#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.
The Maduro regime unsuccessfully drowned the general discontent for the Güiria shipwreck
The disappearance of some 40 migrants headed to Trinidad and Tobago aboard two boats in the first week of December accelerated public discontent against the regime for the ongoing humanitarian and economic crisis, as well as for the corruption and Nicolás Maduro’s slow response to find the victims. The DFRLab identified Twitter accounts showing signs of inauthentic behavior that amplified the Maduro regime’s posts about the tragedy.
The travelers – including children – sailed from Güiria, a Venezuelan town that is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away from Trinidad and Tobago, sometime between December 6 and December 9, 2020. Based on reports from opposition leaders and nongovernmental organizations, media outlets reported that 19 bodies were found off the coast of Venezuela on December 13. The last report showed that the number increased to 33 deaths as of December 20.
The conversation on Twitter quickly became political as accounts belonging to opposition leaders and members of the Maduro regime blamed each other for the tragedy. The Maduro regime also reacted by blaming the economic sanctions against the country as well as accusing journalists and human rights activists of interfering with its efforts.
A search of “Güiria” using social media listening tool Meltwater Explore showed that the fifth most used hashtag alongside that keyword was “#BolívarEsPueblo” (“Bolivar is the people”).
Maduro’s Ministry of Communications promoted “#BolívarEsPueblo” on December 17 and amplified Maduro’s General Prosecutor Tarek William Saab’s press conference, during which Saab expressed his condolences to the victims’ relatives and also claimed the tragedy was “unprecedented in Venezuela’s history.” Saab also used the press conference to announce that arrest warrants had been issued for those responsible, including relatives of Luis Alí Martínez, the owner of one of the boats. After Saab’s press conference, María Martínez, Martínez’s daughter, told AP that her father was innocent. Moreover, Martínez, who also lost 15 of her relatives in the shipwreck, noted that Saab mentioned one of her cousins as one of the suspects still wanted by the authorities for human trafficking, but Martínez explained that her cousin was found dead and was buried days before Saab’s announcement. AP also noted that other two shipwrecks have occurred since 2019 in that region.
The two posts that garnered the most retweets using #BolívarEsPueblo contained shortened videos of Saab’s press conference. The most retweeted post amassed 1,429 retweets (including quotes). In the second most retweeted post, with 978 retweets, Saab named the public workers of the Güiria coastal checkpoint that would be prosecuted.
An analysis of the accounts amplifying Saab’s claims showed that 256 users retweeted both posts at least once each. According to the creation date of these accounts, 41 joined Twitter between December 1 and December 18, 2020. For instance, the accounts @magalla80517196, @Pablo61674339, and @Guiller74441536 were created within the same hour on December 11. @Guiller74441536 was the most active of the three users, amassing 3,475 posts between December 11 and December 21, an average of 347 tweets per day. The average number of posts per day can be an indicator of inauthentic behavior, as the DFRLab consider 72 tweets per day as suspicious and over 144 tweets per day as highly suspicious.
The account @DeibisAlvarado5 also amplified both tweets on Saab’s claims. According to a search using Twitter analysis tool TruthNest, @DeibisAlvarado5 posted – between December 17 and December 21 – 158 tweets per day and mostly used hashtags connected to Maduro’s Ministry of Communications, such as #NotiMippCI (News of Maduro’s Ministry of Communication) and #PublicacionesMippCI (Publications of Maduro’s Ministry of Communication).
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On December 18, British news outlet BBC published “‘A total mess’: Venezuelans see little hope of improvement.” The article described how Venezuelans across the country have been struggling amid the scarcity of fuel. According to BBC, Venezuela’s oil production is about a third of what it should be due to “years of underinvestment and mismanagement, plus added pressure from U.S. sanctions.” BBC interviewed fishermen in Patanemo Bay, who mentioned that, following the start of the fuel shortages in February, the number of days they can use their boats to fish has been decreasing. The fishermen also told BBC that the COVID-19 pandemic “dried up” tourism in the region, a source of secondary income as tourists often pay them to travel to nearby deserted beaches. BBC also quoted Venezuelans in other cities, who described a “black market” of fuel, in which Maduro’s security forces were involved. The piece garnered 1,500 engagements on Facebook, according to a search using social media tool BuzzSumo.
