Social media accounts of Russian organizations and allied activists promote news about an alleged attack on Nicolas Maduro to downplay the low turnout at parliamentary elections.
By Rodolfo A. Rico
On December 6, 2020, the day of the National Assembly elections, Nicolas Maduro’s change of polling station drew attention. He went from voting at Miguel Antonio Caro High School, at the heart of an area regarded as a popular stronghold of Chavismo for many years, to voting at Fort Tiuna, the main military compound in Caracas. According to Maduro and his inner circle, here is the reason: An early warning of a potential attempt against the ruler’s life, one sponsored by Colombian president Iván Duque, but tipped off to Maduro by allies of Chavismo among the Colombian intelligence. The narrative undoubtedly has all the juicy ingredients: Victimization, David standing up to Goliath and, of course, a spy story.
Amplified by the Russian media
RT and Sputnik served as amplifiers for this version of what happened on Election Day. Let us put into context the Spanish-language Russian outlets’ social media networks, consisting of RT Actualidad (Facebook and Twitter), RT Última Hora (Twitter), Sputnik Mundo (Facebook and Twitter) and Sputnik Reporteros (Twitter). The combined followers of these social media accounts are over 21 million, with RT on Facebook being the largest, “liked” by over 16 million and having 18 million followers.
An additional 100 accounts served as amplifiers of Russian media messages, totaling over 23 million followers, once factoring in Russian state media accounts, amounting to two million.
The data for this research was obtained from the Crowdtangle plugin for Chrome, the network analysis tool currently owned by Facebook. This software also provides information on what is shared on Reddit and Instagram. For this study, we did not gather any data from these two apps.
A view boosted by five articles
We analyzed five different articles released by RT Actualidad and Sputnik, published between December 6 and 8.
The first one is by Sputnik Mundo. It is based on Jorge Arreaza’s response to a tweet from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which he denounced the parliamentary elections of that day as fraud. Published in the late afternoon of Election Day, it follows the David vs. Goliath narrative that the Venezuelan government is so fond of.
The second was published on December 7 by RT Actualidad, based on a statement made by former Information and Communication Minister – turned congressman candidate and ruling party campaign manager – Jorge Rodríguez, in which he “revealed” that the change in Nicolás Maduro’s voting center was made “for security reasons […] without providing any further details”, as claimed in the piece.
Finally, on December 8, two news items stood out: One from RT Actualidad in which Nicolás Maduro declares, during a press conference, that the US tried everything to prevent the parliamentary elections; then the news on Sputnik, from the same press conference also with international media reporters, in which Maduro reveals that the government of Iván Duque plotted to kill him in his polling center. He said that it would be done while he was “live and on the air”, pausing for dramatic effect. Coincidentally, the question was asked by Marcos Salgado, a journalist from Iran government media HispanTV who, for years, was a correspondent with Telesur, the Venezuelan multi-state network for Latin America, in practice run by Cuba and Venezuela.
The last of these news items (this time by RT Actualidad) only serves to reinforce the ideas of victimization and of David vs. Goliath. It is about Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza telling his counterparts in the European Union (and in particular the Czech Republic) that they are making fools of themselves by rejecting the results of the parliamentary elections and that they should read the UN Charter over again.
From Facebook to Twitter: Islands of disinformation
There are two important facts to examine in both Facebook and Twitter accounts: Followers and interactions. Followers are indicators of potential reach; interactions, of those who have been reached or have executed an action that – importantly – increases the reach of the post.
If we subtract the Russian media accounts, the top one with the highest number of followers (352,963) is that of Tania Díaz (@Taniapsuv), a leader of the ruling party and the former 1st Deputy Speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, a body not recognized by a significant part of the international community. Her tweet with a link to the article on Jorge Rodríguez’s “revealing” declaration got 145 reactions on Twitter.
YoNoMarcho (I won’t rally), a group of Argentine origin on Facebook, with over 210,000 followers, is next. However, it barely got five interactions.
Paraguarí Noticias is a media outlet of Paraguayan origin present on Facebook. It has 185,630 followers. It only got three reactions.
We find another public figure, Victor Hugo Morales. He is a Uruguay-born Argentinean journalist and broadcaster, known for his leftist stance. He has 131,000 followers. However, he only got nine reactions.
If we review by interactions, excluding Russian media accounts, the first position is held by Tania Díaz, with the 145 interactions mentioned. She is followed by Los Kukas, an Argentine community organization that obtained 31 reactions among its over 19,000 followers. Next, a Facebook page called El Politólogo Viral (The Viral Political Scientist), with the motto: “Here you will find what the sellout media don’t want to show you”, is of Bolivian origin. Asamblea Constituyente is a group of Chilean origin with over 33,000 followers. They are fans of Graciana Peñafort Colombi, another Facebook page that describes itself as Kirchnerista and therefore from Argentina. Each of these two groups got 20 reactions.
At first glance, the interactions may seem few; but they are groups that routinely share this kind of information. They are prone to embrace it as fact and share news, true or not, agreeable to them in order to reinforce their bias. Among all the pieces reviewed, there were just over 100 accounts. This is not factoring in the impact of Russia’s mainstream media accounts on these platforms.
As we pointed out before, RT en Español has 16 million followers on Facebook. Its article with the most interactions among those analyzed, with the headline “Pudo más Venezuela; no pudiste, Donald Trump” (Venezuela made it; you didn’t, Donald Trump), obtained as many as 19,301 interactions, only on its first release. The second one added up to 2,659.
The third in the Russian list is from Sputnik Mundo, with over 425,230 followers, which shared the text “Maduro denounces that, on the day of the elections, they planned to assassinate him ‘live and on the air’” and that generated the not negligible figure of 602 interactions. It is closely followed by the news item “Están haciendo el ridículo total de Jorge Arreaza” (They are making a total fool of Jorge Arreaza), again by RT en Español.
Becoming the David who confronts Goliath, victimizing himself over again to inspire sympathy, trying to create an epic tale that confronts the evil of the world are the narratives used. “My slingshot is that of David,” Cuban independence leader José Martí once said, and Fidel Castro authored a book with that phrase as well. The Russians are also experts in that strategy as noted by European disinformation watchdog, EU vs. Disinfo.
Nicolas Maduro has denounced time and again that they want to kill him. Except in 2018, when two drones came close enough, he has very rarely produced any proof thereof. However, there are also those who believe that it was a self-inflicted attack. Here you can read an overview by CNN of the times he has denounced this and here another more detailed account by EFE agency, published in the Diario La Verdad (the Truth Daily), based in Zulia State, Venezuela.
Did someone really want to kill Maduro? Or rather, in view of the dismal turnout in the parliamentary elections, in view of the possibility that the discontent would erupt in an underprivileged demographic – something increasingly frequent, the decision was that a change in polling station was the least risky thing. We do not know; but perhaps Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Ockham can help us: “With all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one “.