#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.
Groups coordinate on Telegram to boost pro-regime hashtags in exchange for money
A DFRLab investigation into Telegram groups found clues about how the Maduro regime rewards users for promoting hashtags on Twitter. In these groups, users suggested that, in order to be paid the government bonus, a person needs to tweet at least 400 times per day, seven days a week. The payment can amount to some 384,000 bolívares – or between $0.21 and $0.22 U.S. cents per week (according to Maduro’s or the unofficial exchange rates on February 2, 2021, respectively), roughly one third of the “integral minimum wage.”
In February 2019, the DFRLab revealed that the regime paid citizens to boost pro-regime hashtags promoted by Venezuela’s Communication Ministry (Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación e Información, in Spanish). At the time, the accounts that tweeted the most were flagged by an account named “Tuiteros Venezuela,” which had an agreement with a regime app that gave citizens cash bonuses in the scope of the “Carnet de la Patria” (Homeland Card) program.
In October 2019, the first edition of #AlertaVenezuela showed that Twitter had removed the Tuiteros Venezuela account. An account for “Carnet de La Patria,” another important piece of the strategy, was also suspended. Yet, there is evidence that that aspect of the scheme is still ongoing, only more covertly.
In the closed messaging app Telegram, the DFRLab found seven Venezuelan groups named “tuiteros” or “twiteros” (tweeters, in Spanish). Users of at least two of these groups shared instructions about how a person could become a “tuitero.” According to these informal guides, a person has to connect their Twitter account with the “Carnet de la Patria” online system. It is necessary to tweet at least 400 times a day to get the benefits. The guide advises users to commit to a five-second interval between tweets and to tweet 100 posts, wait for one hour, and then start posting again, in order to evade Twitter spam policies.
The guide also offered a glimpse of the amount of money that the regime offers tweeters. According to the amount of time that they tweet, they are classified as “first place,” “second place,” and “third place,” and it is also possible to get a “special mention.” A “special mention” is worth 192,000 bolívares (approximately $0.11 USD, as of February 1), and the “first place” receives 384,000 bolívares (approximately $0.21 USD) per week. On January 28, 2021, the minimum wage was 1,200,000 bolívares, or $0.68 USD. Other messages shared on these groups corroborated the values.
Although it is difficult to verify the authenticity of the messages, other evidence that Venezuelans are still being rewarded for posting can be found on Twitter. Some of the most active users sharing the Communication Ministry’s “hashtag of the day” by the end of January had images of badges awarded to active tweeters by the regime’s app.
Rewarding the most active tweeters appeared to be one of the mechanisms that allowed messages from the Venezuelan regime to reach the trending topics almost every day in Venezuela. Research from ProBox, #AlertaVenezuela’s partner organization, showed that pro-regime hashtags trend significantly more than other types of political hashtags in Venezuela. Fact-checking agency Cazadores de Fake News, however, showed that the conversation about these topics is restricted to a small group of very active accounts, which puts into question the effectiveness of the strategy.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On January 30, AP published “Venezuela hired Democratic Party donor for $6 million.” AP said that the Maduro regime hired Marcia Wiss’s Washington law firm in March 2017, when the Maduro regime “was lobbying to discourage the U.S. from imposing sanctions” against Maduro and its allies. AP described Wiss as “an international trade lawyer” who had made donations to the Democratic Party, “including a $1,500 contribution to Joe Biden last year.” Wiss told AP she did not do any lobbying work. According to AP, the agreement appeared on lobbying records that the Department of Justice and Juan Guaidó filed on January 29, 2021. According to social media listening tool CrowdTangle, the piece gathered 1,600 interactions on Facebook and Twitter combined between January 30 and February 1.
In Venezuela on January 30, independent website El Pitazo published “El creador de las ‘gotas milagrosas’ formó parte de la nómina de PDVSA por diez años” (“The inventor of ‘miracle drops’ was on PDVSA’s payroll for ten years”). El Pitazo investigated the criminal, academic, and work background of Raúl Antonio Ojeda Rondón, a chemical engineer and the Maduro regime’s principal investigator for Carvativir’s certification in Venezuela. Maduro has promoted Carvativir as a “miraculous” drug to cure COVID-19, but scientists have criticized Maduro because he has yet to provide scientific evidence to support his claims. According to El Pitazo, Ojeda worked for Maduro’s PDVSA between 2008 and 2017 and “was indirectly harmed” by the U.S. sanctions against the regime. El Pitazo also found that Maduro’s security forces arrested Ojeda on February 18, 2018, after accusations of corruption. El Pitazo said that there was no further information on Ojeda’s judiciary process and apparently was released from prison after the mediation of Maduro’s current Minister of Oil Tarek El Aissami. According to social media listening tool CrowdTangle, El Pitazo’s article garnered over 800 interactions on Facebook and Twitter combined between January 30 and February 1.
On Social Media
The hashtag #GarzonViolador (“Garzon is a rapist”) trended on Venezuelan Twitter on January 28. #GarzonViolador appeared after an Argentinian judge ordered the release of Humberto Garzón, who allegedly raped a Venezuelan woman in Buenos Aires, Argentina. According to a search using social media listening tool Meltwater Explore, accounts with locations set (by the operator) to Venezuela were among the most active using the hashtag, followed by accounts based in Argentina, with 42,309 and 25,558 mentions, respectively.
While the overriding goal of the United States is to support a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela through free and fair elections, he has long been clear — the President, that is — that his administration’s approach to Venezuela will focus on addressing the humanitarian situation, providing support to the Venezuelan people, and reinvigorating multilateral diplomacy.”
– Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, at a press briefing on January 26.
I want to examine, in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, whether and to what extent the adoption, maintenance, or implementation of sanctions hinders the full realization of the human rights of individuals. I will focus in particular on any negative impact that sanctions may have on the enjoyment of all human rights in Venezuela. I will also make recommendations on how any negative effects can be mitigated or eliminated.”
– Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and unilateral coercive measures, at a press conference on January 29.
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