#CyberAllianceUncovered: disinformation and gender-tinged online attacks

#CyberAllianceUncovered: disinformation and gender-tinged online attacks

Published on 13 Dec 2023

Female opposition primary candidates had a higher number of gender-related hoaxes and attacks than male candidates

The opposition primaries of October 22, 2023 unleashed a new wave of disinformation, propaganda and hoaxes in networks long before the process took place: from the combination of the TV program “Con el Mazo dando” and artificial intelligence, to the use of coordinated “anonymous networks”, even old disinformation actors that have remained present in the Venezuelan digital ecosystem got involved in this conversation.

Coalición Informativa Venezuela (C-Informa) conducted a study focused on the then candidates María Corina Machado, Delsa Solórzano and Tamara Adrián; as well as Henrique Capriles, Freddy Superlano and Carlos Prosperi to identify and compare the disinformation, propaganda and main narratives around these six opposition leaders.

For this study, ProBox conducted a social listening analysis on the profiles of the candidates selected until September 28, to cover part of their campaigns for the primary elections. For this, the same number of publications per person was taken, analyzing six publications on Twitter (now X), three on Facebook, four on Instagram, three on TikTok and one on YouTube, due to the frequency of publication of the same on these platforms. Using as reference a previous ANOVA study on gender-based violence in Venezuelan politics in social media.

In addition, the same analysis was performed on third-party publications mentioning the candidates: three on X, four on Facebook, six on Instagram, five on TikTok and one on YouTube using as a basis the most outstanding publications for each platform, based on the reach, likes and/or comments according to each social media, when searching for the names of the candidates, according to their algorithms. In addition to the monitoring carried out by Medianálisis between January 15 and October 31, 2023 on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok on the disinformative units around the candidates studied, the monitoring of Cazadores de Fake News (CFN) between January and October 2023.

C-Informa was able to identify that women had more disinformation and gender attacks than men, focusing mainly on their physique, disqualifying adjectives associated with their gender and various types of expressions of violence, which, compared to men, were much more recurrent and evident. A conclusion derived from ProBox’s social listening analysis, in which at least 71.4% of online gender attacks and disinformation were received by female candidates.

Sold-out, traitor and homosexual: these were the attacks on men

C-Informa analyzed three male candidates to contrast the narratives and disinformation surrounding them, namely Henrique Capriles, Freddy Superlano and Carlos Prosperi.

Henrique Capriles

In the collection of words in then-candidate Henrique Capriles’ own publications and others of third parties talking about him in the monitored social media, ProBox identified at least 678 words, 505 of these were general attacks, 22 uninformative and 21 gender attacks. Hate speech against Capriles was predominant over the rest of the attacks, leveraged mainly to the presidential elections in which he was a candidate against the late Hugo Chávez and against Nicolás Maduro.

The words “sold out”, “sells homeland” and “traitor” are among the most repeated words when attacking Capriles; while, at a disinformative level, the repetition of the narrative of support to the economic sanctions, the Odebrecht scandal in 2017 and the alleged properties in other countries stand out. Gender attacks mainly talk about his lack of “manhood” to defend votes and brand him as a homosexual.

Medianálisis and CFN also found disinformative units against Capriles, mainly talking about an alleged “request to add María Corina’s votes” and his “lack of word”.

Capriles has historically been the target of homophobic attacks by the ruling party. For years, an alleged case of unjustified dismissal of a municipal police officer who caught him having sex in a luxury car in Las Mercedes when he was mayor of Baruta has been spread. This has been promoted by several actors such as Jorge Rodriguez, allied web pages and some that lend themselves to publish insults, all part of what Efecto Cocuyo mapped as “portals of lies”.

After the 2013 presidential campaign, the deputy for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Pedro Carreño attacked him in the National Assembly calling him homosexual and other offensive words about his sexual orientation, saying that in Chavismo there were “sex-diverse but serious”. In 2013 and 2014, Nicolás Maduro insulted Capriles several times in a similar way, although he denied being homophobic, and although he once questioned his heterosexuality by assuring that he did have a wife (Cilia Flores), while he also accused him of owning a “gay and transvestite youth prostitution network” in the office of the governor of Miranda while the opposition held this position.

Capriles, who at the time had not yet married and was not yet a father, denied being gay in an interview with CNN, saying he would say so if he were and presented himself as a defender of the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community.

