A hoax inside a half-truth inside bot-driven hashtags and state-run media as part of Russian-Venezuelan campaign for the Sputnik V vaccine

Rodolfo A. Rico

There is no doubt about Russia’s meddling in the US elections or the Brexit referendum. However, what is happening in Latin America? Moreover, what is the relationship with Venezuela? After all, it was the late revolutionary Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who called for the Internet trenches, it was in Venezuela where the Information Ministry published a digital warfare handbook and where anyone can earn extra bonuses on the card for regime loyalists, named Carnet de la Patria (Fatherland Card), by becoming an online activist. 

The multi-state regional channel Telesur, Russia Today (rebranded RT America in the US and RT Actualidad in Latin America), and Sputnik Mundo (reminiscent of the Russian satellite, but above all of a sort of Soviet-era counterpart of Reader’s Digest magazine, published worldwide) are necessary to understand the state propaganda strategy shared by Venezuela and Russia.

An analysis of these three outlets’ Twitter accounts, based on 5,000 randomly selected followers of each, allows us to identify Venezuelan government accounts that follow up on the above Russian media. Official accounts such as those of the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry (@CancilleriaVE) or the Information Ministry (@Mippcivzla), but also that of the Carnet de la Patria ([@CarnetDLaPatria] with its website being the fourth most visited in Venezuela according to Similarweb) show this pattern.

The Twitter account of Vice President Delcy Rodriguez’s Office (@ViceVenezuela) is also driving this trend. In addition, state-owned companies, such as cooking oil manufacturer Industrias Diana (@DianaIndustrias), task themselves with ‘lubricating’ the attention on the Russian vaccine.

There were at least 42 accounts linked to the Venezuelan State that promoted the hashtags #SputnikV and #SputnikvllegaAVenezuela (#SputnikVArrivesInVenezuela). Another noteworthy fact is that the regime’s civil and military unity is also present in the digital campaign with at least a dozen accounts linked mainly to the Bolivarian National Guard ([Guardia Nacional Bolivariana] those bearing the “@GNB” prefix in the table below). 

Topics by (pro) government handle

Source: Hoaxy

Another analysis, based on the hashtag #SputnikV data obtained from the Hoaxy tool, shows that it was evidently promoted by RT Actualidad with the support of at least 54 bots and 152 other accounts, sharing many of the characteristics that we usually identify as cyborgs. 

Boosting accounts and bots

Source: Hoaxy

The scope of the social and mainstream media campaign does not reflect the fact that the vaccine has not arrived in Venezuela for widespread use, but for the third phase of its quality tests and its suitability for use on humans. By focusing the campaign on the vaccine and not the Venezuelans on whom will be tested, the nationals’ role as mere Guinea pigs of the Russians remains concealed. Like Matryoshka dolls, the news coverage hides other stories.

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