#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.
Venezuelan Twitter accounts pushed Kremlin messaging on vaccine trials in Latin America
After the Kremlin announced that Sputnik V – the Russian-funded vaccine for COVID‑19 – would be disseminated in Latin America during phase three trials, accounts aligned with the Maduro regime were the most engaged-with on Twitter promoting “Sputnik V.” On Venezuelan Twitter, the keyword “Sputnik V” trended on September 8 and September 9, pushed by accounts belonging to pro-Maduro media and organizations.
On September 4, 2020, experts developing the vaccine published a piece in independent medical journal The Lancet presentingthe phase one and two trial results. The team, funded by the Russian Ministry of Health, claimed the vaccine was safe. On September 9, Nicolás Maduro claimed Venezuela had signed agreements with Russia that would allow it to produce the vaccine locally. Maduro also suggested all of the 14,000 candidates running for office could potentially be vaccinated before the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for December 6. The Kremlin, however, said on its Sputnik V website that, as of September 14, Mexico and Brazil would be the first Latin American countries to receive vaccine doses in November 2020.
A DFRLab search using social media listening tool Brandwatch showed that, between September 8 and September 14, “Sputnik V” amassed 45,688 mentions, of which 23,396 belonged to accounts with locations displayed in their Twitter profile. Venezuelan accounts were the most active using “Sputnik V,” with 7,323 mentions, followed by Mexico (4,492) and Argentina (1,468).
Accounts belonging to Venezuelan media and Maduro regime organizations appeared among the most retweeted posts using “Sputnik V.” Maduro-funded TV channel VTV and Maduro’s Ministry of Science and Technology garnered 978 and 802 retweets, respectively. Both accounts tweeted that Venezuelan state-owned company Espromed BIO would be producing the Russian vaccine.
The most used hashtags alongside “Sputnik V” were also used by accounts aligned with the Maduro regime. A DFRLab search using social media listening tool Meltwater Explore showed the accounts used the pro-Maduro hashtags #EconomiaProductivayParticipativa (“Productive and participatory economy”), #SaludAlServicioDelPueblo (“Healthcare for the people”), and #NotiMippCI (“Ministry of Communications news”). The hashtags were first used alongside “Sputnik V” by VTV and pro-Maduro accounts @Alejandro_VBG and @nanciparra1.
The DFRLab previously identified pro-Maduro accounts that promoted Russian narratives in Latin America about partially tested developments on medicines and vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Between August 1 and August 4, 2020, Venezuela was the most popular user-defined location among the accounts that used both #Rusia and “Avifavir.” The accounts used #Rusia (the Spanish spelling of “Russia”) to promote the Russian vaccine trials, while “Avifavir” is the name of a Russian drug that will be commercialized in Latin America to treat COVID-19. At the time of writing, the Kremlin had yet to mention Venezuela as one of the Latin American countries that would receive the vaccine or the medicine.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On September 14, U.S. media outlet CNN published “‘I thought I was going to die.’ Inside Venezuela’s mandatory quarantine motels.” CNN interviewed patients suspected of having the novel coronavirus who have been quarantined in motels at the Maduro regime’s direction. CNN said the Maduro regime had made this decision in an effort to keep suspected infected patients from “overburdening the country’s already depleted and crumbling hospitals.” According to one patient quoted by CNN, the Maduro regime isolated the patient from her family as well as controlled “from where she slept to what she ate” after she lost her father due to COVID‑19. The outlet further described that, while the patient was locked in her motel room in Maracaibo, however, electricity was intermittent and the plumbing for the toilet similarly malfunctioned. CNN also interviewed doctors in Maracaibo who revealed that the Central University Hospital has nine available intensive care unit beds, water and electricity services cutoffs, and “one x‑ray machine that hasn’t worked in months.” CNN showed that there is no official data on the number of suspected patients put under state-managed quarantine, nevertheless, doctors, nongovernmental organization workers, and experts told CNN that over 22,500 people could be in mandatory quarantine facilities.
On September 13 in Venezuela, independent website Prodavinci published “¿Qué está pasando con el Remdesivir en Venezuela?” (“What is happening with Remdesivir in Venezuela?”). The article described how Venezuelans infected with COVID-19 get Remdesivir, one of the medicines accepted by the Maduro regime and the World Health Organization to treat the virus in the country. Prodavinci said Venezuelans have to pay between $2,580 and $3,400 to obtain a full regimen of the medicine. Although in Venezuela access to medical attention and drugs is free, Prodavinci found cases where the Maduro regime has not been able to provide some drugs to COVID-19 patients in a timely manner. Prodavinci reproduced the testimony of a family that was swindled by a Twitter account operator who offered to transport a full free dose of Remdesivir in exchange for money. After the relatives of the patient transferred the money, however, the supposed donor disappeared. Prodavinci identified 184 tweets in which Venezuelans asked for Remdesivir between August 25 and September 12.
On Social Media
Accounts belonging to Venezuelans teachers and educational organizations not aligned with the Maduro regime pushed #ConCovidYHambreNoHayClases (“With COVID-19 and hunger, there are no [educational] classes”). #ConCovidYHambreNoHayClases trended on Venezuelan Twitter on September 9. @PitazoVargas, a self-described teacher, journalist, and democrat, was the most active account to use the hashtag. @PitazoVargas claimed Maduro’s Minister of Education Aristóbulo Istúriz had been spending time on his yacht while Venezuelans teachers “have nothing in the fridge.” The accounts using #ConCovidYHambreNoHayClases rejected Maduro’s previous plan to resume a regular class schedule in-person and online. On September 14, Maduro said in-person classes would start in 2021 while online classes would start earlier through television programs and the internet.
Es una guerra de venganza del imperio gringo contra Venezuela para impedir que Venezuela produzca todos los derivados del petróleo. Han llegado a un nivel de locura. Ha sido capturado este espía, fue detectado este plan y estamos nostros activados al cien por ciento.”
“It is an imperial gringo war of vengeance against Venezuela to prevent the country from producing all oil products. They have reached a level of madness. This spy has been captured, this plan was detected, and we are one hundred percent activated.”
A esta hora más y más vecinos se suman a las protestas en el #Zulia por la deficiencia del servicio eléctrico. El régimen pretende mantener a los zulianos en aislamiento sin comida, sin agua, sin gas y sin electricidad. ¡Miserables! #14Sep.”
“At this time more and more neighbors join the protests in #Zulia [state] because of the electrical service deficiency. The regime aims to keep Zulians in isolation without food, water, gas, and electricity. Miserable! #14Sep.”
– Juan Pablo Guanipa, the first vice president of the National Assembly, on Twitter on September 14. In Maracaibo, capital of Venezuela’s Zulia state, at least four demonstrations were registered on September 14 after electricity blackouts – that have lasted up to 12 hours – affected the city.
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