The Disinformation Factory on Instagram that threatens democracy in Venezuela

The Disinformation Factory on Instagram that threatens democracy in Venezuela

Published on 13 Mar 2023

Anonymous news network on Instagram with content aimed at opposition readers has been a recurring source of disinformation since 2019. Remains active in 2023

  • The network of accounts often disseminates content that reinforces the narratives of the government of Nicolás Maduro, highlighting its supposed achievements, attempting to discourage migration, delegitimize critical actors and deepen the existing rifts and division between the different groups of the Venezuelan opposition.
  • Some of its contents have gone viral and have been reviewed on Venezuelan public television.
  • There is evidence of coordination between the fake news group on Instagram and other disinformation networks active on Twitter and YouTube

By Adrián González for Cazadores de Fake News and C-Informa

Social networks are being contaminated with disinformation in order to hinder the precarious capacity of civil society to distinguish the limits between truth and lies.

It is quite likely that thousands of Venezuelan Instagram users have been systematically and continuously exposed to socio-political disinformation, due to the action of a network of anonymous accounts that disseminate informative content and that, in sum, accumulate more than 1 million 250 thousand followers and have been active, at least, since 2019.

This particular anonymous news network on Instagram was baptized by Cazadores de Fake News as “La Fábrica de Desinformación” (The Disinformation Factory) from an article published in August 2020. Since then it has identified it as the origin of dozens of socio-political hoaxes in the Venezuelan context. For several years it has contaminated a social network through which many Venezuelan Internet users get information, many of them of opposition orientation who usually try to avoid being exposed to propagandistic and disinformative content transmitted in traditional and digital media controlled by the ruling party and that – in the context of the prevailing communicational hegemony – reaches all corners of Venezuela with greater ease.

From immigration hoaxes and propaganda about the improvement of the national economy, to defamatory content against Venezuelan journalists and decontextualized videos that seek to deepen the -already existing- rifts between the multiple leaders of the Venezuelan opposition and fuel their internal divisions, the accounts of “La Fábrica” are a recurrent source of hoaxes, disinformation and propaganda, which sometimes permeates other social networks and goes viral.

The Informational Coalition C-Informa was able to identify 306 publications disseminated by at least one of the six accounts on Instagram that make up the group of anonymous news outlets, analyzed the type of content disseminated by the disinformative network and the signs of synchronization between the content published from the network on Instagram with disinformative campaigns deployed on other social networks. The analysis made it possible to identify what appears to be an ongoing influence operation, i.e., a campaign that makes coordinated, malicious or manipulative use of information and narratives to promote the objectives of those who promote it and achieve competitive advantages over their adversaries.

The purpose of this research is to alert the Venezuelan population about the existence of networks of accounts apparently informative and aimed at the opposition public -but which prove to be disinformative focal points-, in order to increase the resilience of Venezuelan civil society with respect to the problem of digital information pollution that affects it.

The false rumor about the arrival of COVID-19 in Venezuela

Around noon on February 29, 2020, attendees to a rally in Barquisimeto, an important city in the center-west of the country, of Juan Guaidó – partially recognized as Interim President of Venezuela until January 2023 – were victims of an attack by armed groups. In the incident, unknown persons used firearms, stones and explosives against the attendees, leaving at least five people injured and breaking the windows of one of the vehicles used by his entourage.

That same night, Guaidó reiterated the call for an opposition march to be held in Caracas the following March 10, whose end point would be the Federal Legislative Palace, seat of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

By the end of February, the arrival of COVID-19 in Venezuela had not yet been officially declared. The disease was just over two weeks old – most Venezuelans still referred to it as the “Coronavirus” – and the outbreak had not even been declared a “pandemic” by the World Health Organization, which would occur on March 11.

However, rumors about the supposed arrival of the virus in the country had been circulating since the beginning of the year, such as a false case detected at the Chilemex Clinic in Puerto Ordaz, Bolivar state (in the south of the country), which was denied in the last week of January.