In Venezuela on December 17, independent website El Pitazo published “Discriminación, informalidad y pandemia amplían brecha salarial para los migrantes” (“Discrimination, informality, and pandemic widen wage gap for migrants”). In the article, El Pitazo details International Labour Organization’s (ILO) research that the average salary of migrants around the world is approximately 13 percent lower than that of citizens of high-income receiving countries. El Pitazo explained that, as of November 2020, 4.6 million Venezuelan migrants (out of 5.4 million total migrants) have chosen to relocate within Latin America and that they in particular are facing additional hardships, such as discrimination and an almost 50 percent uncontracted labor rate. According to El Pitazo’s readout, teleworking has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the majority of migrants have no access to those types of jobs.
On Social Media
The keyword “Putin” (a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin) trended on Venezuelan Twitter on December 15, December 17, and December 18. The most engaged-with accounts with set locations of Venezuela that used “Putin” were pro-Maduro users. For instance, @Titomara2 and Maduro-backed television channel VTVposted that Putin had “congratulated” U.S. President-elect Joe Biden “on his victory in the U.S. presidential elections.” Separately, @luiscarrillo66 shared an RT article in which Putin said, during his annual press conference on December 17, that he had yet to receive a dose of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine because it has not yet been approved for patients over 60 years old. On October 2, 2020, Venezuela received 2,000 doses of Sputnik V to develop the third stage of clinical studies of the vaccine.
El inefable, el impresentable Mike Pompeo hoy sacó unas sanciones estúpidas, como buen imbécil que es. Contra la empresa y los empresarios que fabricaron las máquinas para que el pueblo de Venezuela votara el pasado 6 de diciembre. Hubo máquinas, hubo sistema electoral y hay una nueva Asamblea Nacional, esa es nuestra mayor venganza a los supremacistas de Estados Unidos.”
“The ineffable, the disgraceful Mike Pompeo today put out some stupid sanctions, like the good imbecile that he is, against the company and businessmen that manufactured machines so that the Venezuelan people could vote on December 6. There were the machines, the electoral system, and there is a new National Assembly. This is our great revenge against the U.S. supremacists.”
– Nicolás Maduro in a televised broadcast on December 18, 2020.
Grave error de @leopoldolopez. En relación con el estado de derecho y la vigencia de los DDHH, Uribe es el equivalente en Colombia a Chávez. Leopoldo López es una víctima de gravísimos abusos de Chávez y Maduro. Pero esta reunión le hace mucho daño a su credibilidad.”
“Big mistake by [Venezuelan opposition leader] Leopoldo López. Concerning the state of the rule of law and the validity of human rights, [Colombian former president Álvaro] Uribe is the equivalent in Colombia to [Hugo] Chávez. Leopoldo López is a victim of very serious abuses by Chávez and Maduro. But this meeting does a lot of damage to his credibility.”
– José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, on Twitter on December 16. Vivanco quoted a López’s tweet in which the latter posted a picture of himself with Uribe and commented that they had talked about the Güiria tragedy.
From the DFRLab: On Wednesday, December 16, the DFRLab published “How Venezuelans use Twitter to protest the ongoing humanitarian crisis.” The piece, by the DFRLab and its partner organization ProBox, found that hashtags about problems with public services and human rights violations broke through with the help of Nicolás Maduro-aligned accounts on Venezuelan Twitter. Among the 272 hashtags analyzed, the hashtag #SinLuz (“Power Blackout”) trended the most (16) times between January 1 and September 30, 2020.
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