Last February the world recoiled in horror after photos and testimonies allegedly showing and describing Venezuelan state violence against opposition protests spread through Twitter and Facebook. One viral article even declared a “tropical pogrom” was underway in the South American nation.
The Twitter hashtag #SOSVenezuela immediately emerged as a cry for help to the world to intervene.
The international media, especially in the United States, jumped at the opportunity to paint Venezuela in a negative, albeit misleading, light. And even some well-meaning folks on social media, without a comprehensive knowledge of Venezuelan politics, were seduced by the dramatic images and descriptions that seemed to chronicle peaceful protesters being repressed by Venezuelan government forces.
Except it didn’t happen.
Some of the most egregious and gruesome photos were fakes; they were photos taken from other parts of the world and passed off as being from Venezuela. A few others were indeed from Venezuela, but from a different year and different context.
“The opposition protests of 2014 were really decisive proof of both the strategic usefulness and the powerful dangers of social media,” George Ciccariello-Maher, Professor of Politics at Drexel University and author of “We Created Chavez,” told teleSUR. “False images and manipulated claims spread and circulated like wildfire, and while it was possible to discredit some – for example, images from other countries, other periods in history – by the time one was debunked, a dozen had emerged in its place.”
One example is a photo that showed a police officer roughly pulling a protester in a headlock. An accompanying tweet with the photo said “SOS repression in Venezuela URGENT that this photo go around the world.” However, the photo was a fake, dating back to 2011 student protests in Santiago, Chile.
Another particularly odious example claimed to show a Venezuelan police officer forcing a protester to perform oral sex on him. However, the photo, which was posted by Venezuelan actress Amanda Gutierrez, was from a U.S.-based porn site, something the actress later apologized for doing to her 228,000 Twitter followers. Her apology setting the record straight didn’t receive near as much attention as the original misinformation she posted with the photo.
A less inflammatory and more humanizing photo showed a young woman with her hands on the arms of an officer in line of riot police, her face obviously distressed as if crying and pleading with the officer. The photo was tweeted with the text, “You and I are both Venezuelan my buddy.” However, the heartwarming photo, purportedly showing the humanity of opposition protesters, was a complete farce. The photo was actually from protests in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2013.
As Ciccariello-Maher explained, “In a place as politically divided as Venezuela, where the opposition exists in a sort of echo chamber that always repeats the same mantras about electoral fraud, dictatorship, etc., this (social media use) proved to be powerfully dangerous, since it mobilized the extremists who simply took to the streets on the basis of something they already believed to be true.”
So why was the corporate media so willing, if not incautious, to use these and other tweets as fact in their reporting? As Steve Ellner, long time analyst of Venezuelan history and politics and author of “Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century,” told teleSUR: “The international corporate media are experts in presenting unreliable information disguised as viewpoints. By doing so they promote opinions, or at least doubts, among millions of people who do not have ready access to more reliable information.”
According to Ellner, using Twitter as a journalistic source is a “useful tool” for corporate and international media, and quoting right-wing tweets as insider opinions to present an on-the-ground and supposedly balanced view “has been applied to the Venezuelan case in a big way.”
The narrative in much international mainstream news coverage during this wave of extreme right-wing political violence was that the opposition was forced to take to social media as a result of a dictatorial media blockade in Venezuela that prevented opposition voices and views being heard in traditional media. But analysts argue that this is not the case.
Ciccariello-Maher explained that the Venezuelan government “has successfully reined in some of the most extreme elements” of the press since private media helped orchestrate the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, but “there is no media blockade in Venezuela.” Rather, he characterized it as “a nuanced debate around the right of people to accurate media and the responsibility of the private sector in providing this.”
Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Public Policy at the Central European University in Budapest, understands the Venezuelan media context similarly. With this backdrop, she said in an interview with teleSUR, “The lack of an articulated (opposition) platform has less to do with media censorship and restriction than the simple fact of the absence of a plan.” Buxton observed that “opposition supporters have not used Twitter to discuss or disseminate ideas, but to abuse and insult.”
But one plan the opposition did have was to use all of its media and social media platforms to frame the narrative of what was happening in Venezuela internationally. In a Feb. 20, 2014, article that went viral, “The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night – and the International Media Is Asleep At the Switch,” writer Francisco Toro, founder of the right-wing opposition blog Caracas Chronicles, called on international media to pay attention to the "state-hatched offensive to suppress and terrorize its opponents" in Venezuela. Toro’s article received hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes and shares and tens of thousands of tweets. Toro, a former New York Times stringer who resigned after being outed as an active opposition member, yet who afterward was still afforded regular columns and blog posts with the same paper, wrote about “state-sponsored paramilitaries” who were “shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting” that he claimed resulted in what amounted to a “tropical pogrom” the previous evening.
This “pogrom” resulted in the death of one person - not that night mind you, but four days later as a result of injuries.
When pressed by media critics Keane Bhatt and Jim Naureckas on Twitter, Toro admitted to “overstatement in the heat of the moment.” He even took to the pages of his website to write that “it has since become clear that the violence that night left ... just one fatality, and so did not rise to the commonly understood definition of a ‘pogrom’.”
A pogrom by definition is an organized massacre.
However, the damage was done. In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people his original piece reached, his correction was shared 14 times on Facebook and 12 times on Twitter. Such is the norm on social media, where sensational misinformation seems to consistently attract more attention than corrections.
