How are Internet defamation campaigns used to manipulate Venezuelan civil society?

How are Internet defamation campaigns used to manipulate Venezuelan civil society?

Published on 01 Mar 2023

For at least four years, the repeated use of coordinated campaigns of aggravation, defamation or stigmatization on the Internet has been recurrently documented in the Venezuelan news context.

For at least four years, the repeated use of coordinated campaigns of aggravation, defamation or stigmatization on the Internet has been recurrently documented in the Venezuelan news context. These campaigns attempt to contaminate the information flow, injecting accusations that may be false or misleading – disinformation – in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.

They all have common factors: they are part of broader influence operations that seek to generate damage to a specific target: a specific person, a media outlet, a political party or an organization. They are driven in no casual way: they use disinformative tactics, techniques and procedures that generally leave digital forensic evidence that they are organized efforts. And although they sometimes arise from anonymous sources, by analyzing their characteristics and patterns, their promotion can be attributed to previously identified disinformative structures, using concrete and irrefutable evidence.

The damage that this type of campaign intends to cause -something they sometimes succeed in doing- ranges from undermining the credibility of civil society leaders, stigmatizing the work of journalists and independent media, sowing doubts about a political leader’s performance or distracting the audience’s attention from an uncomfortable news event.

Attackers with name and surname

In Venezuela it is common for figures or organizations related to the government of Nicolás Maduro to engage in grievance campaigns in which false, misleading or manipulated information is used to persuade Venezuelans of the stability of their institutions and the supposed moral contradictions of all those who oppose them.

On January 13, 2023, a rumor began to spread on Twitter against Elsa Castillo, a retired teacher and member of the Venezuelan Teachers Federation and one of the most visible faces in a wave of protests for labor demands in Venezuela. Several users linked to the National Organization of Alternative Communicators (ONCA) indicated, without showing evidence, that the educator received financing from third parties and traveled by “private jet” to attend citizen protests organized in several cities of the country.

The hoax, which in later days was denied, was a coordinated ad hominem attack with which an attempt was made to highlight, in a misleading manner, that Castillo lacked the moral stature to support the salary claims of Venezuelan educators, minimizing his current leadership.

Another recent defamation campaign resulted from the homily on the occasion of the feast of the Divine Shepherdess on Saturday, January 14, 2023. In it, Monsignor Victor Hugo Basabe, Bishop of the Diocese of San Felipe, denounced the grave economic and social situation in Venezuela and called for the cessation of what he called a “false economic bubble”. Four days later, Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) dismissed what the bishop said, calling it a “politicized, low-bottomed, malicious speech” and accusing Basabe, without showing any proof, of having negotiated 30% of the profits from the sales of the official flannels of the procession to the Divina Pastora, patroness of the State of Lara, in a clear attempt to distract attention from his criticisms.

Cabello’s accusation was broadcast on Venezuelan public television through the program “Con El Mazo Dando” of Venezolana de Televisión, despite not being supported by any concrete evidence and coming from a “cooperating patriot”, a name used by the Venezuelan government to refer to its anonymous informants.

Anonymous slanderers

Anonymizing the source of a disinformation is a recurrent tactic used in the context of influence operations such as digital defamation campaigns. It is often used by disinformation actors to legitimize accusations -even if they are fabrications or not based on verifiable facts-, reducing their responsibility for participating in defamatory attacks, arguing that they are only giving visibility to a “complaint” that should be investigated.

On May 21, 2021, Arturo Sosa Abascal, a Venezuelan Catholic priest and current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, affirmed to the newspaper La Nación that Nicolás Maduro heads a dictatorial regime. Days later, between May 24 and 30, a network of Twitter accounts that regularly promotes trends in a coordinated manner through the technique of astroturfing – impersonating a group of common users pretending to converse spontaneously on a topic, but hiding their true intention – tried to position at least five defamatory tags related to the priest.

The accounts that participated in the promotion of the tags interacted with each other asking if Sosa Abascal was a “traitor”, responding and retweeting each other in a coordinated manner to exponentially increase the number of tweets in the digital conversations and making them reach the top of the Twitter trends for Venezuela during those days, giving visibility to the disinformation campaign.

