#FakeLikes: The manipulation behind the alleged banning of Maduro on social media

#FakeLikes: The manipulation behind the alleged banning of Maduro on social media

Published on 14 Jun 2024

The Venezuelan regime's new strategy to viralize false censorship online

According to different chavismo spokespersons, Maduro and his campaign are under a “brutal war” against an abstract opponent: the social media platforms. According to the denunciation, Maduro is being censored by the algorithm, hiding his proposal for the next presidential elections to be held in less than two months.  

 

Nicolás Maduro asks to follow him, or rather demands that they do so. In a campaign directed to a greater extent to public officials, chavismo uses different methods to lower guidelines to promote the presidential candidate on social media; who from the chair of Miraflores, in a telephone contact denounced that “They have us censored and do not want the truth to be known that the people are in the streets, that hope is in the streets and that we are going to triumph on July 28”.

 

Now, is it really being censored? The data collected for this research and the opinion of experts affirm that this is not what is happening. Under this campaign of alleged censorship; the communication apparatus of officialdom continues to generate tactics to promote Maduro’s favorable image in networks, managing to fool the algorithms by positioning his tags regularly in different platforms through a coordinated strategy and the evident use of public resources for this. “Nico Like” is the latest proof of this. 

 

Nicolás Maduro censured?

 

In recent weeks, the online conversation in Venezuela has been filled with messages “against censorship” and, contrary to what one may believe, this is not about a big campaign by civil society and independent media denouncing the closure of more than 400 media outlets in the country; it is about officialdom claiming that Maduro and “the publications of the revolution” are being censored by social networks.

 

From his account in X (Twitter), Maduro assured the following: “They ban the presidential candidate Nicolás Maduro, persecuted, blocked, but it doesn’t matter, with the strength of the people the team wins”; he published in the middle of what would be a campaign around his figure in networks, which seeks to boost his digital presence, to force users to follow him and republish his message. 

 

 

But, is there really a banning of social media platforms against Maduro? The allegation arose after TikTok disabled in April this year a pro-Chávez network with 521 accounts. The platform justified the measure by pointing out that it was a network of inauthentic accounts created to artificially amplify Spanish-language narratives favorable to the current Venezuelan government. 

 

For Melanio Escobar, founder of the NGO Redes Ayuda, there is no evidence that Chavismo is being censored in social networks, beyond the lack of engagement with the audience. 

 

“In fact, the propaganda of Nicolás Maduro’s regime is one of the most distributed on social media platforms, despite the fact that the same platforms have restrictions with political propaganda,” he assures. 

 

And the data recorded by Probox proves it, it is Chavismo who through different strategies copied from Russian disinformation and propaganda pillars, use resources ranging from: official government communications, state-funded messaging, the use of proxy sources, the placement of specific topics in social networks and the use of cyber disinformation. In order to position their narratives frequently on social networks in Venezuela, they amplify the pro-Maduro campaign and minimize the denouncements and scope of the dissident conversation

 

“From January 2023 to May 31, 2024, our records indicate that the content in the socio-political trends of X of the oficialismo was 901 trends and 201,132,912 tweets approximately versus 67 trends and about 548,294 tweets of social protest. This overwhelming amount of pro-government content is a long-standing strategy that has been used by Chavismo for years (2021, 2022 and 2023); and to which more elements have been added for the control and manipulation of online content in Venezuela”, says Mariví Marin, founder and executive director of ProBox.

 

Evidencing not only that Maduro’s claim of alleged censorship is false, but also that it demonstrates a clear intention or need to generate false support for his figure in networks.

 

NicoLike: what’s behind the chavismo’s campaign

 

Despite the fact that in our research “The power machine: how Maduro weaves his propaganda network” we showed how the MIPPCI would have started the online campaign in favor of Maduro since 2023, the response of Chavismo to the alleged censorship of the platforms was the perfect excuse to reinforce a strategy that seeks to replace the spontaneous spirit of the networks with a military logic of discipline, obedience and social control.

 

On Sunday, May 26, MIPPCI promoted the hashtag #NicoLike on X, kicking off a large mobilization on social networks. This trend managed to accumulate approximately 102,000 tweets. However, a week before, this governmental entity was already talking about “censorship” #YoSigoAMaduro, accumulating around 103,800 messages. 

Behind the positioning of these tags hundreds or thousands of people, living in a country that has been going through a complex humanitarian emergency since at least 2015 and that conditions many of these to depend on public budget, function as automatons that must see publications, mark them as favorites, forward, save, comment and tag, not because they really like it, but because it is their job.

 

 

But this campaign of “like, follow, comment, mention and share” Maduro’s content, has not remained only in the trends promoted on X. 

Following up on Chavismo’s denunciation, we analyze the messages and trends behind “NicoLike” and the discourse of digital censorship against the Venezuelan president; we identify not only the superiority of pro-government narratives through the coordination of accounts to massively replicate the campaign on X, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok; but also denying the alleged banning, censorship and limitation to advertise content in favor of Maduro in the framework of the electoral campaign that has not yet formally begun.