But the same night of the attack against the rally in Barquisimeto, the rumor was revived. At 8:00 p.m. on February 29, the hashtag #CoronavirusEnVzla suddenly began to be promoted on Twitter by a coordinated group of accounts that, publishing a large number of tweets with junk content -spam- and without presenting any evidence about the alleged arrival of the virus in the country, positioned it in the No. 1 trending position for Venezuela.

The following day, on March 1, at 3:44 p.m., five anonymous Instagram accounts pretending to be news outlets began to spread the photo of two elderly people lying on stretchers, assuring that they were “alleged cases of Coronavirus in Puerto Ordaz” and that, on this occasion, they would be being treated at the Hospital de Clínicas Caroní. In a matter of hours, journalists and media verified the information and proved that it was a hoax. The photos had no relation with Venezuela; they had been published by a Dominican portal on September 15, 2019, long before the existence of the virus was known in the world.

Despite this, the rumor continued to be pushed on Twitter on March 2. On that day, the same organized team of tweeters that promoted #CoronavirusEnVzla pushed another hashtag, #CoronavirusEnPzo (Coronavirus in Puerto Ordaz), to the No. 6 trending position in Venezuela. The campaign aimed to popularize on Twitter the rumor about the two alleged cases of Coronavirus in Puerto Ordaz, sharing the same photo of the elderly Dominicans that hours earlier had appeared as real news on the anonymous Instagram news feed.

The campaign continued for several days on both social networks. On Instagram, on March 3, 7, 9 and 10, other posts were shared seeking to keep the rumor alive. On Twitter, on March 3, 4 and 5, the trends #WaidoConCoronavirus, #GuaidonaVirus and #GuaidoInfectado were boosted, respectively.

The digital forensic evidence shows that the rumor about the false arrival of COVID-19 did not arise spontaneously in social networks, nor was it a coincidence that there were cross-references between disinforming actors on Instagram and Twitter. It was -with no doubt- an operation of multiplatform influence, that is to say, published in several social networks in a coordinated manner in an attempt to amplify the rumor, both to distract from the attack on the rally in Barquisimeto on February 29 and to encourage fear in civil society and use it to impact the call for the march scheduled for the following March 10.

Shortly after the march, on March 12, Nicolás Maduro announced in a press conference the suspension and prohibition of mass public rallies and events. A day later, Delcy Rodriguez confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 in the country: two patients reported in Miranda State (north), located more than 450 km northeast of the city of Puerto Ordaz.

Webs of lies linking social networks

When disinformation is systematically designed and amplified, it usually leaves patterns, traces or evidence to prove its intentionality.

The rumor about the false arrival of COVID-19 in Venezuela in early March 2020 is far from being the only case of disinformation whose birth and amplification is associated with the same disinformative actors identified on Instagram and Twitter.

According to information recorded by the observatory Probox and the organization Cazadores de Fake News, in at least 30 opportunities between 2019 and 2022, in both social networks coordinated campaigns were activated to popularize hoaxes, labels, narratives or propagandistic multimedia content. These have involved, precisely, the same anonymous Instagram newsmakers that make up “The Disinformation Factory” as well as the same team of accounts that drove coordinated trends on Twitter.

How Instagram and Twitter were intoxicated with the same misinformation

Hoaxes, rumors and memes appeared almost simultaneously on two social networks, at least 30 times, due to the action of the same misinformers.

See table of examples here.

One of those campaigns was promoted on Twitter on December 25, 2019 with the hashtag #WaidoEnLosRoques, a rumor about a fake vacation that Juan Guaidó and his family would have enjoyed at Christmas and that the next day was also reviewed by five of the anonymous newscasts of “La Fábrica”.

