Protests in Colombia: Venezuela and Russia in the Crosshairs
While discontent is legitimate, there is evidence that the protests staged in Colombia, despite the withdrawal of the draft bill that unleashed them, have been boosted by disinformation campaigns originating in Russia and Venezuela.
By Ingrid Jiménez
At the Defense for Democracy in the Americas Forum, organized by the Inter-American Institute for Democracy (Instituto Interamericano para la Democracia, IDEA), former president of Ecuador Lenin Moreno accused Maduro of meddling in the protests being staged in Colombia.
For years, Colombian politicians and media have blown the whistle on interference from the Venezuelan government. During the 2019 protests, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez denounced that Venezuela and Russia were behind the messages spread on social media calling for rallies. As in 2019, social media have played a prominent role for mobilization, information, and whistleblowing, but also for disinformation.
In early 2020, The New York Times reported on an investigation conducted by analysts of the U.S. State Department. Their findings show that social media accounts linked to Russia were actively engaging with similar patterns of activity in the protests staged throughout 2019 in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. The investigation noted that one of the common stances of these countries’ governments at the time was the demand that Venezuela’s ruler Nicolás Maduro’s resign.
However, an ill-timed tax reform promoted by the Colombian government unleashed protests again in 2021. Although the reform was withdrawn almost immediately, the protests did not cease.
A report by U.S.-based Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) identified around 7,000 social media accounts on servers located in Russia and China that block and spam any comments critical of the protests. Among these accounts, 900 originating in Venezuela were found.
For example, a review of the hashtag #ColombiaResiste (#ColombiaResists) on Twitter shows that several Venezuela-based accounts retweet information in support of the protests and denouncing human rights violations. The correspondent in Colombia for Telesur, a media outlet identified as an important source of disinformation across the region, is very active on Twitter, taking sides for the protests. The correspondent’s statements are retweeted by both Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and President Nicolás Maduro himself.
While the causes of social unrest in a country severely affected by the pandemic are undoubtedly legitimate, it is important to note that disinformation continues to reign during the protests.
With each day, social media are having an increasing importance in voicing social unrest through street protest, which had its first episode during the Arab Spring over ten years ago. In Latin America, popular movements have also organized through social media, making them fertile ground for disinformation.
Until a few years ago, Russia did not have much relevance in the region beyond arms sales to various countries. However, it has recently expanded its influence by deploying disinformation campaigns which, without demanding much workforce or technology, have an important impact on public opinion and eventually on the political events unfolding in the region.
The Colombian government has been the main ally of the United States in the strategy to promote a change of government in Venezuela. Therefore, a leftward shift in Colombia would represent for Maduro the possibility of a change in the neighboring country’s foreign policy, as well as consequently subsiding international pressure.
Historically, Colombia and Venezuela are perhaps the Latin American countries with the strongest cultural, political, and social ties. Therefore, it would come as no surprise if the Venezuelan regime relies on propaganda activities in alliance with Russia or China as a strategy to manipulate public opinion and create a sounding board for disinformation.