#AlertaVenezuela: March 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

Facebook assets impersonating CNN en Español and NTN24 promoted anti-Maduro content

Two Venezuelan fringe websites created Facebook groups and pages impersonating well-known media outlets to promote their own content, apparently motivated by profit. A fan page and two Facebook groups pretended to be CNN en Español (“CNN in Spanish”) and the Colombian television channel NTN24. These assets promoted anti-Maduro content published by two websites: Alexsnews.com and Sharesocial.app.
Facebook removed the fan page, two groups, and at least other 15 connected assets in response to the DFRLab’s investigation. A Facebook spokesperson said the pages and accounts “used deceptive and spammy tactics to drive people to websites to generate ad impressions.”

Graphic showing the connection of the websites to the Facebook groups and page through the Facebook admins. (Source: @danielsuarezper/DFRLab)

The DFRLab has previously identified similar behavior in which Facebook groups and fan pages took advantage of authentic media outlets’ credibility to reach a wider audience, such as during Bangladesh’s 2018 elections. This behavior serves two functions. First, it uses high-profile brands to draw in a larger audience more quickly. Second, by doing so, it undermines audience trust in the media outlets being impersonated.
The websites Alexsnews.com and ShareSocial.app used Facebook to generate more traffic. The websites appeared to be primarily profit-driven, as the DFRLab found that the content had been monetized through the advertising tools Google Adsense and Taboola.

Image shows that AlexNews and ShareSocial use the same Google Analytics ID. (Source: @jeanleroux/DFRLab via DNSlytics)

These fringe websites and Facebook assets were connected not only through their behavior, but also through the identities of their Facebook administrators and moderators. Two admins showed a closer relation: Facundo Delonuasand Alex Paz. Delonuas created the NTN24 Noticias Venezuela group and was the same person who registered AlexNews.com and ShareSocial.app. Paz was one of the common admins of both fake groups and shared a name with the individual that authored much of the content on the Alexsnews.com website.

Talk of the Country

In the Media

One of the most engaging stories regarding COVID-19 and Venezuelans this week came in response to an appeal made by a Venezuelan model to protect Venezuelan migrants’ livelihoods in Peru. On March 22, Peruvian legacy outletRPP Noticias published “Korina Rivadeneira sobre bono de S/380: ‘Esperemos que contemplen un monto para todos los venezolanos’” (“Korina Rivadeneira about $380 soles coupon [over $100 USD]: ‘We hope they consider aid for all Venezuelans’”). The article quoted an Instagram post by Venezuelan model Korina Rivadeneira, who asked the Peruvian government to include Venezuelan migrants in a cash benefit plan that the government announced during the national quarantine to fight the novel coronavirus. The article garnered 121,200 interactions on Facebook between March 22-24, 2020, according to a query using the listening tool BuzzSumo. Rivadeneira’s statement was also published by 10 other Peruvian outlets, including traditional media El Comercio and La República, and garnered over 950,000 interactions on Facebook and Twitter. It garnered more engagement than pieces published in Brazil and Colombia about COVID-19 in Venezuela.
On March 21, Venezuelan independent media Efecto Cocuyo reported that journalist Darvinson Rojas was detained while covering the coronavirus outbreak in Miranda state. The journalist claimed the regime lied about the number of COVID-19 cases in the state, hiding at least 28 cases. Rojas was detained alongside his parents by members of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES, or “Special Action Force”), a unit of the country’s National Bolivarian Police. Efecto Cocuyo said Rojas was prosecuted in a closed-door session without the presence of his lawyer or relatives on March 23. The official reason for his detention is still unknown, and the journalist remained under detention as of March 25. Meanwhile, Venezuelan independent outletRunrun.es reported that two  other journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak in Venezuela were detained on March 24.

What’s Trending

On Social Media

The hashtag #TrumpLevantaLasSancionesYa (“Trump, lift sanctions right now”) trended on Twitter on March 23, 2020. Pro-Maduro accounts promoted the hashtag to ask the U.S. government to lift sanctions against Venezuela during the coronavirus outbreak. According to the DFRLab’s assessment, the hashtag did not appear to be organic. Recently, pro-Maduro accounts pushed online campaigns and hashtags against U.S. sanctions, claiming they were the cause of the Venezuelan economic crisis.

Official Statements

Dicen que los documentos eran información inapropiada, los tres documentos científicos del doctor Sirio fueron censurados por Twitter. Y me borraron por primera vez un Twitter [sic] (…) ¿Por qué la censura contra el conocimiento científico ancestral de Venezuela? Ellos dicen que violamos las normas de Twitter ¿Qué normas violamos? Por un conjunto de propuestas científicas, y además por un conjunto de propuestas naturistas para reforzar la inmunología.” 

“They [Twitter] said the documents were inappropriate content; Twitter censored three scientific documents of [holistic] doctor Sirio [Quintero]. They also deleted one of my tweets for the first time. Why do they censor Venezuela’s ancient scientific knowledge? They said we violated Twitter rules. Which rules did we violate? [They did this because I posted] a set of scientific proposals, and a set of holistic medicine proposals to reinforce immunology.” – Nicolás Maduro reacting to Twitter’s decision to delete one of his posts. In a March 23 tweet, Maduro shared links with a herbal tea recipe he claimed were intended to cure COVID-19. The recipe was created by holistic doctor Sirio Quintero, a well-known conspiracy theorist. The supposed curative powers of the recipe were refuted by Venezuelan scientists. Twitter deleted Maduro’s post after announcing new policies to combat misleading information related to COVID-19 on the platform.

La dictadura pone en riesgo a los venezolanos debido a sus contradicciones y al mal manejo de la verdad y sus consecuencias. Ha habido incongruencias en los números ofrecidos y una ola de persecución, en medio de la tragedia, hacia quienes denuncian.#LaDictaduraMiente.”

“The dictatorship puts Venezuelans at risk with its contradictions and mismanagement of the truth and consequences [of not telling the truth]. There have been inconsistencies in their reports and a wave of persecution against those who denounce them amidst the tragedy. The dictatorship lies.” – Juan Guaidó on Twitter on March 23.

Recent Analyses

From the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: On Monday, March 23, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center hosted a virtual discussion with the Foreign Affairs Minister of El Salvador and the Chilean, Colombian, and Costa Rican ambassadors on steps being taken to combat the coronavirus outbreak and the possible implications for Latin America. Watch the videoconference and read the event summary.
Upcoming Event: Coronavirus and Disinformation in Latin America: A Look At Venezuela, Friday, March 27, 12:00 pm EDT: As the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela persists, disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 could have dire consequences for its already vulnerable population. Join the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and the Digital Forensic Research Lab on Friday, March 27, for a virtual Spanish-language discussion with key civil society and media working with us to counter disinformation in Venezuela.

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