Fact Checking Twitter: Venezuela Protests Highlight Key Weakness of Social Media

Cyril Mychalejko Mar 6, 2014

The Venezuelan opposition has been skillfully using Twitter and Facebook to disseminate horrifying photos and testimonies of alleged government violence and abuse against protesters over the last few weeks. The problem with these allegations and images which have gone viral globally, and even used by media outlets, is that they are fabrications; many of the most viral photos allegedly from Venezuela have actually depicted images from places such as Syria, Chile, Brazil – and even a US-based porn site.

“Initial, inaccurate information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction,” wrote Craig Silverman, journalist and founder of the blog Regret the Error, for the Poynter Institute in a post in 2010. Silverman’s insight reveals the dangers, often ignored, about the use of Twitter and social media as a news source, as well as a tool for liberation and uprisings.

However, the way social media is being used, or some might say abused, in Venezuela is not the result of a few “bad apples” or some mischievous students taking part in opposition protests. In fact, this propaganda technique is being used by high profile opposition figures, while training anti-chavista Venezuelans to use social media has been a project of Washington for some time now.

According to Caracas-based journalist and attorney Eva Golinger, the US spent “nearly $15 million annually by 2007…directed towards youth and student groups [in Venezuela], including training in the use of social networks to mobilize political activism. Student leaders were sent to the US for workshops and conferences on Internet activism and media networking. They were formed in tactics to promote regime change via street riots and strategic use of media to portray the government as repressive.”

The adoption of social media as a tool to advance US foreign policy objectives, including regime change, did not end with President George W. Bush’s administration. Actually, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further developed it as a coherent policy tool labelled “21st Century Statecraft.” I wrote about this and how Venezuela and other ALBA countries were targets for this new technological imperialism back in 2012.

In the article I noted how Judith McHale, former under secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, provided clarity about how exactly Washington planned to use these new technologies in a forum hosted by John Hopkins University in March 2011.

“New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen…Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground,” said McHale. “Of course, we are not interested in developing social media platforms for the sake of having them. We are interested in applying social media to promote our strategic objectives in the Americas.” A few months later at a June 2011 Senate Hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said that the State Department “has programs that support media training in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador; these programs address the use and impact of social media….”

McHale’s remarks and Jacobson’s admission seem salient now in light of the use of how social media in Venezuela has been used to spread misinformation in attempts to destabilize the country and delegitimize that country’s democratically-elected government.

CNN published an article exposing numerous examples of misinformation disseminated by opposition folks via Twitter. One example of propaganda was tweeted by Venezuelan “political consultant” Esteban Gerbasi, using a photo from Brazil as a means to suggest Venezuela is a dictatorship. Gerbasi was quoted by the Associated Press in an article last November about planned anti-government protests where he expressed his displeasure with the opposition’s leadership for not taking a more confrontational, and some might say more undemocratic position, towards the government.

“The Marcha Autoconvocada’s purpose is precisely to demonstrate to Maduro and the opposition leadership that their time is up and that now the way out is taking to the streets,” said Gerbasi, offering a warning and foreshadowing of the recent turmoil.

Another egregious example highlighted by CNN’s report was a photo tweeted by Venezuelan actress Amanda Gutierrez which was allegedly lifted from a US-based porn site. The photo was used by her to “prove” sexual abuse by police against anti-government protesters.

Then there is Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan blogger whose "musings" at Caracas Chronicles (a website he founded) are “a must-read for foreign journalists,” according to the Associated Press. In an article that went viral on both Twitter and Facebook entitled “The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night – and the International Media are Asleep at the Switch”, Toro wrote about a “tropical pogrom” that allegedly took place one night in Venezuela – except it didn’t. There was no massacre by “paramilitaries.” One person did die from injuries sustained that night, however that was four days later. This death is a tragedy, but it is a far cry from a “pogrom” or massacre. After this misinformation and gross exaggeration was exposed and criticized Toro took to Twitter and admitted to “overstatement in the heat of the moment.” He also addressed it in a blog post which garnered a whopping 14 likes on Facebook and 12 Tweets – in contrast with the hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes and over 10,000 Tweets his original, factually challenged blog post amassed. This supports Silverman’s aforementioned thesis about how error corrections are not retweeted and viewed as much as the initial errors.

Furthermore, Toro took to Twitter again to defend himself, this time by suggesting that Caracas Chronicles shouldn’t be considered journalism – something I wholeheartedly agree with – though their should be a disclaimer at the top of each page so as not to confuse international journalists like the one at the Associated Press, who considers Toro a “must-read.” Toro is also an oped contributor for The New York Times.

Julia Buxton, writing for the Latin America Bureau, put the dangers of social media effects on traditional media in perspective:

“Despite claims that social media ‘democratises’ the media, it is clear that in Venezuela it has had the opposite effect, exacerbating the trend towards disinformation and misrepresentation, with overseas media groups and bloggers reproducing – without verification – opposition claims and images of student injuries allegedly caused by police brutality and attacks by government supporters.”

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at Upside Down World where this article originally appeared under the title of "Manufacturing Contempt for Venezuela".

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