#AlertaVenezuela: February 25, 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.

Top Story

Maduro’s vice minister of International Communications: from amplifying false claims to assailing journalists

William Castillo, as vice minister of international communications, is one of the most prominent authorities in the Maduro regime’s Ministry of People’s Power for Foreign Affairs. Castillo has attacked journalists online for allegedly publishing “fake news,” despite the fact that he has repeatedly published false claims on Twitter.
On February 9, 2020, Castillo retweeted a fake picture of Colombian President Iván Duque hugging John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, a hitman known as “Popeye,” who worked for infamous drug dealer Pablo Escobar. Popeye died on February 6, 2020. The image was originally tweeted by @carloslevelgar, who suggested Duque should be in jail for being “portrayed alongside the most notorious killer.” The image was a fake. The original picture, posted to Duque’s official Instagram account on April 28, 2018, shows the Colombian president alongside Colombian singer Silvestre Dangond.

At left, Castillo’s retweet of an altered image; at right, the original picture showing Duque with singer Silvestre Dangond. (Source: @planwac/archive, left; Instagram/archive, right)

On February 7, 2020, Castillo tweeted a meme with two pictures: one showing Maduro walking alongside Russian diplomats (archive) on February 7, 2020, and the other showing President of the United States Donald Trump touching Juan Guaidó’s buttocks. The latter is a forgery, according to a query using InVID, a forensic tool for images.

Shadows and blur (orange lines) around Trump silhouette are signs that this image has been modified from the original. The brightness of his right hand and sleeve are different than other parts in the picture (yellow circles), suggesting it was altered. InVID analysis (right) identified specific signs of forgery, suggesting different images had been combined to create this one. (Source: @danielsuarezper/DFRLab via InVID)

Despite the fact that Castillo frequently amplifies false images, he often calls out journalists for publishing what he calls “fake news.”

On February 11, 2020, Spanish journalist Esther Yáñez tweeted a picture of Guaidó being attacked when he arrived at Maiquetía airport in Caracas following his international tour to Europe and the Americas. In the post, she claimed Guaidó was “apaleado” (“beaten,” in this context) by Chavista groups upon arrival. In response, Castillo deployed “distraction,” one of the 4 D’s of disinformation, by arguing semantics and saying Guaidó had not been “apaleado.” He supported this assertion by quoting the Real Academia Española (RAE), the Spanish language’s highest linguistic authority, to explain that the word “apaleado” literally means to be beaten “with a stick.” Indeed, Castillo would be correct under that definition, as no videos or images currently available show clearly that Guaidó had been assaulted with a stick. That said, Yáñez replied that the word can be used in a figurative way meaning “to be beaten” generally and not necessarily with sticks.

This was not the first time that Castillo has attacked Yáñez online. A Twitter search showed that Castillo mentioned or replied to her 11 times since March 27, 2017, often accusing her of spreading “fake news.” In a long thread, Yáñezexplained that Castillo’s tweet challenging her report of Guaidó’s arrival appeared at the same time she was harassed by other Twitter accounts. These attacks, according to her, were personal and “racist” in referencing her country of origin. They also mentioned her family.

Local independent media outlet Efecto Cocuyo, meanwhile, supported Yáñez’s claim that Guaidó and those accompanying him had been assaulted, elaborating further that Guaidó and the journalists with him had been “chased” with sticks, water, and rocks. News agency EFE also published a video showing a crowd greeting Guaidó with “fists and blunt objects.” Spanish news outlet El País posted a similar video that compiled a number of open-source clips and that clearly showed objects being thrown at Guaidó’s car as it tried to get free of the crowd.

Castillo directed other attacks at journalists and organizations that denounced the confrontation at Maiquetía airport. Among other claims, Castillo said a public protest by journalists near the Venezuelan attorney’s office following Guaidó’s arrival (and the ensuing physical escalation) was intended to create a “circus and play the victim.”

This behavior – spreading false claims as a means of diminishing or mocking rivals – is similar or supported by other members of the regime. Nicolás Maduro, for example, has retweeted Castillo’s tweets targeting Duque and Guaidó (alongside Trump).

