The following case study is used as pedagogical material designed for the Media Literacy Self-paced Course and is intended to provide an example of a current study of the different strategies used by actors in Latin America to implement propaganda campaigns. Therefore, its content is informative and educational.
This digital era and the internet have provided multiple platforms for massive diffusion of strategies and tools to promote, divert, spread ideas, and confuse voters and the overall community. The scope of these tools allows large-scale diffusion, besides having an important component in many cases: anonymity.
The concept of "propaganda" is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “an organization, scheme, or movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine, practice, etc.” Yet it may also be “the systematic dissemination of information, in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view”, definition that better suits our context.
In our free, online course: Think Twice: Media Literacy Online, trainees will analyze how propaganda campaigns work as a strategy for disinformation. In addition, through real life examples, they will learn tools to strengthen their critical thinking and how to differentiate between reliable sources of information and those used for propaganda.
Bearing this in mind, let us analyze the way propaganda has been used by the "officialism" (the government) in Venezuela. The political class and the government have used digital media and their impact to spread their political agenda (just as it happens in many other countries) and they have created a very effective propaganda strategy.
In Venezuela, the political classes have made the most out of the impact social media has to spread their political propaganda, dismantle opponents and diver the masses’ attention. This is precisely why this example may be a case study.
Quoting Iria Puyosa, a renowned professor of the Brown University in the United States and a specialized Venezuelan researcher, these strategies have made their way to the core of Venezuela due to the “central role of State entities in the dissemination of disinformation, their high coordination capacity and the sophistication of their campaigns in the use of information on social networks and political conflicts". (DW: 2020).
According to this publication, Venezuela started implementing these strategies way before they became available to the public eye. This is the reason why, according to a study published by the Oxford University back in 2019, Venezuela ranked among the top 7 countries with the largest digital propaganda operation.
The Venezuelan government has carried out a media propaganda strategy, using bots and trolls, to promote opinion trends in favor of the “Bolivarian revolution”. This State took the lead in these digital media strategies long before they became common in other Latin American countries, also taking advantage of the censorship imposed by the government on traditional media.
Before we continue, we should clarify these two terms:
A bot may be an automized social media account, administered by an algorithm. Bots are rather common on Twitter and other social media platforms that allow their users to create multiple accounts.
A troll is a person that starts an online conflict purposely or offends other users to distract and to sow divisions through the publication of controversial or polemic declarations in a social media platform or a digital community (Red Internacional de Periodistas 2018).
How have they done it?
Communication campaigns were developed for different purposes, such as support for the "revolution", the disagreement with political actors of the "opposition", or their position against governments in disagreement with the "regime". Communication strategies include, in this case, the spread of biased or fake information multiplied thanks to bots.
In order to achieve this goal, the government has achieved greater reach through Twitter compared to the opposition. The organization Open Democracy sustains that “the marked disproportion of messages supporting the movement known as Chavismo with respect to the opposition in Venezuela is corroborated by studies that are in charge of tracking Twitter accounts (bots). In a ratio of 97 to 3, between August 1 and 15, 2019, 226,013 tweets generated by the Ministry of Communication and Information (MIPPCI) were detected compared to 5,089 from the opposition, according to a measurement by Probox, an observatory created by Venezuelan researchers for the monitoring and analysis of digital activity aimed at combating disinformation on the Internet” (Open Democracy: 2019).
This is how the Venezuelans government has benefited from social medial to misinform, making the most out of the penetration level that Twitter has in the country: about 70% of the Venezuelan population trust this social media platform to access information about political discussions (Open Democracy, 2019).
In this case, it is important to highlight that this is a targeted strategy and not just a simple coincidence. From the DFR Lab, it has been confirmed that “the behavior of Maduro's cyber troop on Twitter is directed from a manual and coincides with the instructions of the Trolls Army Training Project of the Bolivarian Revolution, created by the Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Peace in 2017 to “face the media war”. And so, the Venezuelan government used media such as Twitter to spread its messages, position themselves as a trend and “fight” against the information shared by the opposition. Their purpose? To create trends that benefit their position locally and internationally.
In fact, those that benefit from these artificial retweets campaign and the automatic forwarding of tweets are associated to the terms: Venezuela, population, president, Maduro, Government, Chávez, Russia, or motherland (El País: 2019).
Let's now discuss a couple of examples of the issues that have been moved and positioned by the government, through its media strategy.
There was a campaign against Juan Guaidó in which the DFRLab identified among 11798 accounts a network of 112 accounts, all of them supporting the regime and they all were boosting the use of particular hashtags. The accounts created original tweets mentioning the hashtags and amplified posts of other accounts on the network. The network acted in a coordinated manner to promote a campaign against Guaidó on Twitter during and after the 2018 elections.
On another occasion, several accounts were identified for positioning on January 20, 2020, the hashtag #SeamoscomoSucre, which sought that “the Venezuelan people follow in the footsteps of Grand Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, who demonstrated discipline and loyalty during the fight for the liberation of the people”. This message promoted the regime politics (El Diario 2020).
Lastly, the current COVID-19 pandemic has also been used by the government communications troops in different campaigns. On one occasion, for example, messages of stigmatization of migrants or returnees to Venezuela were mobilized, accusing the governments of Brazil and Colombia of sending them back as “biological weapons” against the country through “bioterrorism” (El Mostrador: 2021).
! Bear in Mind:
Once you finish reading about this case, it is important to keep in mind that the media and social platforms in the digital era are an extremely powerful tool, with a very high flow of information and available to any type of cause.
Also, in our media literacy course you will see that the media are nothing but constructions. They are built by humans with their own biases, opinions, beliefs, and intentions. For this reason, there are campaigns and some messages that are deliberately designed in order to misinform and position oneself before public opinion, through manipulations that favor specific people, governments, and institutions.
Now that you have gathered all this knowledge, remember to think twice when reading any new piece of information. Always ask yourself these questions: Is it true? What is the source? Is this feasible? Are you being as objective as possible? Is the message true?