Venezuela: A beachhead in Russia’s geopolitics, using social media bots and mainstream media to support Maduro and flood the region with multiple versions of reality.
The dynamics of disinformation in Venezuela, which finds a breeding ground in a country marked by government hegemony and control over information and the media, does not operate in a vacuum. Not only has globalization enabled the free flow of goods or services, but also the geopolitical strategies of nations under authoritarian power have been globalized.
As warned by Venezuelan researcher Iria Puyosa since 2017, Russia is not an innocent stakeholder in its relations with Venezuela. Actually, the fact that Moscow has become a strategic ally of Nicolás Maduro’s regime should be a matter worthy of any analysis.
Besides weapons, or more recently a vaccine for COVID-19, Russia also helps Chavismo in its disinformation activities. Russian geopolitical strategy finds in Venezuela a beachhead for its actions in Latin America, while bearing in mind the historical – and not always friendly – relationship with Cuba.
An essay by researcher Mira Milosevich, from the Elcano Royal Institute (Real Instituto Elcano) of Madrid, dissects Russia’s modus operandi in the field of disinformation as one of its weapons towards the West. In 2016, Russian influence in the U.S. presidential elections set off the alarms in the Western world.
Russia’s propaganda machine, according to the researcher, relies on both mainstream and social media and has three different audiences (domestic, the orbit of ex-Soviet countries, and the West). Everything converges on a single strategy under the intelligence services of that country. Disinformation, on the other hand, appears as a backdrop in various moments of Russian history during the last century.
One could say, after reviewing the paper “The Power of Russian Influence: Disinformation” (El poder de influencia rusa: la desinformación), that at present its true power lies therein, given the decline of its arms industry and decaying economy. Moscow’s geopolitical power, at this moment, comes from its deliberate, non-transparent, and propagandistic management of information.
Citing documents from the Russian defense system, the researcher identifies disinformation as part of the “New Generation War” doctrine, aimed not at annihilating the adversary in terms of war (for example, with weapons of mass destruction) but at infiltrating its society and generating chaos, confusion, and discredit.
According to the explanation, which dates back to 2013, by General Valeri Gerasimov, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2012 until today, the New Generation War is simultaneous in nature, with battles on land, air, sea, and “information space”.
Russia also combines mainstream media such as Sputnik news agency and international news channel Russia Today, currently wrapped in the innocuous acronym of RT.
By mere coincidence, in 2014, I concurred in a business meeting with the executive of a pay TV company in the country. We were talking about the need to collect data on the population’s viewing patterns of international channels when the government initiated a mandatory national radio and television simulcast (cadena). I was trying to find out what was happening among the public once Nicolás Maduro appeared on screen. A call from the National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones, CONATEL) at that time serves to illustrate how Russian news influence began to consolidate in Venezuela.
On that call, this media company executive was ordered to place Russia Today on the grid of channels. It was not a suggestion, it was an order – he summarized – when I asked him what had happened. That company had already exhausted its capacity to add channels. It had to literally remove another one from its service in order to comply with the order received to include the Russian international outlet.
Six years after that, when we held a focus group in the peasant village of Guarico, on the mountains of Lara State, in western Venezuela, I found it very striking that one of the participants explicitly mentioned RT as one of his information references. The order from the government was certainly bearing fruit.
Meanwhile, following what happened during Donald Trump’s run for president in 2016, the Russian power to model the conversation on social media became clear. Russia uses cyberattacks as it sees fit, puts armies of bots into action, but also has armies of flesh-and-blood operatives (trolls) who spread fake news, start rumors, and encourage distrust.
Russia has been developing its own disinformation scheme. More than censoring content, the objective is to flood the public with versions, most of which false, thereby encouraging confusion among citizens. This model seems to aim at shedding doubt on everything and taking nothing for certain.
On a visit to Caracas, Venezuela, American historian and journalist Anne Applebaum gave a clear example of how this Moscow-generated disinformation logic works. She looked into the case of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, with a presumed death toll of 239 passengers in 2014.
In an interview for local news site Prodavinci: The information ecosystem was flooded with hundreds of theories, so that, ultimately, nobody would believe anything or knew whom to believe. The goal is to discredit them all. After these versions were circulated, the role of the Russian army in the death of the Malaysia Airlines passengers was just another idea floating on a tide of falsehoods.
The objective had been accomplished.