This specific network of coordinated manipulation of tags has been active on Twitter at least since 2018, maliciously driving dozens of social and political trends, some of which have been reviewed in national public television channels and international media allied to the Venezuelan government. It is the same network that during 2020 drove dozens of defamatory tags against Juan Guaidó -partially recognized interim president of Venezuela until January 2023-, which started with the word “Waido”: #NoQueremosAWaido, #WaidoBorrachin, #QuienPagaLosViajesWaido, #WaidoEsFracaso, #WaidogTraicionero, #GuaidoYSuPrima and many others documented by several national and international anti-disinformation organizations.

There is concrete evidence that an influencer known as NiTanTukky was involved in the malicious promotion of these Twitter tags by offering payments in dollars, on multiple occasions, to Twitter users who participated in social media dynamics with the objective of promoting “anti-government and anti-opposition” trends, an activity prohibited by the social network in its policies against spam and platform manipulation.

So far, it has not been possible to prove where the money offered to the participants in this astroturfing network to position disinformative -and defamatory- trends in Venezuela comes from:

Although after repeated complaints, his last account was suspended in early October 2021, he has continued to push coordinated trends on the social network in a more discreet manner, using anonymous alternate accounts.

Another victim of this astroturfing network on Twitter was Norbey Marín, host of the YouTube program “Hasta que Caiga la Tiranía”. Marín was the victim of two coordinated digital defamation campaigns on Twitter on November 8 and 9, 2021, when the same astroturfing network promoting the trends against Guaidó and Father Sosa Abascal, promoted the hashtags #NorbeyExtorsionador and #NorbeyProfugo, sharing defamatory messages and memes.

But the campaign against Marín transcended the limits of Twitter: on the same January 9, the memes disseminated in a coordinated manner on the microblogging service were published in a coordinated manner by a network of at least five fake news outlets on Instagram, linked between them, which Fake News Hunters regularly calls “The Disinformation Factory”, having been the origin of at least 30 social and political hoaxes dismantled by the organization since 2019, many of a defamatory nature, which have targeted Venezuelan political leaders, journalists or media.

The use of teams that drive trends in a coordinated way on Twitter -through astroturfing- or fake news networks on Instagram that publish disinformation almost simultaneously, has a powerful psychological effect on the audience: the illusion is created that an information is true -or at least important- because several sources echoed it at the same time, obfuscating reality, that is, clouding the flow of information to distance the audience from the facts, generating contradictions and making the information less clear or understandable.

When the river sounds, it does not always bring stones

Although the repeated repetition of a false or misleading argument gives audiences the impression that there is “some truth” in the information being disseminated, the systematic and organized promotion of false, misleading or unsubstantiated ideas has been documented on multiple occasions with the aim of misinforming, confusing a target audience and obfuscating – muddying – details surrounding a fact that are verifiable. Slander and stigmatization campaigns usually use this technique to manipulate information with misinforming narratives that do not conform to reality.

Cazadores de Fake News has been able to document several digital stigmatization campaigns against journalists who have been accused, repeatedly and in the absence of evidence, of being “extortionists” right after presenting investigations on alleged corruption cases in Venezuela. The objective of this type of campaigns is to intimidate communicators, minimize their work so that it is seen as less credible or relevant than it is (since it comes from “simple extortionists”) and justify patterns of persecution – and even future arrests – both to the authors and to those who dare to publish their work.

Carola Briceño, a journalist for El Nacional, was the victim of a digital stigmatization attack in January 2023, just after the publication of a series of three articles about the brothers Ricardo and Santiago Morón Hernández, which she co-authored. The brothers were sanctioned in July 2020 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the United States and allegedly formed part of corruption schemes linked to illicit transactions carried out by Nicolás Maduro Guerra, son of Nicolás Maduro.

After the publication of the articles, Briceño was accused by several digital media of belonging to an “extortion network” and, just as it happened when Norbey Marín when he was accused of “extortionist” in November 2021, the campaign against Briceño also published the same defamatory content, using identical images, in exactly the same fake news network on Instagram -in “La Fábrica de Desinformación”-.

Roberto Deniz, of Armando Info, is the Venezuelan journalist who has been the target of the largest amount of disinformation on record, at least since 2021 and a frequent target of digital stigmatization campaigns.

