#LupaElectoral: The instant popularity of the Essequibo

#LupaElectoral: The instant popularity of the Essequibo

Published on 12 Dec 2023

Was the Essequibo massively popular?

The claims of the Maduro administration regarding the Essequibo were one of the main topics of conversation in Venezuelan social platforms this year, mainly in X (formerly Twitter). The Ministry of Communication, the Army and Congressman Diosdado Cabello were the most trending topics.

This is an investigation of the #LupaElectoral, a campaign organized by the organizations ProBox, Medianálisis, Redes Ayuda, EsPaja and the independent media RunRunes, TalCual and El Pitazo to monitor, analyze and warn about fake news and disinformation in the Venezuelan electoral framework.

The momentum of the Venezuelan agenda on the Essequibo has accelerated at great speed since September of this year, following the claims of the Maduro administration to Guyana for the delivery of concessions for oil exploration and exploitation in marine and underwater waters that -according to Caracas- are part of the disputed Atlantic coast. Let’s put the #LupaElectoral on the propaganda in networks.

On the 21st of that month, the National Assembly elected in 2020 unanimously approved to hold a consultative referendum, a proposal brought to discussion by its president Jorge Rodriguez. “When you say that the Essequibo is Venezuelan, you have to say it because it hurts, as it hurts a son, a daughter”.

While the ruler Nicolás Maduro participated -between October 31 and December 3- in 16 official acts where the main topic of conversation was the territorial controversy. From November 7 to December 2, he dedicated 114 tweets in his account where mention was made of the Essequibo Guayana, the Essequibo or calls were made for the “defense of the territory”.

Probox reviewed the messages about the Essequibo territory from January 2020 to December 4 of this year. On the social network X (formerly Twitter) alone, more than 6.5 million posts were written about the issue, but the conversation was far from organic.

The conversation on this topic -and the consequent positioning of trends- increased as of October 2023, but it was not the period when the greatest number of tweets on the subject were registered. And the fact is that in January 2021, during the encirclement due to the covid-19 pandemic, Venezuela denounced alleged “threats against sovereignty” by Guyana, which on January 11 of that year began a series of joint military exercises with the United States in the Essequibo area.

Both Guyana and the Maduro administration made calls for peaceful resolution and dialogue, according to ProBox, “but the large number of tweets (3,120,053 approximately) is because at that time the tags of the Ministry of Communication accumulated almost one million messages”. Between October 5 and December 4, 2023, 53 trends about the Essequibo were positioned. Only in November, month of the electoral simulation, 39 of them were registered, while in the first four days of December six were registered.

The campaign was not only focused on Twitter (now X) through messages positioned by ministries or pro-government actors through the “twitter troops”. Paid advertisements on YouTube through different accounts, publications on Facebook, Instagram, massive text messages, POP material in the streets and the Caracas Metro, in addition to the campaign on television media, boosted the conversation.

EsPaja detailed that Producciones Acirema, a portal inactive since 2018, as of November 24 of this year began to publish on Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, paid propaganda replicated from other channels about the Esequibo. “Accounts that, as we have reviewed in our Electoral Radars, boost disinformation and propaganda related to the referendum on the Esequibo,” the media outlet pointed out.

The amount allocated by the Maduro administration for this intense campaign, which was developed in a little more than two months, is unknown. There are only approximations of expenses made by the politician Eduardo Battistini (Primero Justicia), who calculated that $1,350,000 were allocated for the 24 concerts of the closing of the campaign, except for the Esequibo Fest.

This amount, Battistini explained in a video, does not include the payment of the artists and personalities who performed. Journalist Melanio Escobar, whose image was used in a publication in favor of the referendum without his consent, assured that all the artists were paid in full.

Who positions the conversation?

The Ministry of Communication and Information was the main actor in the conversation around the territorial dispute. The office headed by Freddy Ñáñez positioned 60 of the 79 tags registered about the Essequibo since January 2020. It is also credited with 98.35% of the messages on the matter in tags such as #LaGuayanaEsequibaEsNuestra, #EsteEsMiPaís and #RumbeaPorElEsequibo.

On February 17 of this year, the Ministry of Communication promoted the hashtag #ElEsequiboEsDeVenezuela, which accumulated a little more than 1,650,000 publications, which could have been the case of all the hashtags positioned by this entity if it had not been for the drastic decrease of tweets it has promoted this year. This is the trend with the highest number of messages and has been promoted at least four times since 2020 to talk about the topic, according to ProBox’s record.

But not only the Ministry is talking about the Essequibo. Other main actors in the conversation have been the Army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and pro-government actors such as Diosdado Cabello (through his program “Con el mazo dando”), Nicolás Maduro and Delcy Rodríguez.

