An unbalanced pitched battle is being wielded at Twitterzuela. The exacerbated disproportionate number of messages from the Chavista political sector compared to those of the opposition has been corroborated through a study by Probox, the observatory of digital activity
Authors: Luisa Quintero | Saraí Coscojuela
On August 12, 2019, #GuaidoYLosReales (#GuaidoAndTheMoney) became a trending topic in Venezuela. In barely two hours and 50 minutes, 6,352 tweets where recorded including those words. Four days earlier, #VenezuelaResisteAlBloqueo (#VenezuelaResistsTheBlockade) produced 7,227 tweets in less time.
This is part of the “work” done by the government of Nicolás Maduro on Twitter to position its messages: some endorsing the “revolution” and others, attacking the rest of political players for the purposes of confusing the population by disseminating distorted or fake messages.
An unbalanced pitcher battle is being wielded at Twitterzuela. A troop of Twitter accounts of supporters of the regime of Nicolás Maduro spew out daily thousands of messages and hashtags saturating that social media, to neutralize adverse information and impose messages in pro of the regime with the objective of misinforming and influencing opinions.
The exacerbated and disproportionate number of messages from the Chavista sector compared to that tweeted by the opposition in Venezuela has been corroborated through studies that track Twitter accounts that are called bots, which are programmed to replicate or amplify slanderous messages. At a ratio of 97 to 3, from August 1st to 15th, 2019, 226,013 tweets generated by the Ministry of Communications and Information (Minci for its acronyms in Spanish) were counted, compared to 5,089 by the opposition, as revealed by a measurement conducted by Probox, an observatory created by Venezuelan researchers to monitor and analyze digital activities dedicated to combatting misinformation on the Internet.
Even among the radical Chavista and opposition users of social media there exists an ample margin: a total of 35,157 tweets with hashtags such as #TrumpVerguenzaMundial (#TrumpWorldwideEmbarrasment) and #ExigimosAGuiadoPreso (#WeDemandGuaidoGoToPrison) vis-á-vis 4,499 tweets with opposing hashtags such as #TrumpJaqueMateAlDictador (#TrumpCheckMatetoTheDictator) and #ElTiempoDeActuarEsAhora (#TheTimeToActIsNow).
This bombardment of tweets promoted by bots or accounts managed by persons behaving in the Internet as such occurred during a newsworthy “quiet” period, as juxtaposed to the accelerated rhythm of events that took place in Venezuela during the first semester of 2019. At the beginning of August, conversations were taking place in Barbados promoted by Norway to reach a political transition in the nation, which were suspended on August 7 by Maduro´s regime after the U.S. announced new sanctions against the oil industry. On August 8, the head of state called for a worldwide protest against Donald Trump and the blockade of Venezuela.
The official political party in Venezuela has adopted social media as the perfect field to misinform, as commented by Iria Puyosa, a researcher and consultant on political communications, public opinion and web-based strategy and researchers at the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory as well as researchers at Oxford University. This enables them to disseminate and position their messages, using combined social media strategies with the objective of amplifying the content thereof through users with automated account characteristics or acting as bots, and does so taking into account their nationwide level of penetration on Twitter. Close to 70% of the population counts on social media and messaging apps to obtain information on national politics, according to data from a survey conducted by More Consulting in May 2017.
In Venezuela, besides Facebook and instant messaging apps like Whatsapp, Twitter has the largest number of the population (one million 280 thousand active users per month) that search for specific content on that social media, generally political in nature.
On Twitter, bots help to disseminate and amplify messages whether they are true or not, thereby influencing debates or beliefs, “especially when social media are used in complex contexts in which the citizens count on them to receive information on national and worldwide events”, Probox pointed out.
In the Venezuelan scenario, Probox mentioned that Twitter gained protagonism compared to other media “due to communications censorship and the role of digital media in disseminating information to the citizens”.
Twitter is very important in Venezuela, since its platform is “easy to manipulate” through programs that override its algorithms, stated Luiza Bandeira, assistant researcher for Latin America at the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab), a division of Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council.
This “manipulation” is not only with the use of bots, Bandeira explained. Groups of persons or users are also involved in the activities of Nicolas Maduro’s government to position their messages and trending topics.