Freddy Superlano

In the case of the Voluntad Popular candidate, who resigned his candidacy in favor of Machado before the primaries, ProBox collected around 267 words, of which 157 were general attacks, 41 on disinformation and only three as gender attacks.

The most repeated attack narratives made reference to the fact that he was “a puppet” and that “nobody knows him”; while at a disinformative level, the main references were linked to the poisoning he suffered in 2019 in a motel in Cúcuta where his cousin was killed, emphasizing illicit acts and the contracting of sexual services. References were also registered towards the alleged “letter of good conduct of Alex Saab” that was denied by Superlano himself in 2021. The gender attacks point to him as a homosexual.

Carlos Prosperi

ProBox identified 267 words in the comments of Prosperi’s and third parties’ publications about him prior to the primaries, highlighting 61 general attack words and two gender attack words. The general attacks refer mainly to the term “alacrán” (scorpion, derogative), “vende patria” (traitor) and “vendido” (sell out), while the gender attacks label him as a homosexual.

Crazy, violent, slutty: women as disinformation targets

María Corina Machado

According to C-Informa’s findings, María Corina Machado was the candidate in the process with the highest amount of disinformative content against her, which is also consistent with the overwhelming electoral support she received. ProBox conducted a social listening study, analyzing comments on Machado’s social media posts, as well as featured publications around the then candidate. This study found around 257 words, highlighting that 83 of them were digital attacks, 21 attacks that talked about legal issues, 20 specifically linked to gender attacks and five with hoaxes and disinformation.

Among these words stand out narratives promoted from the program “Con el Mazo Dando”, broadcasted by the state channel Venezolana de Televisión and hosted by Diosdado Cabello, such as “no te vestir que no vas”, “loca” (crazy) and “sayona”; as well as after the elections with “así chilles o patalees, no vas” (no matter how much you complain, you are not going).

The organization Medianálisis was able to identify 18 disinformative units against Machado, the most recurrent narrative being “the illegality” of her candidacy and her alleged “hatred of Venezuelans”, linking her to the United States and to acts of violence.

The common disinformants that Medianálisis was able to detect in these publications about María Corina Machado were “esnotivenezuela” in Instagram and “Noticias de Interés” in Facebook, whose publications have been verified for other investigations not related to the same topic. In addition, the relationship assigned to Machado with “calls for violence” is also highlighted in publications that talk about an alleged call to the United States to bomb Venezuela and that will not guarantee the life and rights of the Chavistas.

Fake News Hunters (CFN) also identified María Corina Machado as the main recipient of disinformation, having at least 72% of the 46 cases they managed to identify between January and November 2023. The main narratives against her had to do with her alleged inability to exercise a position of power and discrediting attacks, for which they used old statements to portray her as an “anti-democratic leader” who is against the Venezuelan people or who does not have popular support.

Some hoaxes were attacks misrepresenting her speech, which attempted to minimize the popular support she enjoys or to divert attention from the attacks received during her campaign. Disinformation was also circulated about Machado’s false psychological disorders, or her false addiction to drugs.

In addition, the specific study of keywords around Machado revealed that the most used words to refer to the opposition leader included mainly the terms “loca sayona” (crazy sayona), “sayona inhabilitada” (sayona disqualified), “pedazo loca” (psyco), “vieja loca” (crazy old lady) while the narratives promoted in the disinformation campaigns promoted by the ruling party, declaring her participation as a candidate null and void, regardless of any internal opposition process.

Delsa Solórzano

In the case of Delsa Solórzano, ProBox was able to identify 103 words in social media publications as of September 28, almost a month before the primaries, obtaining at least 51 general attack terms, 14 gender and one linked to disinformation. Most of the attacks on Solórzano are linked to her physical appearance, talking about “surgeries” and “botox”, as well as disqualifying her for, according to these misogynistic attacks, being “a slut” and “being very hot” because of her “self-interest in her physique”.

In addition to this list, there are two disinformative units detected by Medianálisis that talk about Solórzano being “in love with Hugo Chávez” and the misrepresentation of her statements, pretending to be against María Corina Machado. Likewise, CFN also found content replicating Solorzano’s alleged love affair with the late Venezuelan President and the alleged financing of this candidate by a German foundation, which was also identified by ProBox.

In C-Informa we talked to Delsa Solórzano in this regard, the then candidate declared that “the gender biases were very clear, not only from the State but from all fronts, including the other campaign commands: they responded to activists of my party that my place was in the kitchen making arepas, Diosdado Cabello made me songs of ‘she has no talent but she is very good-looking’, he baptized me as La Mensa”.