Another case arose on February 3, 2020, when the same people responsible for popularizing on Twitter the hashtags #CoronavirusEnVzla and #WaidoEnLosRoques promoted #GuaidoYSuPrima, trying to make visible a new rumor about a false relationship between Guaidó and Windy Guaidó, an urban music singer whose career would have been financed -according to the hoax- by the by then interim president. The same day, the rumor appeared reviewed on Instagram by accounts of “La Fábrica” and, the following day, it was amplified internationally in the Spanish version of Mundo Sputnik, a propaganda media affiliated to the Russian government, which also appears reflected in an investigation by Efecto Cocuyo for the C-Informa alliance on portals in Latin America that spread Russian, Cuban and Venezuelan political disinformation.

According to what was confirmed to Cazadores de Fake News by spokespersons of Juan Guaidó’s communications team, Windy Guaidó was not part of the interim government he led and is not even known in the family environment of the opposition leader.

Several tweeters and researchers have been denouncing for years the techniques used by the same team of tweeters to manipulate the Twitter algorithm and position tags at the top of the list of trends for Venezuela, violating the policies against spam and manipulation of the social network platform.

But it wasn’t until 2021 that Twitter permanently suspended the account leading the group of tweeters, belonging to a Venezuelan influencer nicknamed @NiTanTukky, after receiving information about a set of forgotten 2019 and 2020 tweets on their timeline in which they explicitly offered payments between USD 100 and 150 to promote the disinformative tags.

The group of Twitter accounts led by @NiTanTukky, pseudonym of Venezuelan influencer Keisbel Giménez, is what in the study of disinformation is known as an astroturfing team -flesh and blood operators who try to place issues on the public agenda, pretending to talk spontaneously about them, but hiding their true intention-. In 2023, the team of tweeters has driven coordinated trends occasionally, but not as regularly or with the same impact as in previous years.

Although there are clear coincidences between the operation on Instagram and Twitter in terms of the type of content, objectives and date of dissemination, so far it has not been possible to prove whether both networks are being operated by the same group of people.

However, in an investigation published in August 2022, it became evident that the disinformative content disseminated on Instagram by “The Factory” and with the use of coordinated tags on Twitter, also had connections with a network of six propaganda channels on YouTube whose administrators paid advertising to promote some of their videos. The group of channels – which included House of News, a fake newscast narrated in English with anchors generated with the use of Artificial Intelligence software – ceased operating in March 2023, when it was suspended in its entirety by YouTube.

Despite the loss of influence of the team driving coordinated trends on Twitter and the closure of the network of YouTube channels, the anonymous news network on Instagram, “The Disinformation Factory,” has continued to publish disinformative content to this day.

Is “La Fábrica” part of an organized disinformation strategy?

It had already been warned since 2017 that the Bolivarian government would intend to manipulate content on the internet to defend itself from what it considers the “media war” while making use of disinformative tactics, techniques and procedures, recruiting influencers and even creating fake news on social networks.

In June of that year, the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), Venezuela chapter, published a presentation leaked to the web with the logo of the Ministry of Popular Power for Internal Relations, Justice and Peace and entitled “Project for the formation of the army of trolls of the Bolivarian revolution”. In the document, whose implementation could never be verified, it was recommended the use of “press squads” which would be in charge of creating informative contents, press releases, articles and publications. According to the strategy, there would be several types of squads, among them those of “fake news” or initiators of false positives. It was also suggested the purchase of accounts “with more than 100 thousand followers” on Instagram and Twitter with the objective of “covering news from different areas, some with pro-government political line and others of opposition, in order to reach that public”.

Given the existence of a precedent of intentionality, can it be verified whether the guidelines outlined in the project for the formation of the “army of trolls of the Bolivarian revolution” are related to the activity of anonymous or covert newscasts on social networks, as is the case with the accounts of “La Fábrica”?

If the project had been implemented, the Instagram anonymous news network would be one of the disinformation hotspots on social networks that would raise more suspicions of being related to what was suggested in the document.

