By Rodolfo Rico
Venezuela’s regime relies on publications from an obscure UK think tank and a South Africa-based media outlet to orchestrate and amplify, along with its propaganda network, the discrediting of independent media.
Maduro’s government started the year discrediting the Venezuelan media and claiming that they receive illegal funding for their journalistic coverage. “One million dollars to destabilize”, claimed sensationalist headlines, which highlighted the “fact” that it had been revealed in an investigation conducted by British media.
The fact is that the news was released by a South African media outlet allied to a new British journalistic organization named Declassified UK, registered in 2019, which claims to specialize in “British foreign policy, investigating the UK military, intelligence agencies and its most powerful corporations.” To that end, it looks into the performance of the UK government in current events and the National Archives in London.
For its part, the British government has acknowledged that it has financed projects to strengthen democracy in Venezuela. However, it did not specify support to any particular media outlet regarding the article published in the South African newspaper.
In any case, the piece is based on public funding tender calls made by the United Kingdom. In these, any organization meeting the requirements can participate. This seems neither opaque nor illegal.
What is revealing is that Declassified UK compares initiatives in support of the Venezuelan media to the British government’s propaganda efforts during the Cold War to prevent Salvador Allende’s rise to power in Chile. It also seeks to make them look similar to the relationship the British government cultivated with a well-known Brazilian left-wing editor, Samuel Weiner, to try to influence his editorial line against the dictatorship then prevailing in Brazil.
It is also at least strange that Declassified UK mentions the relationship between a Venezuelan media outlet (Efecto Cocuyo, which received early funding from the British government between 2016 and 2018, as acknowledged by that country’s Foreign Office although no amounts were specified) and two British journalistic organizations (Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture). This allusion is made in connection with the investigation of the massacre in which Oscar Pérez, the law enforcement officer who rebelled against the Maduro regime, was killed. In that mention, it did not include the fact that there actually was a massacre, which is undoubtedly relevant from a journalistic standpoint, regardless of the controversial actions of this policeman.
The US$ 1M highlighted by most of the pro-government websites was never received by any media outlets, as stated in the Declassified UK article itself, but by the NGO Transparencia Venezuela, to establish an anti-corruption partnership. By the way, these state-owned media refer to an article on the same website, previously posted on October 20, 2020. Therefore, the sum of British support from a previous investigation was added in the above piece to make the amount in pounds sterling granted look much higher.
However, the above piece purports not to be based on Declassified UK, but on information published by a South African media outlet. This was the beginning of an orchestrated disinformation campaign by the network of media outlets allied to the government of Nicolás Maduro.
We used the Crowdtangle plugin to download the data from the news items posted. In addition to The Daily Maverick, the rest of the media outlets were selected according to their Search Engine Optimization (SEO), that is, by their ranking among Google matches in a search made from Venezuela on the day the data were downloaded.
The selected media and the number of own posts and those of their followers’ networks can be seen in the table below:
|No. of posts
|The Daily Maverick
|Con el Mazo Dando
The Daily Maverick: The starting point
Among those who shared the original link to the article, we first find one of its authors and the Twitter account of media think-thank Declassified UK itself, who hold the top four positions when reviewed in decreasing order of engagement. In the eighth spot, with 141 interactions, we find a well-known Venezuelan pro-government media outlet, La Tabla, which dedicated a series of tweets to commenting in Spanish on the news item’s contents.
Interactions: Who gets more?
Upon reviewing the table of overall interactions, we notice that another pro-government media outlet takes the top spot. It is Misión Verdad (Mission Truth). One of its tweets achieved 586 interactions. It was the most engaged one among the outlets and related networks selected. One of the 57 that were made from the version of the article published on its website. Among the first 20 publications on social media, up to five correspond to the piece posted by Misión Verdad.
With its over five million followers on Twitter, Globovisión, a private 24-hour news channel co-opted after being acquired by regime-aligned investors, published a tweet leaving no doubt as to its intention: “Efecto Cocuyo, Caraota Digital, El Pitazo among the media financed to overthrow Maduro’s government”. It achieved 549 interactions.
Third among this list of interactions is the English-language service of Telesur, the Venezuela-based multi-state TV channel. However, this time, it is a post on its Facebook page: 526 interactions starting from a base of 642,317 followers in the social media platform headed by Zuckerberg.
Followers and engagement
If we sort the data by number of followers and cross-reference them with interactions, Globovisión stands out in first place with its over five million followers on Twitter. Its publication of January 8, 2021 achieved 549 interactions. The headline is one with the most animosity: “Efecto Cocuyo, Caraota Digital, El Pitazo among the media financed to overthrow Maduro’s government”.
Mexican magazine Proceso is the next with most followers: 4,846,378. Its most outstanding Facebook post reached 204 interactions. Proceso got the news item from a wire by the Europa Press Agency and published the case – only after the British UK Embassy issued its reply – with this headline: “Venezuela denounces ‘gross interference’ of the British for funding opposition media”.
In the third spot, the account of RT’s Spanish-language service on Twitter, with 3,515,564 followers and 84 interactions in its most outstanding publication. The Russian state-owned news organization only published the news after the British government’s response: “[Venezuelan Foreign Minister] Arreaza delivers a note of protest to the UK ambassador for London’s funding of media in Venezuela without official notification”.
It is also worth noting that Globovisión repeats its fourth place in follower reach, this time from its Facebook page, where its post achieved at least 322 interactions.
The case of Lechuguinos.com is striking, with just over 121,000 followers and the most shocking headline: “MERCENARIES OF COMMUNICATION! Efecto Cocuyo received US$ 1M to destabilize and lie about Venezuela”. Of its 30 tweets, only three did not draw any type of interaction. Its most successful tweet reached 56 interactions. It does not matter much if what the headline reads is not true. Ultimately, it is not even true in the original piece by Declassified UK.
The case reviewed here allows us to demonstrate the use of amplification and orchestration in online media as disinformation and propaganda strategies aimed at Venezuela. When it comes to a smear campaign, reality comes second.