The DFRLab has managed to identify the most-often used trending topics or hashtags during a specific period of time which are created by the government. Some of the items of interest of the “Bolivarian revolution” also become trending topics through Twitter´s algorithms, Bandeira commented, since the app calculates the level of tweets and their development as time goes by, to predict the number of tweets a specific word can reach.
For this reason, it was observed that there are some trending topics on Twitter that barely reach a thousand tweets, the researcher of the DFRLab stated, at the same time as highlighting that algorithms position certain topics which otherwise would not have major dissemination.
In spite of this, she warned that Twitter has made changes to its infrastructure that does not permit automation, which derived in the suspension or shutting down of 1,196 accounts created in Venezuela which the social media considered to be “involved in a campaign of influence fostered by the State”.
The behavior of Maduro´s cyber-troop on Twitter is manual. It coincides with the instructions of the Project for the Forming of the Army of Trolls of the Bolivarian Revolution created in 2017 by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Justice and Peace to “battle media-based warfare”. It specifies the components of a “digital army”, detailing, for example, that each and every person (every cell phone) must be able to manage 23 accounts on the most important social media (including 10 on Twitter). At the time of its launch, the document indicated that they were counting on 500 Twitter accounts managed through Tweedeck, underscoring the importance of creating media “influencers”.
Uploading and downloading hashtags
From August 1st. to 15, the agenda of Maduro´s government went from promoting the negotiations with the mediation of Norway to condemning the sanctions imposed by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who ordered the freezing of all the assets and interests of the current regime in Venezuela.
These dynamics on the social media are not new, and least of all in Maduro´s government. Although a new trending topic on various issues is positioned every day on Twitter, during the first fortnight of August there was a special agenda for president Trump, pretending that these new measures by the United States were causing the crisis.
This agenda also included messages against the interim president and the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó.
On the night of August 5, information was published regarding the new U.S. sanctions, and the following day, Chancellor Jorge Arreaza published a communiqué calling these measures interfering and “aiming at formalizing the criminal and already ongoing economic, financial and commercial blockade, which has caused severe wounds to Venezuelan society in recent years”.
At the same time, another hashtag was trending on the social media, fostered by the Ministry of Communications and Information: #TrumpDesbloqueaVenezuela (#TrumpUnblockVenezuela), which trended for 8 hours and had 295 thousand tweets, 87% of which were promoted by bots.
The survey by Probox discovered that the source tweet with the hashtag #TrumDesbloqueaAVenezuela (#TrumpUnblockVenezuela) was institutional: the Twitter account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs @CancilleriaVe had promoted it on August 4, 2019, one day before the U.S. sanction order was leaked out, preceded by rumors about the imposing of sanctions. Two days later, it became a trending topic on social media.
Although the Ministry has an official line of trends, the more radical factions of the Chavista political party also have an agenda on social media, and that same day set a trending hashtag #ExigimosAGuaidoPreso (#WeDemandGuaidoGoToPrison), criticizing the posture and performance of the interim president, but also had a certain critical stance against Maduro’s government.
In that case, 32% of the tweets generated – attempting to portray the president of the Parliament as a traitor to the homeland – were also sent with the help of automated accounts.
The opposition stakes its place
However, institutional and radical Chavistas are not the only faction that is attempting to take over the agenda and opinions through social media. The study conducted by Probox was able to measure that the opposition – though with lesser impact – also responded to the sanctions imposed by Trump, showing that Maduro is responsible for the humanitarian emergency.
As in the Chavista political movement, the opposition fraction is also divided among institutional entities – the National Assembly – and the radicals who, based on the data collected by Probox in the course of the first two weeks of August, came from Vente, the political party created by María Corina Machado.
#ElCulpableEsMaduro (#TheGuiltyPartyIsMaduro) was a trending topic promoted mainly by the former governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski. This trending topic (which remained at the top for at least 4 hours) tried to explain that the nation’s economic crisis was not a result of the measures taken by the U.S. administration, but of the mistaken policies adopted by the regime of president Nicolás Maduro.