Already in the investigation on “La Fábrica” published in August 2020 it had been confirmed, with the use of Meta’s CrowdTangle tool and by analyzing the dates and times of publication of the contents, that the anonymous news network was the origin of dozens of hoaxes, rumors, manipulated information and toxic Venezuelan propaganda, which within hours or days would be reproduced – inadvertently, in most cases – by other accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and, occasionally, on national public television. Since then, Cazadores de Fake News identified 18 additional cases that went viral on at least two social networks and had “La Fábrica” as their origin. Likewise, it discarded dozens of other publications from the anonymous news network that never went viral, despite having clearly identified them as disinformation.

In August 2020, the network consisted of 6 accounts, two of which are currently suspended (@VenezuelaGrita and @CiudadanoVenezolano).

By March 2023, the network is composed of six linked accounts:

  • @VeneNewsToday (ID: 1355770473): with 27 previous usernames, including @58Turismo and @LaNoticiaDeVzla. It has more than 58 thousand followers.
  • @LaNoticiaTuya (ID: 5646951525): with 10 previous usernames such as @VzlaInformacion and @LaLupaVe. More than 64 thousand followers.
  • @ElObservadorVe (ID: 3118816757): with 7 previous names, not identified. More than 373 thousand followers.
  • @VivoPorVenezuela (ID: 10446015054): with 7 previous names, not identified. More than 128 thousand followers.
  • @AraguaLucha (ID: 5413330422), more than 211 thousand followers.
  • @TodosContigoVenezuela (ID: 15479999557), more than 423 thousand followers.

In the particular case of “The Factory”, the usernames should only be considered as referential information since several of the network’s accounts change their identification regularly, especially after some denial is published about the hoaxes whose dissemination they initiated or participated in. This is a camouflage technique also used by the accounts of the Twitter team linked to @NiTanTukky, according to observations by Cazadores de Fake News.

Deconstructing a disinformative “laboratory”.

What other rumors, hoaxes and manipulations were posted on Instagram by the anonymous newsmakers of “The Factory” during the time it has been active? At what point has it generated the most disinformative content and on which topics?

Using CrowdTangle and posting date and time information from hundreds of tweets posted by the accounts, a database was assembled with a sample of 306 disinformative or propagandistic content shared by at least one of the network’s accounts between March 2019 and January 2023.

The database of publications was organized according to the narrative driven, the target actor of the content and the disinformative technique used. The results are shown in the following tree diagram.

“Opposition is unreliable or immoral” and other narratives used by Venezuelan disinformation network on Instagram

306 publications made by one or more network accounts (numbers indicate number of publications)

The content published by the anonymous newscasts is not, in its entirety, disinformation or propaganda, nor is it identical. Several of the channels publish content in a heterogeneous manner, interspersing real news, generally extracted from Venezuelan digital media such as La Patilla, AlbertoNews or DolarToday, with advertising, memes and, occasionally, the original disinformative and propagandistic content identified in the database. The same content was published almost simultaneously by at least two of the accounts of “La Fábrica” in 134 of the indexed cases, which may give the impression to potential followers that it is important or “breaking news” content when seeing it appear, suddenly, in several Instagram accounts.

This is one of the main reasons why anonymous news outlets are considered to form a network. Two of the accounts (@VeneNewsToday and @LaNoticiaTuya) are usually the first to publish disinformative content and, in 12 of the indexed cases, they published the same contents in a time interval of less than 60 seconds, suggesting that they are operated by the same person. The same occurs with the four remaining accounts (@ElObservadorVe, @VivoPorVenezuela, @TodosContigoVenezuela and @AraguaLucha), which also present coincidences in publishing the same type of content almost simultaneously, with differences of minutes or seconds.

La Fábrica” newscasts share the same publications in a matter of minutes

Publications of “La Fábrica” shared almost simultaneously by two or more of the anonymous newscasts.

