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Note: This article was originally published by Medianálisis, an organization founded with the objective of promoting discussion and the role of independent and local journalism in Venezuela. Throughout its first decade of work, it has held more than 300 training workshops for journalists and public discussion forums, has conducted national surveys on the situation of journalism in Venezuela five times, and has published two research books. Likewise, it has conducted two dozen studies that constitute a diagnosis of journalism and freedom of expression.
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There was a time when the democratic opposition used to drive public conversation on Twitter. However, the relevance achieved by the opposition leadership, headed by former governor and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, gave way to a conversation in which hashtags boosted by Chavismo predominate today as a result of the Maduro administration’s strategy to take control of the conversation on the social media platform.
Between December 2015 and April 2017, the government’s aim was not just to promote Nicolás Maduro’s Twitter account, or that of any ruling-party leader, but rather to drive the conversation.
At one end of this thread is the readjustment that Chavismo experienced after the resounding electoral defeat that allowed the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) to legitimately take over the National Assembly. Conversely, there was a political decision to repress the widespread social unrest between April and July 2017, in a clear demonstration that power would not be easily relinquished.
Chavismo, aware of its minority status, took a turn in its communication policy. At the peak of popularity of its founding father, Hugo Chávez, between 2007 and 2010, the strategy was to show that it represented the views of the majority. Starting in 2015, Chavismo moved to a policy of an organized minority, working in an orchestrated manner to subdue a discontented majority. The latter, as we have witnessed, is scattered and fragmented, thereby encountering serious difficulties in efforts to trigger a democratic transition.
Since the non-competitive election of the National Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, ANC) and its constitutionally questionable establishment in July 2017, Maduro’s regime began to walk the path of massive rejection by the West. Over 50 countries, mainly in Europe and the Americas, deemed the ANC illegitimate.
However, even with an illegitimate ANC, Maduro received political and diplomatic support from China, Russia, and Turkey. These countries have three things in common: they are ranked among the nations where human rights—particularly freedom of expression—are openly violated according to international ratings; they are nations with decisive influence on international politics, granting them a mantle of protection despite their restriction of freedoms; and, lastly, all three countries implement state policies aimed at targeting their citizens with disinformation, causing chaos in the global news landscape.
In 2020, we saw the result of the strategy developed between 2015 and 2017. Chavismo has built a “virtual majority.” In particular, it has transitioned to co-opting and appropriating Twitter dynamics, while relying on allied regimes to accelerate its overall learning curve.
Data gathered in July from the digital realm observatory Probox is overwhelming. Of a total 191 tags on political and social issues trending in Venezuela throughout the past month, Chavismo totaled 6.6 million tweets against 209,000 from the opposition.
From accounts of government agencies, to communication and propaganda offices of the regime and other digital activists, Chavismo-related posts were shared 30 times more than messages from pro-democracy accounts. An organized minority can subdue the majority, even on social media, in this case being Twitter.
Of the top 191 trends in Venezuela reviewed in July 2020, a total of 66 were hashtags generated from, promoted by, or orchestrated among the conglomerate of Twitter accounts aligned with Chavista propaganda. Undoubtedly, Chavismo strategists succeed at creating a virtual reality that promotes a general spreading of disinformation.
Their solution was not to close media outlets or imprison journalists—practices that are still implemented in Venezuela when the regime deems necessary. Instead, day by day, a kind of “supra-reality” is being constructed, through tags, that has turned a nationwide trend toward democracy.
A more specific example of this strategy at work can be seen by examining the pensions in Venezuela, which on July 23 were equivalent to USD $2 per month. The pensions were the object of an online protest around which political and social stakeholders converged. Likewise, various journalists critical of the Maduro government echoed two hashtags that positioned themselves among the trending topics of July 23: #PensionesDignasYa (#DecentPensionsNow) and #PorPensionJustayDigna (#ForFairAndDecentPensions). The first reached almost 36,000 tweets and the second a little over 8,000.
These two labels, which simply raised the standard of social justice, were met that day with a response from Chavismo: #SoberaníaAlimentaria (#FoodSovereignty), with 165,000 tweets, and #RevoluciónEsAmorMayor (#RevolutionIsTheGreatestLove), with 95,000 tweets.
The “supra-reality” far surpassed any true reality shared on screens worldwide via Twitter. It is through this social media platform that bots—software that enables human operatives to manage multiple accounts and devote themselves to positioning topics or discrediting public personalities—act in an orchestrated manner and often with malicious intent.
For example, in July Chavismo laid the groundwork to elect a new National Assembly on December 6. Election observers and analysts widely criticized the election process as flawed, but the reality that Chavismo constructed, and continues to build, is different—as is evident in the trending topics #TiempoDeElegir (#TimeToChoose, 07/12/2020) and #ParticipaYElige (#ParticipateAndChoose, 07/29/2020). Moreover, on July 30 the tag #3AñosDeVictoriaDemocrática (#3YearsDemocraticVictory was trending), such a tone concerning the institutionally-ludicrous ANC exemplifies a particularly undemocratic political initiative.
The current disinformation campaign does not impose direct censorship, as Chavismo did years ago and will do again if necessary, but instead saturates the news ecosystem with alternative realities and perspectives to counteract any movement deemed to be harmful to the current regime.
The time since Henrique Capriles could generate a trend with his Twitter “cannon” of 7.2 million followers is very far away indeed. The “golden age of Twitter” in Venezuela, which housed his former governor and presidential candidate as well as many other opposition leaders, has been replaced by a new social media era where Chavismo and other disinformation efforts have co-opted the narrative.