Likewise, the more radical faction participated with the hashtag #ElTiempoDeActuarEsAhora (#TheTimeToActIsNow), also as a way to support the declarations by former homeland security consultant John Bolton: “the time for dialogue has ended and it is time to step into action”.
The essence of tweets celebrated the U.S. measures and at the same time criticized the negotiation process. Some publications even came with a photo of Elliot Abrams, the White House special attaché for the Venezuela case, stating that “the military option for Venezuela is on the table”.
But the repercussions of this trending topic was lower than that of the radical and institutional Chavistas because, although it still continued for about 10 hours, it only produced a total of 2,945 tweets, 11% of which were via bot accounts, which produced 22% of the publications.
In this case, these tweets and trending topics were published from the accounts of Machado’s political party, but she did not participate directly nor did she publish tweets with that hashtag.
Sanctions versus persecution
After the suspension of the meetings in Barbados, the trending topic that positioned the government – likewise through the Ministry of Communications and Information – was #VenezuelaSeRespeta (#VenezuelaIsToBeRespected), which lasted 11 hours and 263 thousand tweets, through 24% of bot accounts that produced 83% of the content.
That same day, the opposition party also imposed a trending topic related to the one year anniversary of congressman Juan Requesens being imprisoned at the headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin for its acronyms in Spanish). The National Assembly, the family members of the parliamentarian and common citizens gathered in the Plaza de Los Palos Grandes in Caracas for an act which included interim president Juan Guaidó.
This trending topic continued for 14 hours but only generated 6940 tweets, also coming from 5% of automated accounts that generated el 21% of the tweets.
The radical faction of the opposition took up once again the topic of the sanctions through social media on August 8 for almost 4 hours, with the hashtag #LaSolucionEsLaIntervencionYA (#TheSolutionIsInterventionNow), while Maduro´s regime also presented its trending topic #VenezuelaDignaYSoberana (#VenezuelaDignifiedAndSovereign), when it sent a letter to the United Nations Organization (UN) asking the entity to pronounce itself against these measures.
Although with less impact, personal attacks on Twitter are another misinformation resource. In the period analyzed by Probox, all the darts launched from the Chavista political movement were aimed against Guaidó.
After the sanctions imposed by Trump, they made him responsible for the decision by Facebook to suspend the purchase of advertising from Venezuela, positioning #GuaidoJodioFacebook (#GuaidoFuckedupFacebook) as a trending topic, with 6,888 tweets for eight hours.
Another trending topic dedicated to the interim president was #GuaidoYLosReales (#GuaidoAndTheMoney), although it stayed trending only for two hours on Twitter. This hashtag was published one day after a possible dissolution of the National Assembly (AN for its acronyms in Spanish) was mentioned by the constituent National Assembly (ANC for its acronyms in Spanish).
Although in the end this did not happen, the ANC, led by Diosdado Cabello, decided to take no notice of the immunity of congressman Juan Pablo García (Vente-Monagas) and created a commission to study a possible advance date for the parliamentary elections.
For that reason, that same day, August 12, the opposition through the AN set an agenda on social media through hashtag #FirmesContraElRégimen (#FirmAgainstTheRegime), the main message of which was the defense of the Parliament. It was broadcast for 8 hours through 8% of bot accounts that published 19% of the tweets.
Unravelling the strategy
Iria Puyosa, a researcher and consultant on political communications, public opinion and web strategies, has conducted numerous studies on the manipulation by the Chavista movement on Twitter. In a report published in September 2018 about the “information war” on that social media, she concluded that the government of Maduro avails itself of three strategies to “place obstacles against diversity of expression online and has carried out undue interference against the political opposition and online organizations of civil society”.
These strategies consist in articulate official and automated accounts to reach trending topics daily; promote distracting hashtags through cyborg and bot accounts, using emotional, scandalous, misinforming, offensive and/or fake messages and sequestering hashtags broadcast by the opposition to undermine their discourse and interfere in the flow of their conversations.
On that point, Luiza Bandeira, assistant researcher at DFRLab, added that Venezuela is the first country in the region to use advanced strategies to misinform and position its messages within the social media, something political players – especially the official political party – understand, in amakeshift battle for control over communications.