But the attacks directed at Deniz have a different origin than those described above: they are part of an aggressive influence operation, which is still ongoing, aimed at cleaning up the image – and eventually securing the release – of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman close to the Venezuelan regime, who is facing trial in the United States on charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Deniz was repeatedly accused of being an “extortionist,” without any concrete evidence being presented. In October 2021 it was reported, however, the existence of a network of 22 related fake news portals, all hosted on the same IP address, whose featured articles referred to the journalist – and Alek Boyd, another investigator in the Alex Saab case – as “extortionists.” Several of the articles published by this network of fake news portals had been shared for months by Venezuelan tweeters grouped in a coordinated manner in defense of Alex Saab, as evidence of the alleged accusations against the journalist.

A few hours after the publication of an investigation into the network of 22 fake news portals, the company linked to their creation terminated all the web pages and sent a letter to Cazadores de Fake News, clarifying that it had only been an intermediary for the contracting of the hosting of the web pages by a third party, that the company was not related to the content published and that it had no links to Alex Saab or any other official of the Venezuelan Government.

Straw dolls to promote hatred

The network of 22 fake news portals created to defame the investigators of the Alex Saab case is far from being the only effort to fabricate fictitious sources of information to manipulate Venezuelan public opinion.

In September 2021, several Venezuelan verification initiatives began to disprove false tweets attributed to a group of Venezuelan journalists including Roberto Deniz, Luis Carlos Díaz, Carla Angola and Maibort Petit, the digital media Alberto Rodríguez News and Armando Info and other public figures such as Iván Simonovis and Gustavo Azócar. The tweets had been published by a recently created network of Twitter accounts, a “troll farm”, with which an attempt was made to impersonate the identity of all those mentioned with disinformative intent, under the excuse that they were “parody” accounts.

All the affected people and media had a common factor: they had published investigations or covered Alex Saab’s case, or had been openly critical of the Colombian businessman. The network of troll accounts was created by members of the Alex Saab defense network on Twitter with the aim of ridiculing and vilifying the people whose identities were impersonated. Eventually, the network was suspended by Twitter.

In March 2021, another group of 85 different troll accounts digitally and in a coordinated manner attacked the Non-Governmental Organization Provea and the independent media El Pitazo, after they published articles related to the Special Action Forces (FAES), a command of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) of Venezuela that has been the subject of repeated complaints of disproportionate actions and human rights violations.

The troll accounts posed as ordinary users of the social network, but almost all of them had been created some weeks before, during the month of February, a digital clue that denotes intentionality. They responded in a coordinated manner to tweets published by the official accounts of Provea and El Pitazo with links to critical articles about the FAES, praising the work of the police force and accusing both of spreading “fake news”.

Only one of the accounts posted an incriminating tweet: “(…) why then don’t they come and take the place of one as an officer, who does is to watch over the safety of all Venezuelans?”.

Days after the publication of the report on the incident, the network of 85 troll accounts was suspended by Twitter.

A weapon of political warfare

In the political context, smear campaigns have also been used as a tactic to generate damage to the fragile and heterogeneous Venezuelan opposition, to sow discord and deepen divisions among its different factions and to destroy the reputation of any alternative to the political project underway, or at least to induce the self-destruction of its main adversaries.

Freddy Guevara, leader of the political party Voluntad Popular, was arrested in Caracas on July 13, 2021 at around 12 noon. The day before, Jorge Rodríguez, by then president of the chavista-controlled National Assembly, had shown a set of screenshots of alleged WhatsApp conversations between several opposition members, including Guevara, linking them to criminal gangs in Caracas. There are indications that the WhatsApp screenshots shown by Rodriguez are forgeries, as explained in a verification published on July 14 by Cazadores de Fake News.

On July 12, an hour after Juan Guaidó’s wife Fabiana Rosales alerted that Guevara was being detained on the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas, the hashtag #CapturadoKokiMariguanita began a coordinated push on Twitter, an attempt to justify the opposition leader’s arrest by linking him to the leader of a criminal gang that Maduro’s police forces had been fighting for days and even accusing him of being the “ringleader” of the gang.

The label began to be promoted by the same members of the National Organization of Alternative Communicators (ONCA) that in 2023, two years later, would promote the hoax about the false “private jet” trips of teacher and union leader Elsa Castillo.