During the period studied, the anonymous news network published the most content during three specific months:

  • May 2020: 24 different publications, after the events of the so-called Operation Gideon (Fig. 01)
  • December 2020: 23 different publications, during the weeks prior to the Popular Consultation promoted by the Venezuelan opposition (img. 02)
  • October 2021: 20 different publications, in the context of the negotiation and dialogue process between the government and the Venezuelan opposition and weeks before the electoral campaign for the legislative elections of November 21 (Fig. 03).

The main actors mentioned in the publications indexed in the database are Juan Guaidó (89 publications, 29% of the total), Leopoldo López (55 publications, 17.97% of the total), the interim government (24 publications, 7.84% of the total) and elections in Venezuela (11 publications, 3.59% of the total).

The disinformative content that begins to spread on the accounts of “La Fábrica” employs a wide range of disinformative techniques, including 14 cases of content falsification:

  • Falsified documents: fake leaked databases, supposedly coming from democratic initiatives of the Venezuelan opposition such as the 2020 Popular Consultation (img. 04), the “Health Heroes” program promoted by the interim government (img. 05) or falsified documents such as a fake investigation of the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office against the interim government (img. 06).
  • False opinions or comments from reliable sources: fabricated statements from the director of the Colegio de Psicólogos del Distrito Capital (img. 07), from a journalist of the newspaper El País of Spain (img. 08) or from a journalist of the newspaper La Nación of Argentina (img. 09). In the latter case, the hoax was erased from the anonymous news outlet that published it after the journalist herself refuted it in the same publication
  • False publications on social networks by influential actors: videos never published by media outlets, polls never published on Twitter by influential journalists (img. 10), tweets never published by influential actors (img. 11) and poll results never published by Venezuelan pollsters (img. 12).

But not all disinformative content is based on falsehoods. There is a pattern present in dozens of the indexed cases: the use of misleading, fact-based information or real content that was deliberately distorted in order to generate damage to its targets.

Some of the content disseminated are personal documents disseminated with the use of misleading narratives (img. 13), decontextualized private images and videos (img. 14, 15 and 16), misleading information about humanitarian aid (img. 17), hoaxes with completely fabricated information with deliberate intent to harm (img. 18, 19, 20) and memes that amplify existing propagandistic narratives.

Not all cases, however, appeared in social networks through “La Fábrica”. There are cases in which the network of manipulation of trends on Twitter was involved first (images 10, 13, 21), troll accounts or chavismo communicators on Twitter (image 12) or even, they were first presented by representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro, and then circulated on social networks (image 14).

On at least six occasions, content broadcast by “La Fábrica” appeared on the state-owned channel Venezolana de Televisión through the program “Con El Mazo Dando”, hosted by Diosdado Cabello.

Three of the publications were directly mentioned by Cabello (images 13, 14, 20) while the remaining ones appeared as part of the thematic segments against opposition actors that are broadcasted in the final part of the program (images 16, 21, 23). The program is a regular source of disinformation and toxic propaganda against Venezuelan politicians and parties, journalists and independent media.

Juan Guaidó, Leopoldo López and the interim government were not the only Venezuelan opposition actors who were in the crosshairs of the content coming from “La Fábrica” on Instagram, which was then amplified on other social networks.

The database also contains content that targeted both leaders of the Venezuelan political opposition – such as María Corina Machado, Henrique Capriles Radonsky, Henry Ramos Allup and Delsa Solórzano – as well as actors from the ruling party who in recent years have confronted the Bolivarian government, such as former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz and former Minister Rafael Ramírez.

In all cases, the publications seem to be aimed at deepening the already existing rifts and fueling the polarization between the different adversaries of the Venezuelan ruling party, a disinformative strategy that has been identified by Cazadores de Fake News in programs broadcast on public television, such as the aforementioned “Con El Mazo Dando” or “La Hojilla”, hosted by Mario Silva.

