Anatomy of Alex Saab’s influence operation

Anatomy of Alex Saab’s influence operation

Published on 22 Mar 2023

He went from being a businessman whose international accusations were ignored by the Venezuelan government in 2020, to a public personality defended with the full force of the State in 2022. His media metamorphosis is the product of an extensive influence operation whose history was reconstructed with the use of digital traces.

  • The dissemination of fake news, the promotion of inauthentic trends in social networks and the activation of fake accounts networks were useful tools to simulate a widespread popular support for Alex Saab that he does not really have.
  • The campaign in digital media and social networks was not enough and forced them to return to guerrilla marketing practices, painting graffiti on walls in Caracas, manufacturing thousands of identical T-shirts with Saab’s face and projecting the hashtag #FreeAlexSaab on the walls of important buildings in the United States and England.
  • Digital evidence allows tracing connections between the messages in favor of Saab left on media, networks and walls and the planning of the influence operation by the Venezuelan State.

On November 24, 2022, a communiqué began to circulate announcing the incorporation of the Italian model and wife of Alex Saab, Camilla Fabri, to the pro-government delegation participating in the international dialogue process with the Venezuelan opposition. The following day, shortly after the arrival in Mexico of the representatives of Chavismo, Fabri was presented at a press conference by Jorge Rodriguez, leader of that group, as “defender of human rights” and “plenipotentiary delegate” in the negotiations.

At that moment, the importance of Alex Saab for the Bolivarian government became even clearer. Fabri represents the Venezuelan State and, at the same time, the interests of Alex Saab, the Colombian businessman considered “Special Envoy” by the government of Nicolás Maduro, who is facing trial in the United States accused of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

But before he was explicitly recognized as an actor close to Maduro and before Fabri signed – on behalf of her husband – the Second Partial Agreement derived from the negotiation process, it was necessary to try to conquer the national news space.

For more than two years, the Bolivarian government has made an effort to position a series of narratives to justify its relationship with the businessman, to counteract the accusations of corruption against him and, eventually, to guarantee the freedom of Saab, an extraordinary business ally with access to classified information that, if revealed to his adversaries, could pose great risks to him.

Since the day of his arrest in Cape Verde, on June 12, 2020, Cazadores de Fake News followed up on the massive campaign deployed in social networks, traditional media and physical spaces aimed at influencing Venezuelan and international public opinion with a set of narratives favorable to the Bolivarian government on the Saab case. This operation of influence is made up of dozens of informative incidents investigated until December 2022, which obey tactics, techniques and procedures executed publicly or covertly by diplomats, lawyers, media, journalists and several public relations companies involved, in at least four different countries.

Many of these incidents made use of disinformation, including the dissemination of fake news, actions to manipulate social networks, the pushing of inauthentic trends on social networks and the activation of networks of fake accounts. Disinformation was a useful tool for different reasons: to simulate widespread popular support for Alex Saab that is not real, to affect the credibility of journalists, media and investigators of his case, and to divert the attention of public opinion while events are happening that can damage the image and outcome of the trial of the businessman.

The following chapters summarize the evolution, tactics, techniques and procedures used by the influence operation in favor of Alex Saab, one of the most extensive and best documented in the history of Venezuela.

An unexpected arrest

On June 9, 2020, three days before Alex Saab’s arrest, the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office had imposed precautionary measures on assets of the businessman valued at about US$9 million. His name had been known long before: Venezuelan media had pointed out his political ties with the Bolivarian government since July 2016 and he had been under formal investigation since 2018 by the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office.

Saab was captured in Cape Verde while the plane in which he was traveling was refueling. The following day, at 6:04 P. M. (VEN), the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry published a communiqué, denouncing his “arbitrary detention”, calling him a “Venezuelan citizen” and “agent of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela”. That communiqué did not mention Saab’s designation as “Special Envoy” supposedly enacted on April 9, 2018 and which appeared in Official Gazette No. 6,373 of April 26 of that year, a document that in 2022 would be shown as proof of the businessman’s diplomatic status. However, the document presents several irregularities, including the existence of at least two different versions and that the second version, the only one in which the designation as “Special Envoy” appears, has evidence of having been created and posted on the page in April 2022, almost 47 months after its alleged promulgation.