Talk of the Country

In the Media

On February 19, 2020, news agency Reuters published “Convicted criminals are among the special police terrorizing Venezuela.” The article revealed violent crimes allegedly committed by the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES) [Special Action Force of Venezuela]. On November 13, 2019, Reutersstarted an investigation of 20 extrajudicial killings in which FAES members were allegedly involved. In this resulting report, the news agency confirmed that “some of the squad’s officers are convicted criminals.” Reuters based its findings on stories from human rights groups, opposition politicians, and victim’s relatives included in documents submitted by prosecutors working on a double-homicide case. On Twitter on February 21, Angus Berwick, one of the journalists involved in the investigation, denounced pro-Maduro media, which started “to attack our work […] according to them, we did not show ‘any name or proof.’”

On February 24, English media outlet The Guardian published “‘They wanted a better life’: the young Venezuelans escaping into Brazil alone.” It is the last of a series of four stories about how Venezuela’s “historic meltdown is affecting its youngest and most vulnerable citizens.” This final article in the series described testimonies from children and Brazilian authorities. According to official reports quoted by The Guardian, 25,000 unaccompanied minors had left Venezuela since 2015 – mostly for Colombia and Brazil – and “at least 422 Venezuelan children and teenagers entered Brazil through its northern border without their parents or guardians […] Some were as young as 11.”

What’s Trending

On Social Media

The hashtag #TwitterDevuelveLasCuentas (“Twitter give back the accounts”) trended on Twitter between February 22 and February 23, 2020, according to Trendinalia. Pro-Maduro regime accounts were the most active in promoting the hashtag to demand Twitter reactivate suspended accounts. The accounts promoting the hashtag were also involved in the amplification of other pro-Maduro hashtags, such as @BetzaliDiaz (archive) and @NellyPSUVYa (archive).

Official Statements

El análisis indica que 1 de cada 5 hogares (17,8%) en Venezuela tiene un nivel de consumo de comida inaceptable, de los cuales 12,3% consume el mínimo de comida necesario. Asimismo, alertan sobre la falta de diversidad dietética lo cual indica una ingesta nutricional inadecuada.”

“The analysis indicates that 1 in 5 households in Venezuela (17.8 percent) has an unacceptable food consumption level, of which 12.3 percent consume the minimum amount of food necessary [to survive]. They also warn about the lack of dietary diversity, which indicates an inappropriate nutritional intake.” – Miguel Pizarro, Juan Guaidó’s representative to the United Nations, on Twitter on February 23. Pizarro exposed a World Food Program report that also found 6 in 10 households “do not have enough income to cover their food needs” because of the economic crisis.

Asesinaron a la República, pero Venezuela vive en cada uno de ustedes […] Yo pido que el próximo 10 de marzo vayamos cada uno de los sectores a presentar su Pliego [Nacional] del Conflicto para lograr la solución a la crisis. Que vayamos juntos a la Asamblea Nacional […] porque vamos a lograr la libertad. No, no estamos dormidos, estamos preparando el momento oportuno”.

“They murdered the Republic, but Venezuela lives in every one of you […] I ask that, by March 10, every one of our segments report their National Conflict Set of Demands to arrive at a solution to the crisis. We will go together to the National Assembly […] because we will get freedom. No, we are not asleep, we are preparing for the right opportunity.” – Juan Guaidó on YouTube on February 21. Guaidó explained his new strategy for a transition to democracy and “a real free presidential election” in Venezuela. This collective proposal will be unveiled during a National Assembly session on March 10.

Our Team in the News

Esteban Ponce de León, research assistant for Latin America with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, spoke withEl Diario about Twitter accounts supportive of the Maduro regime engaging in anti-Guaidó narratives.

Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, was interviewed by CNN on the Rosneft trade sanctions the Trump Administration imposed on Tuesday, January 18.

Diego Area, associate director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, gave an on-camera interview to Univision discussing the implications of U.S. sanctions for the Maduro regime. event on Maduro’s gold mining operations reentered the news on February 13 when new revelations arose regarding the regime laundering money through Swiss banks. Lisseth Boon, an investigative journalist who spoke at the event, was quoted in an Infobae article in Argentina. The article was republished in Venezuela Unida and La Patilla in Venezuela.

Recent Analyses

From the DFRLab: On Wednesday, February 19, the DFRLab published “Anti-Guaidó and anti-Maduro hashtags trended on Twitter boosted by right-wing movements,” an article that built on last week’s newsletter, analyzing tweets by right-wing movements that are asking for military intervention and misleadingly claiming that Guaidó supported the Maduro regime.

From the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: Reacting to Spain’s president rejecting a meeting with Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó, Cristina Guevaraprogram assistant at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, wrote a blog post for the New Atlanticist.

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