She also added that during the week of the registration of her candidacy for the Primaries, she suffered a septic shock that left her seriously ill and swollen and the comments she received in this regard spoke about a “badly done surgery”, all of them oriented to her physical appearance, for which she assured that “if she had been a man they would not have said anything like that to me”.

She also stated that, in her opinion, many media made women’s candidacy invisible: “A man during the campaign, any candidate, did an activity with four people in a market and it was reviewed as a big news; I did multitudinous acts in La Vega, Petare, La Guaira, Barquisimeto and they were not reviewed in the media in the same way”. For this report, however, the comparison focused on the interactions in the selected social media.

She also referred to how in social medias they edited audios, videos and images of her actions and statements to misinform and attack her candidacy, even putting her against other candidates in the process, but this bias in her opinion is not new: “I have been denied positions for being a woman in other processes (…) in 25 years of political career I have seen how women have been removed from politics, that is why in Encuentro Ciudadano I have worked to create a safe space where positions are reached by talent and not by gender. When there is no discrimination, women, men and young people are taken into account by their own merit”.

She concluded that “the most important challenge we women have is that they listen to us more than they look at us, because they always talk about how you look but if you are a man nobody notices or talks about that (…) In the candidates’ debate the commentators only referred to the fact that I was well dressed but they analyzed the gentlemen’s speech and those things should not happen”.

Tamara Adrian

In the case of Tamara Adrián, ProBox managed to collect 202 words, highlighting 43 words of general attacks and 43 of gender attack, the latter being the most recurrent phenomenon in the discourse against her and in the hoaxes that circulated in social media. CFN also found at least one disinformative unit linked to Adrian.

The most recurrent words and narratives talked about her gender, emphasizing that “she is a man” and that “she thinks she is a woman” as well as the use of the term “trans” in a derogatory way as well as calling her by her “deadname” (birth name that does not correspond to her current gender identity).

Among the findings of ProBox also highlights a complaint by the pro-government congresswoman, Maribel Castillo, against Adrian and other “personalities of the LGBTI movement” for “disrespecting her and violating the rights of children for wanting to impose gender ideology”, an unfounded conspiracy theory that human rights organizations of people of gender diversity identify as a narrative used for the denial of rights.

When talking to Tamara Adrián about C-Informa’s findings, she stated that she was attacked “by evangelical, ultra-Catholic and very Chavista bots and trolls; during the first month and a half (of the campaign) it was very strong, I made many complaints in the same social media, achieving that between 40% and 50% of the messages were deleted or that they received deletion warnings and suspended accounts”. He also stated that after the candidates’ debate, almost 90% of the attacks he received disappeared and began to be much more isolated.

She also clarified that “we are in a fight against patriarchy and the fight for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community”. When asked if she considered that Venezuela was ready to have a female president, she stated that “yes, from the emotional point of view and not from the male leadership. Feminine leadership can be more conciliatory, less aggressive or confrontational, more efficient. Even if you look at the women of the ruling coalition during the last 25 years, they have not done it from a feminine approach, but from a purely masculine or macho approach: that is to say, instead of being more conciliatory, they have appealed much more to force. (Venezuela) is not ready for real female leadership, emotionally it feels affinity for María Corina Machado, but it does not have that perspective of what it really means to be led by women”.

She also asserted that there has been no progress in terms of inclusion and defense of the LGBTIQ+ community due to the prevalence of militarism and religious tendencies in the Venezuelan State. It is worth noting that Tamara Adrián was the first trans woman elected to a national parliament, not only in Venezuela but also in the Americas, and is the first trans woman to aspire to a presidential position in the world.

Gender did play a leading role in disinformation and digital attacks

In overall numbers, ProBox’s analysis of the most used words in comments on social media posts by then candidates María Corina Machado, Delsa Solórzano, Tamara Adrián, Henrique Capriles, Freddy Superlano and Carlos Prosperi; as well as top posts by third parties talking about them, showed that at least 71.4% of online gender attacks and disinformation were received by female candidates.

In addition, in the collection of positive words about the six candidates analyzed, women received much less, with only 39.4%, while men obtained 60.6% of the positive words about their candidacy.

A difference that is even more important considering the historical attack received by candidates such as Capriles, which to a lesser extent has been repeated by the other male candidates, and in the case of all female candidates, more so now that the opposition is being led by María Corina Machado, who received a very large majority of electoral support, above 95%, for the next presidential elections in 2024.

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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