#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.
Critical reactions in media and on social media to the Maduro regime’s public events in support of Alex Saab received higher engagement
While the Maduro regime promoted campaigns in Venezuela’s streets to support Maduro’s diplomat and Colombian businessman Alex Saab, anti-Maduro and independent news outlets and social media accounts were the most engaged-with discussing Nicolás Maduro’s backing of Saab. Moreover, the DFRLab found accounts showing suspicious behavior while using #FreeAlexSaab, a pro-Maduro hashtag asking for Saab’s release.
Cape Verde authorities arrested Saab on June 12, 2020, following an Interpol red notice. The U.S. Department of Justice requested his extradition for money laundering, among other charges. The Maduro regime and Saab’s lawyers have been asking Cape Verde and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for his release; the courts recently ordered Saab’s house arrest while they come to a verdict on whether to accept the U.S. extradition request.
News outlets Bloomberg and The New York Times registered that stenciled graffiti of pleas for Saab’s freedom have appeared on Caracas’s main thoroughfares since February 4, 2021. Some of the messages read “the people are with Alex Saab” and “freedom for Venezuela’s diplomat, fighter, and compatriot,” as well as promoted the hashtag “#FreeAlexSaab.”
Maduro’s most recent public effort in support of Saab occurred on February 20, after regime-controlled worker unions protested outside the Nigerian Embassy to Venezuela – ECOWAS’s Court of Justice is based in Abuja, Nigeria – and Maduro’s supporters organized a concert in downtown Caracas to request the diplomat’s release and criticize the U.S. sanctions imposed against the Maduro regime, including Saab.
An analysis of the websites reporting on the Maduro regime campaigns between February 20 and February 22 showed that articles by Venezuelan independent media outlet El Nacional and anti-Maduro news aggregator Dolar Today were the most engaged-with on social media. Both articles referred to photos taken by Spanish press agency EFE that showed attendees of the concert receiving food in exchange for their attendance at the event. Dolar Today’s article republished verbatim the text of an article from Argentinian news outlet Infobae, which appeared as the third most engaged-with on social media.
On Facebook, posts to Venezuela LIBRE and La Voz De Venezuela, anti-Maduro Facebook pages calling for Venezuela’s freedom, amassed the most engagements, alongside posts of Dolar Today and El Nacional. Venezuela LIBRE posted verbatim the text of an article by Venezuelan independent media outlet La Patilla, which also republished EFE’s photos. La Voz De Venezuela’s post showed a screencap of a tweet from Juan Guaidó’s ambassador to Colombia, Tomás Guanipa, who described the concert to support Saab as a “show” in which the “corrupt defended the corrupt.”
The keyword “Alex Saab” gathered over 42,000 mentions on Twitter between February 20 and February 22. The most retweeted accounts using “Alex Saab” were the self-described Venezuelan journalists Federico Black and Maibort Petit. While Black said that the Maduro regime has described Saab as a diplomat that irregularly has contracts with the Venezuelan state, Petit shared pictures of the concert and questioned the cost of the Maduro regime’s “show.”
On Twitter, however, pro-Maduro accounts used #FreeAlexSaab, which appeared to be the most used hashtag alongside the keywords “Alex Saab,” with 2,201 mentions.
An analysis of all mentions of #FreeAlexSaab (10,192 posts) between February 16 and February 22 showed that 374 accounts (13.46 percent) of the 2,777 accounts using the hashtag were created during the seven days before the Caracas concert. For instance, the account @Amanda15751621 was the sixth most active using #FreeAlexSaab and was created on February 19. Starting at 5:10 p.m. on February 20, the account started a pattern of publishing and re-publishing only the same four posts – two photo collages and two videos – in a repetitive manner; and prior to that, it was posting in a similar repetitive fashion.
As of February 22, a query using Twitter analysis tool TruthNest showed that the most used hashtags by @Amanda15751621 were #FreeAlexSaab and #AlexSaab, with 64 and 23 mentions, respectively. The most mentioned accounts by @Amanda15751621 were those for Maduro and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On February 20, The New York Times published “Venezuelan women lose access to contraception, and control of their lives.” The article detailed how Venezuelan women are no longer able to find or afford birth control and have been exposed to improvised and illegal procedures that put their lives at risk. According to The New York Times, corruption, mismanagement, and U.S. sanctions have all contributed to the collapse of Venezuela’s economy that – along with a battered health system – have pushed “many women into unplanned pregnancies at a time when they can barely feed the children they already have.” The New York Times found that, in Caracas, a pack of three condoms costs $4.40 and birth control pills cost $11 a month, while Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is $1.50. According to a search using social media listening tool BuzzSumo between February 20 and February 22, the article was the ninth most engaged-with on social media in Venezuela with 24,700 engagements.
In Venezuela on February 16, independent website El Pitazo published “Conviasa hace un viaje diario a Irán para buscar catalizador para el CRP” (“Conviasa makes a daily trip to Iran to seek catalyst for the CRP [Centro Refinador Paraguaná]”). El Pitazo revealed that, between February 12 and February 16, five flights loaded with fuel catalyst – a necessary component used in oil refining – arrived from Iran to Las Piedras airport on Venezuela’s Paraguaná peninsula. El Pitazo described that the catalyst is transferred from the airplanes to one or three trucks that deliver it to the Cardón refinery in CRP, an oil refinery. According to El Pitazo, 16 flights by Iranian airline Mahan Air arrived in Venezuela loaded with the catalyst in all of 2020. As of February 22, the piece had gathered 360 interactions on Twitter and Facebook combined, according to a search using BuzzSumo.
On Social Media
The hashtag #SputnikVenezuela trended on Venezuelan Twitter on February 20, pushed by pro-Maduro accounts. The most retweeted account using #SputnikVenezuela was Maduro’s Ministry of Communications, with over 2,700 retweets. The ministry promoted the start of the mass vaccination campaign in Venezuela using the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. The ministry’s post also promoted #SputnikVenezuela as the “second hashtag of the day” on February 20, a long-term daily campaign by the regime to push pro-Maduro hashtags to trend on Twitter.
Sostuve una importante conversación telefónica con el hermano Presidente Vladímir Putin, le agradecí su apoyo por el primer cargamento de la Sputnik V, que se aplica con éxito a nuestro personal médico. Acordamos seguir trabajando para consolidar las relaciones bilaterales.”
“I had an important telephone conversation with brother President Vladimir Putin; I thanked him for his support for the first shipment of Sputnik V, which has been successfully given to our medical personnel. We agreed to continue working to consolidate bilateral relations.”
– Maduro on Twitter on February 19.
James Story sigue actuando como JEFE de la derecha venezolana. Triste el papel que le dejó como herencia Donald Trump. Triste también que exista una oposición que se deje mandar por semejante y anacrónico personaje.”
“James Story continues to act as CHIEF of the Venezuelan right-wing. The role that Donald Trump left him as a legacy is sad. It is also sad that there is an opposition that allows itself to be ruled by such an anachronistic character.”
– Jorge Arreaza, Maduro’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Twitter on February 22.
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