The DFRLab assured that it has managed to compile verifiable complaints about the pressure exerted by the Maduro government on persons so that they tweet in exchange for government benefits. Bandeira pointed out that “in this, the Venezuelan strategy is more highly developed than in China or Russia, where the use of bots is more prevalent”.
For that purpose, accounts created from 2010 to 2012 were reactivated or new users were created on Twitter, especially during the Forum of Sao Paulo and the latest sanctions issued on August 5th by the administration of Donald Trump, as detailed by Esteban Ponce de León, assistant researcher at DFRLab, based in Colombia.
Puyosa stated that bots are tools within a complex strategy used since 2010 by the Bolivarian Communications and Information System (SIBCI for its acronyms in Spanish) and which were part of the “Chávez Candanga” mission, in homage to the Twitter user name of the deceased former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.
Firstly, the bot use lines were applied by the vice-presidency of the republic and later on passed into the hands of the Ministry of Communications and Information, Puyosa described. “Now they are more sophisticated”, she said. Coincidentally, those positions were held by brother and sister Jorge and Delcy Rodríguez, who have both had several government posts since the government of Hugo Chávez.
From their posts, they send off the lines and tweets to be used by the rest of the users, who will help position the trending topics of the day or the accounts from where the messages will be sent, Ponce de León explained, since the tweets do not always come from the official accounts of the ministries.
For Puyosa, the deployment of these strategies “represents a systematic violation of the right to participate in public affairs of Venezuelan Internet users. Therefore, they contribute to breach freedom of expression and association, the access to information and the right to participate in the debate on public affairs which are co-substantial to an Internet that is free, open and adjusted to the respect for human rights”.
But in Venezuela, bots are not the only option to position trending topics on social media. The study entitled El Orden Mundial de Desinformación (in English, the World Order of Misinformation), published in mid-October by Oxford University revealed that Venezuela – same as China and Vietnam – hire large groups of (flesh and blood) persons to shape the messages they want to broadcast on social media.
The report even classifies Venezuela as a country with a high cyber troop capacity, since they have a permanent staff of at least 500 persons with formal training and big budgets for “psychological operations or information warfare”. The study by Oxford University measured the activity of cyber-troops in 70 nations and found that in 26 of them IT propaganda has become a tool for information control, suppressing fundamental human rights, discrediting political opponents crushing unfavorable opinions.
But the digital strategy implemented by the government of Nicolás Maduro is not just focused on the nation´s internal politics. The study by Oxford University recorded that Venezuela – jointly with China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia – are the seven nations in the world conducting operations at a global scale.
The DFRLab indicated that Twitter accounts operating from Venezuela and identified as owned by “Chavistas” have attempted to influence national events in other countries. The latest case detected by the laboratory was in Chile, during the protests that began on October 16 after the price of the subway (called Metro in Chile) was increased, during which time Maduro´s government tried to position its message.
The report determined that of 24,764 accounts identified as Chavista and Venezuelan, at least 2,862 published 20,443 tweets of a total of 1.1 million. This represented 1.86% of the chirps. “However, all the Chavista accounts contributed with a much greater proportion of tweets, or 19.2% (106,626 publications)”, the DFRLab added.
In this case, it was underscored that they did not find any evidence of generalized automation, or that the discussion of the Chilean case on Twitter was totally inorganic. The protests in Chile were closely followed by the mass media and the Venezuelan political leaders.
But to aid to its narrative, the tweets of users identified as Chavista amplified messages from state-owned Russian media, highlighting police brutality during the protests in Chile. “This content also served the purposes of the narrative of the Venezuelan regime of debilitating the position of the Chilean government. It also served to distract the history of human rights in Venezuela”.
Fake Twitter accounts of supporters of Maduro´s government position hashtags in pro of dialogue and peace and against Donald Trump, which are automatically replicated by other bots. This is understood to be inorganic behavior on social media.
Date: August 2 to 15, 2019
Of a total of 226,013 tweets
27% originated by bots
81% generated inorganic replies
23% generated inorganic replies
7% originated by bots from a total of 5,089 tweets
Always ready to misinform
When the goal is to impose opinions on Twitter, one same fake account can replicate several hashtags promoted by the Maduro government.