There are other digital forensic evidences that allow demonstrating the closeness of the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry with the case of Saab during the first days of his detention in Cape Verde, in June 2022.

Saab’s alleged appointment as “Special Envoy” was first mentioned by Jorge Arreaza, by then Venezuelan Foreign Minister, on June 13, 2020. However, just hours after his arrest, the English name of Saab’s position, “Special Envoy”, appeared in an article in Orinoco Tribune, a Venezuelan portal that publishes content in English and which describes itself as “independent”, but which is directed by Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza, an actor very close to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry, as he had been the Venezuelan Consul General in Chicago until mid-2017.

It was precisely another Orinoco Tribune article, published on August 12, 2020, one of the first to be spread inauthentically through the use of accounts with bot-like behavior and networks of Indian and Pakistani influencers, which simulated popular support for Alex Saab on Twitter. It was the first sub-operation of astroturfing (alleged inauthentic popular support) related to the campaign. Its objective was, most probably, to flood the information space and counteract the immense flow of negative tweets against the Colombian businessman, which were spontaneously published by “real” Venezuelan citizens.

The first “fake news” disseminated in the framework of the Operation of Influence in favor of Alex Saab, was possibly an article shared by a network of apparently automated accounts (bots), the second half of August 2020. An English-language article that appeared on the Indian Yahoo news subdomain, whose Spanish equivalent translation is: “YAHOO: Aumenta la inquietud internacional por las circunstancias de la detención del enviado venezolano”, was not actually original Yahoo News content. The text cited as a source the Indian blog Ed Times, which explicitly offers advertising services, including the publication of unverified news, which can easily be false or misleading, and its dissemination as if it were real news.

The disinformative content was shared during an incipient phase of the influence operation in which there were still no ancillary web pages to the campaign, useful for disseminating its narratives, nor the amplification and manipulation strategies in social media that would be deployed months later.

The legion of bot accounts

Between August 2020 and April 2021, Fake News Hunters published six lists of 660 possibly automated accounts (bots), which were used in Alex Saab’s Twitter defense campaign.

Most of them had several common factors that made it possible to identify them: they had been created recently, had few followers and few followed accounts, were generally anonymous and the totality of their content was of a repetitive (spam) type, with mentions of Cape Verdean authorities’ accounts and tags such as #JusticeForSaab, #FreeTheSpecialEnvoy and #JusticeFor_Saab.

It was precisely bots accounts that in late August 2020 published for the first time on Twitter the phrase FreeAlexSaab, which would end up becoming the dedicated hashtag used for the rest of the campaign and, eventually, would be adopted by Venezuelan influencers as a leitmotif. On September 25, 2021, one year after its first mention in social networks and 11 days after the pro-government delegates in the dialogue process demanded the incorporation of Saab to the dialogue table, the FreeAlexSaab tag appeared in the posters shown by its members upon their arrival in Mexico.

From the beginning, the massive dissemination of pro-Alex Saab messages on Twitter through the use of bot accounts had several disadvantages.

The obvious anomalous activity caught the attention of Twitter, which took measures to limit the impact of this disinformative tactic, which violates the policy against spam and platform manipulation. Most of the accounts created were quickly blocked by the social network, which involved the creation of new fake accounts, and the reach of tweets from several of the fake accounts was apparently being diminished by the social network.

But the main drawback of the bot accounts that acted during this period is that the technique affected the credibility and legitimacy of the campaign. Some of the first tweeters who started supporting Alex Saab on Twitter in early 2021, argued that they were not bots, highlighting that they were human operators and denying the participation of fake accounts in the campaign.

Read more about it in the full Cazadores de Fake News’ piece for the C-Inform Coalition, here.

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