#AlertaVenezuela: March 17, 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

Political narratives and misleading claims spread across the digital sphere as first COVID-19 cases confirmed in Venezuela

The confirmation of the first cases of the novel coronavirus in Venezuela led to the politicization of the outbreak and the spread of claims that were not supported by evidence.
Delcy Rodríguez, Maduro’s vice president, announced the first two cases in the country on March 13. According to her, the patients were Venezuelans who had traveled to the United States and Europe. On March 16, Maduroannounced a nationwide quarantine. At the time of publishing, 33 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Venezuela, according to public health dataaggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The regime reacted to COVID-19 by supporting allies and attacking its enemies. Even before the confirmation of the first cases, Maduro had already said that the Venezuelan health system – battered by the economic crisis –was prepared for the outbreak. He claimed the country had 10,000 Cuban-produced doses of the drug interferon (IFN alfa 2B), an anti-viral medication that has been used to alleviate the symptoms of patients in China. The efficacy of the medicine on the treatment of COVID-19 is still being investigated, according to the Venezuelan fact-checking website Espaja.com. 
Other Maduro regime officials used the COVID-19 outbreak to complain about U.S.-imposed sanctions. Tarek William Saab, Maduro’s general prosecutor,said the regime cannot make foreign purchases of medicines, medical equipment, or food due to the U.S. sanctions “supported by the Venezuelan opposition.” Saab condemned U.S. policy as “morally and ethically unacceptable” on the same morning Maduro’s Vice President Rodríguez announced the firsts two cases of COVID-19.
Miguel Pizarro, Juan Guaidó’s United Nations commissioner, reacted to Saab’s statements on March 14, saying the COVID-19 outbreak cannot be used to nurture “political narratives.” He announced that Guaidó’s interim government, recognized by some 50 countries, was working with international agencies and foreign governments to support Venezuelans during the health crisis. This came two days after Guaidó published a video claiming that the U.S. sanctions had not harmed the Venezuelan health system, citing 2019 funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to support Venezuelan vaccine programs.
Additionally, Venezuela also saw the appearance of misleading COVID-19 claims in the digital sphere. An unfounded claim that Diosdado Cabello, the regime’s number two, could be infected appeared in the media and was amplified by YouTube channel Social News. The YouTube video was the most viewed about Venezuela after the confirmation of the first people infected by COVID-19 between March 12 and March 16, according to a search using BuzzSumo.
In the video, a presenter read two media articles that claimed Diosdado was in contact with people who in turn were in contact with another individual suspected of having the virus. He was not in contact with the individual in question, however, and the error was due to a photo misattribution. The presenter said at the end of the video she was “happy” because that was “an indication that the Chavismo might be infected.”
The video was published on March 14 and reached 232,801 views by March 16. According to an analysis using social media tool CrowdTangle, the video garnered 3,808 interactions on Facebook.

YouTube channel Social News’ video about Diosdado Cabello (red box) was the third most watched about Venezuela. (Source: @danielsuarezper/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Talk of the Country

In the Media

On March 14, the Italian outlet FarodiRoma published an article in which Giulio Gallera, an official in the region of Lombardy, announced a proposal to hire healthcare personnel from Venezuela, Cuba, and China to support the local fight against COVID-19. The article was the most engaged with on social media between March 12-16 that mentioned Venezuela, according to a search using BuzzSumo, garnering 261,400 interactions on Facebook. According to the Venezuelan fact-checking website Espaja.com, Gallera later published a press release explaining that the Venezuelan healthcare personnel he considered hiring were residents in Italy and did not have any relationship with the Maduro regime.
On March 13, BBC News Mundo published “Coronavirus en Venezuela: cuán preparado está el país para enfrentar la pandemia después de confirmar sus dos primeros casos” (“Coronavirus in Venezuela: how prepared is the country to face the pandemic after confirming its first two cases”). The article cited a report that found that 53 percent of Venezuelan hospitals do not have masks for healthcare personnel, and none had isolation areas for infected patients.

What’s Trending

On Social Media

The hashtag #NoMásSancionesGuaidó (“No more sanctions Guaidó”) trended on Twitter on March 15, 2020. The hashtag was used by pro-Maduro accounts to criticize Guaidó, accused by them of supporting U.S. sanctions.

Official Statements

A partir de este caso, nuestros expertos alertan sobre el crecimiento exponencial en la ciudad de Cúcuta con graves riesgos a la población. El Sr @IvanDuque desatiende gravemente el bienestar y la salud del pueblo, al tiempo que amenaza a la población venezolana fronteriza!”

“Starting with this case [a Venezuelan infected in Cúcuta, Colombia], our experts warn about exponential growth in Cúcuta, which could expose our population to serious risks. Mr. [Colombian President] Iván Duque neglects critical people’s welfare and health, while at the same time threatening the Venezuelan border population!” – Delcy Rodríguez, Maduro’s vice president, onTwitter on March 14, complaining that the Colombian president had not coordinated efforts along the border with Venezuela. Colombia closed the border with Venezuela as a reaction to the novel coronavirus. On March 16, Duque said he would coordinate with the Maduro regime but stressed that this did not mean that he recognized the legitimacy of the regime. 

Venezuela es uno de los países más vulnerables ante un brote de coronavirus debido [a] la emergencia humanitaria compleja que hemos denunciado durante años. Eso nos expone mucho más, y por eso, vamos a tomar medidas.”

“Venezuela is one of the most vulnerable countries to a coronavirus outbreak due to the complex humanitarian emergency we have been denouncing for years. We are more exposed, thus we are going to take action.” – Juan Guaidó on Twitter on March 12. 

Our team in the news

The Venezuelan independent outlet Runrun.es, and one of our media partners in this effortfeatured the #AlertaVenezuela article “Maduro’s attempt to exploit coronavirus outbreak backfires on social media” on March 12.
On March 11, Venezuelan outlet El Pitazo, another media partner in this effort,republished in Spanish the #AlertaVenezuela analysis of the hashtag #LasSancionesSonUnCrimen (“Sanctions are a crime”) that first appeared in the March 10 newsletter.

Recent Analyses

From the DFRLab: On Thursday, March 12, the DFRLab published “Operation Copy/Paste: Twitter network artificially amplified anti-Guaidó hashtags.” This report explains how 3,530 accounts used random text, including Wikipedia entries, Bible psalms, poems, and song lyrics, to post anti-Guaidó hashtags on Twitter in a likely attempt to avoid detection. This article is the second part of an investigation that exposed the inauthentic behavior of this network.  
On Wednesday, March 11, the DFRLab published “Maduro’s attempt to exploit coronavirus outbreak backfires on social media.” The article analyses Maduro’s false claims that COVID-19 might have been created by the United States for biological warfare against China. Maduro’s theory did not gain much traction on social media, instead leading to Twitter accounts discussing whether Venezuela’s health infrastructure could deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

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