It is noteworthy that during 2023 the main trending topic has involved the accounts of the National Armed Forces and the National Guard -with 97 trends as of November 30-, but they have only issued 3.1 million tweets, half of those written about the Essequibo.

Is all the talk about the Essequibo reliable information? The reality is far from that. From November 1st to December 3rd, the media EsPaja published 15 notes of verification of information and fact checking on the subject. The disinformation campaign involved mainly María Corina Machado, specific questions about fines for not participating in the referendum, misleading use of names of artists, musical bands and journalists, as well as alleged invasions by Guyana and the United States.

Instagram and TikTok in the game

The Probox Digital Observatory, through the BrandMentions tool, conducted an extensive search on Esequibo to review the conversation on social networks such as Instagram, Facebook and Tiktok, in addition to X.

Probox found 28,799 mentions between November 04 and December 04, 2023 of phrases or tags with references to “referendum on the Esequibo”, “in defense of the Esequibo”, “Venezuela’s Esequibo”, “5 times yes for the Esequibo”, and “popular consultation on Guyana Esequiba”.

The greatest number of phrases or use of labels were counted on two key days: the electoral simulation on November 19 and the consultation on December 3.

Instagram accounted for 89.81% of the entries, followed by X with 8.84% of the mentions and Facebook with 1.35%. The main publications on Instagram correspond to the “Con el mazo dando” account, a pro-government singer (Emilio Vizcaíno) and the account Noticias 24 horas (Al día).

The most used words for the search in these networks include mentions of pro-government actors (Nicolás Maduro, Diosdado Cabello and Delcy Rodríguez) and allusions to the “defense of the national territory”. The “defense of the Essequibo” with 3,441 mentions, “defense of the territory” with 1,584 mentions and “defense of Guyana” with 962 mentions stood out. In addition, 40.99% of the almost 29 thousand mentions studied used the hashtag #ElEsequiboEsNuestro.

While on TikTok, whose use Maduro himself has tried to promote, two videos were posted under the word Esequibo: one from the account @unajevadevenezuela and the other from a user under the name @johanderjhosue.

Both videos have accumulated more than 4.3 million views, 125,600 “likes” and 5,679 comments. They have been shared around 19,739 times and saved at least 17,540 times.

Another of the viral videos on TikTok was a satire regarding the number of votes announced by the CNE and the empty voting centers. It belongs to the account @carissazuairath and accumulated 700 thousand reproductions, at least 21,800 likes and 3,486 comments. In addition, it was shared 8,360 times and saved at least 1,403 times.

The observatory Probox also reviewed in this social network the hashtag #VenezuelaDiceSí, promoted by the Ministry of Communication. There are three videos, belonging to the state channel Tves, the pro-government deputy José Uzcátegui and the account “ChavistaTikTok”, which totaled more than 174 thousand views, 5,223 likes and 470 comments. For the organization, this shows “part of the multiplatform coordination to promote propaganda in accounts linked to the Venezuelan State and the ruling party, since this tag was promoted by MIPPCI on X (Twitter) as its trend of the day and the content spread to other social media platforms”.

Anonymous networks, trend in Cuba and attacks against Maria Corina Machado around Esequibo

The claims of the Maduro administration regarding the Essequibo were one of the main topics of conversation in Venezuelan social networks this year, mainly in X (formerly Twitter). “Anonymous networks” also did their own thing to accuse the opposition candidate of handing over that territory. The Ministry of Communication, the Army and Congressman Diosdado Cabello were in the spotlight to position the highest number of trends, as identified by Observatorio ProBox.

The territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo territory transcended diplomatic rants and was positioned in the country’s social networks, with tweets and trends created by the ministries and pro-government actors to promote as valid the Venezuelan view on those 159,500 square kilometers.

One actor stood out in the whole conversation in a particular way. The ProBox Digital Observatory, dedicated to Latin American communicational analysis, recorded that in Cuba – ideological and political ally of the Maduro administration – a specific hashtag #CarcelParaLaTraidora was positioned as a trend in the social network X (formerly Twitter), demanding the imprisonment of the presidential candidate of the Unitary Platform, María Corina Machado. Probox identified around 3,217 publications on November 25 under that tag. “This tag was not trending in Venezuela, only in Cuba, a country where we have registered activities linked to the Venezuelan digital conversation in that since at least 2020, driving different oficialist narratives in 2021, 2022 and during the first half of this year.”