On June 22, 2021, Diosdado Cabello reviewed a rumor that days before had gone viral in several social networks. Showing a publication that went viral on Twitter, he affirmed that Leopoldo López, leader of the Voluntad Popular party, had bought a Porsche vehicle of more than 300 thousand dollars: “with whose money? with your money, gentlemen of the opposition”.

The hoax of the “phantom” Porsche fabricated against López is just one among dozens of false, misleading or malicious information, fabricated to deepen the distrust around his leadership, first published in the same source: the network of fake news on Instagram that we identify as “The Factory of Disinformation” and that also participated in campaigns of grievances against communicators such as Carola Briceño and Norbey Marín.

As the days passed, the rumor migrated from Instagram to Twitter, where it was amplified by influencers linked to Alex Saab’s defense network, journalists from Venezolana de Televisión and by “Tuiteros de La Patria”, human operators who are paid to generate large amounts of spam to amplify propaganda trends promoted daily by the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information (MIPPCI).

The hoax of the fake Porsche of Leopoldo López was eventually repeated by a young Venezuelan opposition member not related to chavismo, but a staunch critic of the leader of Voluntad Popular. It was his tweet, and not some of the versions of the same hoax published by chavista accounts, that was finally shown by Cabello in his TV program, a tactic used repeatedly in his program to argue that the disinformation did not come from chavismo, but from the opposition itself.

How can civil society avoid being manipulated?

Currently, the Venezuelan government has managed to impose its communicational hegemony with the use of a wide range of strategies to control information, including censorship, persecution of critical voices and the use of disinformation in influence operations that may include defamatory attacks. It makes use of practically infinite resources and makes use of organized communicational structures, overt and covert, with which it can both impose its own narratives and discredit those it considers to come from its “enemies”, regardless of how truthful or valid its arguments may be.

Therefore, when someone claims that the ruling party and the Venezuelan opposition promote digital grievance campaigns in equal proportions and with the same characteristics, he commits a fallacy of false equivalence, because there is a very marked asymmetry between both parties.

The responsibility for generating informative content that makes it possible to highlight the struggles for popular or legitimate demands and to make corruption and human rights violations visible falls on journalists, activists and political militants whose existence, common and desirable in democratic countries, is indispensable to counterbalance power.

However, media directly or indirectly affiliated to chavismo, PSUV party structures, teams of digital communicators, civilian communication schools close to the ruling party and even military information operations corps tend to view much of the critical content as mere “enemy propaganda” or “fake news” and the actors behind that content as “enemies”, in the context of a multiform war in which it sees itself as a victim and which it tries to control with the use of tactics, techniques and procedures of disinformation and counter-propaganda that civil society is unaware of.

All of the above allows predicting that the use of organized defamatory attacks against Venezuelan journalists, researchers, media and opposition leaders will continue to occur in the near future and that attempts to undermine confidence in social and political actors, known or emerging, from any political camp, who can lead the country towards a more open and democratic era, will continue.

In any case, it is civil society, in a permanent struggle to understand what is really happening in Venezuela, the main victim of the problem of information control and disinformation.

The only way to counteract the effect of defamation campaigns and influence operations in general is to understand that they are part of disinformative strategies aimed at controlling information in Venezuela and trying to influence citizens.

Knowing the tactics, techniques and procedures used in the defamation and stigmatization campaigns previously studied will make it possible to detect similar cases in the future.

To strongly reject this type of campaigns, regardless of whether they affect journalists, media, NGOs or politicians, of any editorial line or political tendency, and to fight them, demanding truthful and evidence-based information, respecting the presumption of innocence, are necessary steps to increase the resilience of Venezuelan civil society against these attempts to manipulate the truth by any political actor, present or future, who has the resources and motivation to do so.

This work is part of the deliveries of the Coalición Informativa “C-Informa”, a Venezuelan journalistic team that aims to confront disinformation and is integrated by Medianálisis, Efecto Cocuyo, El Estímulo, Cazadores de Fake News and Probox with the support of the Consorcio para Apoyar el Periodismo Independiente en la Región (CAPIR) and the advice of Chequeado from Argentina and DataCrítica from Mexico.

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