The scattered, discontent majority in Venezuela is subdued by a minority regime, organized to overwhelm Twitter with a “supra-reality” as a disinformation strategy.
There was a time, which looks so far away today, when the democratic alternative used to drive public conversation on the social media app Twitter. The relevance achieved by the opposition leadership, headed by former governor and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, gave way to a conversation in which hashtags or labels boosted by Chavismo predominate today, resulting from a strategy devised to take over this realm.
This turn from the government, with a clear intention, not to position Nicolás Maduro’s Twitter account or that of any ruling-party leader, but rather to drive the conversation, took place between December 2015 and April 2017.
At one end of this thread is the readjustment that Chavismo experienced after the resounding electoral defeat that allowed the then Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) to legitimately take over the National Assembly (Legislative – unicameral). At the other end, there is the political decision to repress the widespread social unrest between April and July 2017, in a clear sign that power would not be easily relinquished.
Chavismo, aware of being in the minority, 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 was a majority. From 2015, it moved to a policy of an organized minority, working in an orchestrated manner to subdue a discontent majority. The latter, as we have witnessed, is scattered and fragmented, thereby facing serious difficulties in triggering 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.
Maduro, even with an illegitimate ANC, got 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 and particularly freedom of expression are openly violated according to international ratings; they are nations with decisive influence on international politics, so they enjoy a mantle of protection despite being predators of freedoms; and, thirdly, all three countries implement state policies aimed at targeting their citizens with disinformation and causing chaos in the global news landscape.
In this 2020, we see the result of the strategy developed between 2015 and 2017. Chavismo is building a virtual “majority”. In particular, it has transitioned to co-opting and appropriating Twitter dynamics, while relying on allied regimes to accelerate its learning curve in this regard.
Data from the digital realm observatory Probox gathered in July are overwhelming. Out of 191 tags on political and social issues trending in Venezuela during the past month, Chavismo totaled 6.6 million tweets against 209.000 from the opposition.
From accounts that include those of government agencies, communication and propaganda offices of the regime and digital activism itself, Chavismo posted 30 times more messages than pro-democracy users. An organized minority can subdue the majority, also on social media, namely Twitter.
Of the top 191 trends in Venezuela reviewed in July 2020, a total 66 were hashtags generated from, promoted by, or orchestrated among that conglomerate of Twitter accounts aligned with Chavista propaganda. Without a doubt, they succeed at creating an atmosphere, relying on this strategy of a virtual reality, part of a general strategy of disinformation.
It is not about closing media outlets or imprisoning journalists, things that, by the way, in Venezuela are still done when the regime deems it necessary. Now, what has been happening is that, day by day, a “supra-reality” of sorts is being constructed, through the tags imposed as trend nationwide, with which attempts at hiding the factual reality are made.
Pensions in Venezuela, which on July 23 were equivalent to $2 per month, were the object of an online protest initiative 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] 165,000 tweets) and #RevoluciónEsAmorMayor ([#RevolutionIsTheGreatestLove] 95,000 tweets).
The “supra-reality” far surpasses the actual one, in the dynamics of this social media app in which software for automated message generation (bots), farms in which flesh-and-blood operatives manage multiple accounts and devote themselves to positioning topics or discrediting public personalities abound, acting in an orchestrated manner and with malicious intent.
For example, in July, Chavismo laid the groundwork on the road towards a contest to elect a new National Assembly on December 6. The process, as election observers and analysts have pointed out, is frankly flawed. The reality that Chavismo is constructing is different, as evident in these trending topics #TiempoDeElegir ([#TimeToChoose] 07/12/2020) and #ParticipaYElige ([#ParticipateAndChoose] 07/29/2020).
Even worse, on July 30 this tag was trending: #3AñosDeVictoriaDemocrática (#3YearsDemocraticVictory), regarding the institutionally ludicrous ANC, such political initiative being precisely undemocratic.
Disinformation consists of not imposing direct censorship, as Chavismo did years ago, although it does make use of it if necessary. One of the strategies seeks to saturate the news ecosystem with topics alternative to those that are real or harmful to the regime.
As stated above, the time when Henrique Capriles with his “cannon” on Twitter (7.2 million followers) could generate a trend is far, very far away indeed. Not only was this former governor and presidential candidate, but also many other opposition leaders were the ones who had a golden age on Twitter. That was before Chavismo began to co-opt this social media platform, as it has in fact.