Another example of strategically viral content was a YouTube video called “What’s going on in Venezuela in a nutshell,” made and narrated by a young Venezuelan college student living in the U.S. Despite the fact that the video was rife with false and misleading information, the deceptively innocent cry for help made good fodder for social media “clicktivism” and quickly reached viral proportions. It garnered over 3 million views on YouTube and was widely shared on other social media platforms. In addition to exaggerating statistics, such as “millions of homicides” occurring in the country each day, which would have wiped out the whole population of Venezuela within a month, she also lied about protesters being killed, protesters being peaceful, and that there is press censorship in the country. Nevertheless, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper featured the video on its website, lauding it for bringing “the plight of student protesters in Venezuela to global attention.”
What doesn’t go viral on Twitter can obviously be just as important as what does.
Another example, in addition to Toro’s retraction, would be an article in the New York Times which offered a rare case of honest reporting. The article “Crude Weapons Help Fuel Unrest in Bastion of Venezuelan Opposition” (02/25/2014) reported that anti-government student protesters had “a variety of homemade weapons — mortars to lob small, noisy explosives, miniature firebombs, slingshots, clubs and nasty-looking things called Miguelitos made from hoses festooned with nails.” The article quoted 19-year-old Andryth Niño admitting that, “We’re not peaceful here.”
Unmasking Social Media - Digital Democracy without Guarantees
While opposition forces have maintained an ongoing presence on social media, renewed mobilization and destabilization campaigns characterize the lead-up to the anniversary of last year’s wave of violence. The opposition is mobilizing its bases, calling supporters to the streets for the Feb. 12 anniversary protests.
Supporters use the hashtags #12F and #YoSalgoEl12F to announce their participation in the right-wing opposition protests. Perhaps more interesting is the hashtag #YoSalgoPor (I’m going out for), which opposition supporters use to express their reasons and motivations for joining the Guarimba anniversary marches.
The majority of these #YoSalgoPor tweets say that the protesters will go to the streets for “all the fallen heroes” of the opposition struggle, or for “justice for the fallen ones” who cannot attend the marches this year. These tweets commemorate the apparent victims of government violence in the first round of Guarimbas last year. However the overwhelming majority of the 43 fatalities died as a result of the violent opposition protests and destabilized conditions the opposition helped provoke. At least 10 individuals were killed at opposition barricades alone, and several government security personnel as well as others were also killed, according to data collected by the U.S.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
María Corina Machado is a leading figure of the Venezuelan opposition, was involved in the 2002 failed coup attempt, and was a main organizer of opposition protests last year. Her civil society organization, Súmate, accepted funds from the mainly U.S. Congress funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) .
As is the nature of social media, providing merely a snapshot without a broader context, these #YoSalgoPor tweets of course do not allude to the violence and fatalities caused by the right-wing opposition violence themselves. The most horrific among these fatalities included a woman being decapitated by barbed wire intentionally strung at the barricades by opposition extremists to cause danger to pro-government motorcyclists. A number of motorcyclists were indeed decapitated, several others motorists died crashing into barricades. At least three people were shot dead while attempting to clear away barricades. Six members of the National Guard were also killed.
These actions lived up to the goals of a strategic destabilization plan developed in 2013 by Colombian and U.S. organizations, including USAID, in collaboration with Venezuelan opposition leaders. As detailed in the leaked strategic plan published online by lawyer and journalist Eva Golinger, the opposition strategy was to “create situations of crisis in the streets that will facilitate U.S. intervention, as well as NATO forces, with the support of the Colombian government. Whenever possible, the violence should result in deaths or injuries” (emphasis added).
With disregard for their violent actions, #YoSalgoPor tweets portray the opposition as the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators.
But it’s no coincidence that social media has become a key instrument of opposition propaganda. Rather, it’s a concerted strategy that has at least partial roots in the U.S. attempt to foment chaos and instability in Venezuela. U.S. sources such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) heavily fund Venezuelan opposition forces and provide “democracy” training for opposition student groups, which has included training in social media use. In 2013, NED provided a total of $1,752,300 in grants to Venezuela in various program areas including $63,000 for “Emerging Leadership, Communication, and Social Networks” and another almost $300,000 for “Training and Communication Skills for Political Activists,” including training in the use of ICTs, or internet communication tools.
“The focus on youth has been a long running strategy, while the social media element is a more recent (and cheaper) instrument of soft power, which is, in my opinion, wholly deleterious to the interests of genuinely pluralistic and democratic voices,” added Central European University’s Buxton. “As with all aspects of U.S. intervention in other countries, these forms of sovereignty violation - soft or hard, are most usually counter productive and as we see in other aspects of social media 'wars', they can lead to a more problematic blowback from even more radical oppositional forces and groups.”
In an era of extreme police brutality against political protest on a global scale, the equivocations that could be drawn based on this partial and misleading information are easy to make, particularly for those already poorly informed as a result of the mainstream media coverage of Venezuela.
Social media, particularly in a complex and poorly understood political context, can easily decontextualize events and perpetuate misinformation, often with the willing help of international media. Given historical tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. and other Western capitalist world powers, Venezuela is a particularly intriguing specimen for this kind of confirmation-bias reporting, and with the help of social media, misinformation abounds.