Centro de Biodiversidad Marina de la Universidad Simón Bolívar, told BBC that twice as much oil had spilled as the spill off the Mauritius coast, but “since there is no official information, it seems that it would not have happened.” The article garnered 28,100 engagements on Twitter and Facebook combined, according to a search using BuzzSumo.

On August 18 in Venezuela, independent media Tal Cual published, “ANC cesará funciones luego de tres años sin discutir una letra de la nueva Constitución” (“ANC [the Spanish acronym for the National Constituent Assembly] will cease to function after three years without discussing a word of the new Constitution”). The ANC was convened by Maduro in 2017 as a replacement for the National Assembly, over which Juan Guaidó now presides, but many in the international community, including the United States, condemned its establishment. The Tal Cual article analyzed the legislative work of the ANC after Maduro announced on August 17 that it would cease to function in December 2020, after National Assembly elections scheduled for December 6 take place. According to Tal Cual, the rationale for the creation of the ANC was to create a new Constitution during its first two years, but it had “already taken more than three years without presenting the supposed new ‘Magna Carta.’” Tal Cual further highlighted that ANC members had been elected on July 30, 2017, and since that time had only served to undermine the functions of other institutions, especially those of the National Assembly. For example, Tal Cual claimed Maduro’s ANC had contributed to opacity around budgetary actions as well as to a lack of accountability for Maduro’s presidential and ministries, a function it presumes to have instead of the National Assembly, which actually has the power of oversight (though it too is unable to produce in that capacity because of the Maduro regime’s lack of cooperation).

On Social Media

The hashtag #EcocidioSocialista (“socialist ecocide”) trended on Venezuelan Twitter between August 15 and August 16. @anita__campos and @YaniraCLeon were the first accounts to use the hashtag on August 15, and both accounts are aligned with opposition leader Maria Corina Machado and her party, Vente Venezuela. The most active accounts using #EcocidioSocialista showed images of the oil leak mentioned above and blamed the Maduro regime as the responsible party.

Official Statements

Hemos visto protestas en Estados Unidos, en el Líbano, Bielorrusia, con la peculiaridad que hoy en Venezuela no hay ni siquiera 300 respiradores. Tenemos que cuidarnos el triple que en cualquier otro país, porque el único mecanismo que tenemos es la prevención. Pero no podemos nosotros debatirnos entre morir por COVID-19 o morir a causa de la dictadura, que es la principal fuente de todo los males en Venezuela en este momento.”

“We have seen protests in the United States, in Lebanon, in Belarus, with the peculiarity that Venezuela does not even have 300 respirators today. We have to take care of ourselves three times more than in any other country, because the only mechanism we have is prevention. But we cannot debate between dying from COVID-19 or dying because of the dictatorship, which is the main source of all evil in Venezuela at this time.”

– Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as interim president of Venezuela, to Runrun.es on August 13, 2020.

In their electoral desperation, @SecPompeo ordered a group of satellite governments to sign an extravagant and absurd interventionist statement drafted by Elliott Abrams, with the intent of sabotaging Venezuela’s parliamentary elections. They don’t believe in democracy. Phonies!”

– Arreaza on Twitter on August 14. Arreaza quoted a post by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who shared a “joint declaration of support for democratic change in Venezuela.”

Recent Analyses

From the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: On Thursday, August 13, Diego Area, associate director and Venezuela lead at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, moderated a panel conversation on “Countering the Maduro regime’s global web of illicit activities.” The discussion focused on disrupting and deterring illicit funding sources for the Maduro regime as well as the external and non-state partners that help sustain Maduro and his backers. Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the U.S. Southern Command; Carrie Filipetti, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs of the U.S. Department of State; Denise Natali, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations of the U.S. Department of State; and Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants and author at the Atlantic Council, all participated in the panel.

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