#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.
Facebook groups impersonating U.S. security forces shared content about Maduro regime
Three Facebook groups impersonating the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shared content about Maduro’s indictment for drug trafficking on March 26, 2020. Members of the groups posted links to articles published by Russian outlet RT and Venezuelan fringe websites. Facebook removed three groups and one page from the platform in response to the DFRLab’s investigation. A Facebook spokesperson told the DFRLab: We removed these groups for impersonation. We are grateful to the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab for bringing this information to our attention.
On March 27, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Nicolás Maduro had been charged alongside 14 current and former members of the Maduro regime for narcoterrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other crimes. The U.S. State Department also announced a reward of $15 million for information leading to the capture of five of them, including Maduro.
Maduro and his supporters reacted by dismissing the charges against them, claiming that the United States, Colombia, and Juan Guaidó were involved in a plot to kill Maduro and attack Venezuela amidst the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Content about Maduro’s indictment appeared on one Facebook group impersonating DHS, and two separategroups impersonating the FBI. Members of all three groups shared posts linking to articles by RT and Venezuelan fringe websites between March 26-30, 2020. The DFRLab previously identified this behavior on two websites that routinely published anti-Maduro content and used inauthentic assets impersonating media outlets on Facebook to amplify their material.
DHS and the FBI have verified Facebook pages but do not maintain discussion groups on Facebook. Given this absence of official Facebook groups, the imposter groups were able to position themselves as authentic, using the same names and – in two of the three cases – their official government logos.
The fake DHS group was created on December 31, 2017, and has 4,433 members. The group listed three separate administrators, one of them is a page named Homeland Security Intelligence Division.
The two Facebook groups impersonating the FBI used similar names. One of them was given the name “FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation,” while the other had the same name, but without the hyphen. The first group was created on June 11, 2016, and has 5,776 members, while the second one launched on December 27, 2012, and included 2,521 members.
Members of the three groups posted news about different topics around the world, most of them in English. The DFRLab identified six accounts publishing content in Spanish and English about Maduro or Venezuela. One particularaccount, purporting itself as member of the CIA and the United Nations Volunteer Program, shared a link to an article published by Venezuelan fringe website el-espectador.com. The article featured a quote allegedly by Maduro criticizing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), though it did not reveal where or when Maduro made those remarks.
On March 27, a member of the “FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation” group published an article from Venezuelan fringe website el-espectador.com. (Source: DFRLab via FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation/archive)
The DFRLab previously identified that el-espectador.com is connected to other assets impersonating media outlets on Facebook. After publishing this investigation, Facebook removed 18 assets – fan pages, groups and individual accounts – from the platform. According to Facebook, these assets “used deceptive and spammy tactics to drive people to websites to generate ad impressions.”
Website el-espectador.com (green box) uses same publisher platforms – i.e. Google Analytics account – as the fringe websites alexsnews.com and sharesocial.app (red boxes) connected to Facebook assets impersonating media outlets. (Source: DFRLab via DNSAnalytics)
The three fake groups also featured an article by Russian media outlet RT. The individual that posted the link describes herself as “spy catcher, ghostbuster,” and an employee of “Umbrella Corporation,” a fictional medical enterprise in the Resident Evil gaming and cinematic franchise. The account claims to be in the United States and all of her public posts are written in Spanish.
The RT article was published on March 26, the same day U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Maduro’s indictment. It discusses different ways the United States might capture Maduro, comparing his situation with former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. The Russian outlet described Maduro as Venezuela’s “head of State,” though Maduro is not recognized by the United States as Venezuela’s rightful president.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On March 26, Colombia’s media outlet El Tiempo published an article about the indictment made by the United States against Maduro. The article described how U.S. President Donald Trump offered $15 million for his capture while noting how Maduro “leads a network that profits from drug trafficking and sponsors terrorism in the Latin American region.” The publication pointed out that the U.S. State Department believes the Maduro regime has links with Colombian guerrillas and foreign terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. The article garnered 434,500 interactions on Facebook between March 26-30, 2020, according to a query using the listening tool BuzzSumo. The story about the indictment against Maduro was also published by other foreign media outlets, including bbc.com, nytimes.com, larepublica.pe, and dw.com, garnering more than 650,000 interactions on Facebook and Twitter combined.
On March 26, Venezuelan independent news outlet RunRun.es published “Cronología de incongruencias y opacidad en cifras oficiales de COVID-19 en Venezuela” (“Chronology of inconsistencies and opacity in the official numbers of COVID-19 in Venezuela”). The article described official announcements made by Maduro’s government about confirmed COVID-19 cases in Venezuela between March 13-25. According to RunRun.es, inconsistencies on the data began on March 16 after Maduro announced 13 cases in Miranda state, while Miranda’s governor confirmed 17 cases. On March 19, Maduro’s Minister of Communication Jorge Rodríguez confirmed a total of 42 COVID-19 cases in Venezuela, indicating that 19 out of 42 occurred in Miranda. Nevertheless, Miranda’s governor posted on Twitter data suggesting the total confirmed cases had climbed to 23. Other inconsistencies occurred in the states of Portuguesa and Táchira, after both states went from one confirmed case each to zero without any explanation on March 24.
On Social Media
The hashtag #CubaSalvaVidas (“Cuba saves lives”) trended on Twitter on March 26-27, 2020. The hashtag trended in Venezuela promoting a Cuban medical delegation that arrived in different countries to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The hashtag garnered 128,972 mentions globally. Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, president of Cuba’s Consejo de Estado (“State Council”), was among those who tweeted the hashtag.
Hombres con nombre y apellido vejaron a Andrea Bianchi, pareja de @RafaelRicoRamos quien es miembro de mi equipo. La desnudaron y abandonaron en la autopista tras secuestrarla, golpear a su madre y a amenazar con violarla.”
“Men who’ve been identified by their first and last names harassed Andrea Bianchi, the partner of @RafaelRicoRamos, who is a member of my team. She was stripped naked and left abandoned on the highway after they kidnapped her, and after they beat her mother and threatened to rape her.” – Juan Guaidó on Twitter on March 30.
En dos oportunidades en mi residencia han aparecido letreros amenazantes. En la oscuridad de la noche como actúa la tiranía cobarde colocaron este grafiti donde resido. Esta es la orden fascista de Maduro de marcar nuestras residencias para que sus colectivos armados actúen.”
“Threatening messages have appeared at my place of residence on two separate occasions. Under the cover of darkness, where the cowardly tyrants tend to operate, they defaced my residence with this graffiti [La furia Bolivariana (“Bolivarian fury”)]. This is an order from the fascist Maduro regime, to mark up our houses so the regime-backed armed colectivos know who to target.” – Alfredo Ramos, Iribarren former mayor and former Maduro regime political detainee, on Twitter on March 29.
Our team in the news
Diego Area was quoted in a Financial Times article on the effects of COVID-19 in Venezuela, given the country’s precarious state amid the crisis.
From the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: On Friday, March 27, the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, in partnership with the DFRLab, hosted a Spanish-language discussion with various #AlertaVenezuela partners on the impact of COVID-19 disinformation in Venezuela. Speakers included representatives from independent Venezuelan media outlet RunRun.es, Navarra University in Spain, and Probox, an NGO monitoring disinformation and artificial amplification on Venezuelan Twitter. Diego Area and Roberta Braga, associate directors at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and Luiza Bandeira, lead Latin America researcher and editorial assistant at the DFRLab, also offered their insights. Read the event summary in Spanish and English, and watch full the virtual conversation on YouTube. Share the one-minute summary video on Twitter using #AlertaVenezuela.
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