Venezuelan tweeters were registered in the tag, among them the deputy Fiodar Acosta (PSUV – Anzoátegui), member of the Economy and Finance Commission; the coordinator of the ForoCandanga Foundation of the state of Miranda, Elías Cabeza, who took the opportunity to request prison for other opponents; or the journalist Javier Moreno, head of the RNV Los Llanos channel, who contributed to the tag with a message focused on “defending” the Essequibo.

An example of this impulse of narratives of the Cuba-Venezuela alliance occurred in the first semester of 2023, when 16 trends from the island were registered and positioned in the Venezuelan digital conversation. After the installation of fiber optics (2013) throughout Cuba to massify the use of internet, there has been a policy of control of the narrative about the country that includes social networks. An example of this was the electrical blackouts to prevent the dissemination and viralization of content about the anti-government protests of 2021.

But Cuban government actors had already been sanctioned in 2019 for the use of Twitter accounts to censor or control information about life on the island. The 14ymedio portal, led by dissident Yoani Sanchez, then recalled the restrictions on Cuba’s independent press. “Since the approval of the new computerization law, last July, it is penalized for ‘disseminating, through public data transmission networks, information contrary to the social interest, morals, good customs and the integrity of persons’, which, de facto, outlaws the digital media that, with the previous analogical regulations managed to circumvent some of the restrictions.”

Participation of Anonymous Networks

There are more details about the hashtag #CarcelParaLaTraidora. ProBox downloaded a sample of one thousand tweets and identified that the average of inorganic messages, that is, messages from bots or inauthentically coordinated accounts, was 10.2%. Despite the result, for Probox this hashtag was part of an organized campaign as it replicated the same statement of the leader of Vente Venezuela who tried to position herself with #MCMEntregaElEsequibo. This is not the first time that anonymous networks and actors allied to the Maduro regime join forces to misinform about opposition leaders such as María Corina Machado. ProBox together with the C-Informa Coalition published an investigation linking these same disinformative networks with the accounts of Diosdado Cabello and his program “Con El Mazo Dando” in the discrediting of the electoral process of the Primaries in October.

María Corina Machado’s statements refer to her position of suspending the December 3 referendum as a “mistake”, which was used by a high-ranking Guyanese official who replied to a distorted quote from Venezuelan politics, according to EsPaja portal.

This media also confirmed that the narrative of alleged “surrender” by the leader was wielded by pro-government actors, both in social networks and on television, such as Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the ruling PSUV party, and former minister Alejandro Fleming.

This last hashtag, #MCMEntregaElEsequibo and whose first message was registered on November 24, was promoted by an account of the so-called “anonymous networks”, which have been reviewed by Probox as a group of users “without verifiable identity, coordinated among themselves to position certain trends”. Their messages have been placed at least since 2019 in the digital political conversation.

The messages of the “anonymous networks” accused candidate Machado of being a “traitor” for opposing the referendum. In her last statement on the subject, last December 7 before a sub-committee of the European Parliament, the leader insisted on a position of defense of the Essequibo within the International Court of Justice, an issue that the Maduro administration rejects under the allegation that it contravenes the Geneva agreement of 1966, the only instrument they consider valid for the resolution of the territorial dispute.

Likewise, ProBox conducted a cross-listing of users between the two aforementioned tags (#CarcelParaLaTraidora and #MCMEntregaElEsequibo) against María Corona Machado, along with a third tag positioned on December 7 (#QueCaiganLosTraidores) which gathered about 1,059 tweets, finding 34 users who participated in all three tags, representing about 10% of the users who participated in each of these conversations.

During the downloading of information on the social network TikTok, videos were found with the hashtag #QueCaiganLosTraidores, where images of several opposition leaders such as María Corina Machado or Juan Guaidó behind fictitious bars were simulated. These videos, uploaded by different accounts, counted between 1,000 and 2,200 reproductions. Other tags seen in the social network Twitter did not count with videos found in TikTok such as #MCMEntregaElEsequibo or #CarcelParaLaTraidora. However, the first tag does have several posts on the network.

This same crossing was carried out with the hashtag promoted by Minci (#VenezuelaDiceSí), and we managed to get 38 users to coincide with some of these hashtags of Redes Anónimas. This same exercise with the hashtag #CincoVecesSíYJuacata of Diosdado Cabello’s program, “Con el mazo dando”, resulted in 45 matching accounts that also participated in this conversation promoted by the radical government.

For Probox, the participation of anonymous networks on the sidelines of this conversation should not be underestimated, because although it did not represent a large number of tweets, “it was linked to key actors of the Venezuelan pro-government digital ecosystem such as the Ministry of Communication, the radical ruling party and the Cuban conversation itself”.

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