But there is also disinformative content published by “La Fábrica” referring to democratic processes or citizen participation, which may give clues about the type of information manipulation whose use can be expected in Venezuela in similar processes that will occur in the near future.

As previously explained, in early 2020 the anonymous news network shared a series of six different publications about the false arrival of COVID-19 to Venezuela in what can be assumed as an attempt to weaken the participation in the March 10 march of that year. In the case of the Popular Consultation, the content disseminated also sought to weaken opposition participation in the initiative, which could promote uncertainty in the process and fuel fear of possible political retaliation, since three of the publications in the database referred to the false sale of the database of the Popular Consultation by its organizers.

Among the selected publications, it is also possible to identify the intention to influence readers on topics such as the regional elections of November 21, 2021 (images 28 to 30) and the negotiation process between the opposition and the ruling party (images 31 to 33).

There is a group of them, however, that is directly composed of informative or propagandistic content related to Nicolás Maduro (images 34 and 35) or directors of Venezuelan police or intelligence agencies such as Douglas Rico, Director of the Scientific, Criminal and Criminalistic Investigations Corps (image 36); Alexander Granko Arteaga, Head of the Special Affairs Unit (DAE) of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, DGCIM (image 37 to 39) and Rafael Bastardo, former head of the Special Affairs Unit (DAE) of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, DGCIM (image 37 to 39). 36); Alexander Granko Arteaga, Head of the Special Affairs Unit (DAE) of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, DGCIM (img. 37 to 39) and Rafael Bastardo, former chief of operations of the Special Actions Force (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police, PNB (img. 40 to 42).

While the appearance of this type of content in the database is very small with respect to the topics in the rest of the cases, it is striking that all publications about Granko Arteaga, published in some of the accounts of “The Factory” between February 9 and 11, 2022, days later were deleted from the anonymous Instagram newsfeeds.

While the appearance of this type of content in the database is very small with respect to the topics in the rest of the cases, it is striking that all publications about Granko Arteaga, published in some of the accounts of “The Factory” between February 9 and 11, 2022, days later were deleted from the anonymous Instagram newsfeeds.

What can civil society learn from “La Fábrica”?

Are the anonymous news accounts that make up “The Disinformation Factory” on Instagram digital assets that are being used in an operation of influence with links to the government of Nicolás Maduro, are they managed by spontaneous supporters of the ruling party or simply commercial accounts that offer services of publishing content, including disinformation, to whoever can pay for it?

As has been documented in countries such as Russia, the covert promotion of disinformation on social networks is an information warfare strategy designed to deny attribution and connections with its beneficiaries. And, although in the case of “La Fábrica” it has not been possible to attribute its operation to any specific actor, the narratives it has promoted make it evident that it is an asset frequently used in the context of information warfare in Venezuela.

Although the content published by “La Fábrica” since 2019 has mainly targeted opposition politicians such as Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López, it is essential to understand that the positions they occupied as targets of the disinformation generated by the network could be replaced by other political actors that represent a threat to Venezuelan officialdom. These disinformation tactics are expected to intensify during important electoral processes, such as the opposition primary elections and the 2024 presidential elections.

It is not enough for civil society to strongly reject the political use of disinformation or passively accede to denials, clarifications and reports from Venezuelan media and verification initiatives. To combat this problem, it must be prepared for the deployment of similar influence operations in the digital scenario and the first step is to understand that this type of content does not appear spontaneously in social networks.

It is essential to foster media and information literacy in Venezuelan readers, with the ultimate goal of enabling them to discern between reliable sources and disinforming actors, such as the anonymous newscasts of “La Fábrica” or the network that drives coordinated trends on Twitter. Venezuelan media, organizations and institutions have initiated training programs for communicators and civil society leaders in recent years, but there is still a long way to go.

Education is the most sustainable way to provide citizens with the tools they need to protect themselves against the spread of disinformation and the deployment of influence operations, protecting their right to access accurate and timely information.

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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