 

 

We conducted a search in a social listening tool for words associated with the pro-government campaign such as: #NicoLike, #NikoLike, baneo Maduro, calles redes medios paredes radio bemba, nico TikTok live, democratize communications, bloqueo redes sociales revolución, dictadura del algoritmo, censura medios Nicolas Maduro, bloqueo mediático Maduro, Maduro baneado, and baneo mediático Maduro. 

Compiling 7,109 mentions in total between April 29 and May 30. And despite the fact that the highest activity was registered on Instagram with 5,868 mentions, followed by Facebook with 598, X with 569 and, surprisingly, lastly Tiktok with 74. The highest peak of activity was on May 26, with 4,972 mentions; the same day MIPPCI started the #NicoLike promotion.

 

 

Before NicoLike, the ruling party was already talking about the alleged “digital blockade” against its candidate. On May 19, MIPPCI promoted the hashtag #YoSigoAMaduro, with around 103,800 messages. The tweet promoting it reads: “People united against the digital blockade. Let’s defeat the sanctions, also the algorithm!” accompanied by a video of Maduro explaining how to viralize his content with a “new system” called “Street, networks, media, walls and radio bemba” to promote the content “from local networks, to regional, national and worldwide”.

 

 

Followed by the “steps to break censorship”, detailing the “follow, comment, mention, like and share” instructions that have become popular to hear among online content creators. This strategy, including mentioning additional people, is an example of how accounts coordinate (inauthentically) with each other to replicate content.

 

In the search performed, this tag also appeared with 397 mentions, as well as #LaEsperanzaEstaEnLaCalle with 268 mentions, a trend initially promoted on May 8 by Diosdado Cabello in his program “Con el Mazo Dando”, with approximately 11,000 tweets, was replicated by MIPPCI, exactly one week later as the tag of the day, gathering more than 35,000 tweets.

 

 

 

The accounts that made the most mentions were all located on Instagram. The main one was @carlosskmil with 32 mentions that generated 5,824 impressions. It was followed by the account of the Center for the Development of Educational Quality of Araure in Portuguesa with 27 and 82,053 impressions. In third place was the account of Protección Civil Mérida, which through 25 mentions generated 403,925 impressions. 

 

On the other hand, the ones that obtained the most impressions (number of times that the content, regardless of its type, has been shown on the screen regardless of whether it is the same user or not) were:

 

  1. The account in X of Últimas Noticias generated 24,060,200 impressions through 5 mentions, in which it replicated Maduro’s “live” on TikTok denouncing the “banning of his networks and the people”.
  2. Globovisión‘s Instagram account generated 16,845,035 impressions through 5 mentions; mainly replicating messages from Maduro about his new strategies to “face censorship online”
  3. Nicolás Maduro‘s official Facebook account generated 11,072,763 impressions through 9 mentions. These were mainly videos replicated in his TikTok account, in which he denounces censorship with images and messages accompanied by a “jingle” against digital banning.

 

TikTok as a new campaign front

 

TikTok has been consolidating worldwide as a space for the consumption of information and entertainment content, especially among the younger generations, and Venezuela is no exception. A survey conducted by More Consulting in April 2024, shows that this is the second most used social network by Venezuelans to learn about political news.

 

Of Maduro’s official accounts on social networks, his TikTok profile has 1.9 million followers and has received more than 17.9 million “likes” on its publications. On several occasions, the president has asked people (mainly young people) to open an account on this platform. In addition, in this campaign the ruling party is moving away from its slogans and the traditional red used historically by them, appropriating a change of image and discourse, using colors and content that seem to have the intention of getting closer to the young audience; since Maduro’s publications are more oriented towards satire and the promotion of his open television program (“Con Maduro +”), his podcast (“Maduro Podcast”), his radio program (“Con Maduro de repente”) and all the channels through which he continues to generate content. 

 

In the opinion of Estefanía Da Silva, general director of the ProBox Observatory, the change of image and colors in Maduro’s campaign makes sense, not only because it is moving away from the classic red that has identified the ruling party since its beginnings, but also because it has been moving away from the classic red that has identified the ruling party since its beginnings.

 

“This plays with the idea of the charismatic leader and friend of the people as a new stage, seeking to erase or disguise the symbols that may recall the reasons that have generated discontent, or his speeches dissonant with the reality of the country,” Da Silva points out. 

 

Since we started our monitoring of TikTok activity in September 2023 until mid-March, almost 100% of the content positioned as the most popular or trending in Venezuela corresponds to content classified as “non-political”; however, on March 12 we identified the first video of Nicolás Maduro as trending in this network, being a video he published on February 14. On April 17, it was again positioned among the most popular content, with a video from April 2. On May 18, it was again trending on TikTok with a video originally published on February 22. The date of publication compared to the time at which it manages to trend, says a lot about the functioning of this network, since content does not usually appear to users in chronological order. 

 

All this led us to conduct a detailed search with the hashtag “#NicoLike” and content associated with keywords such as: “baneo Maduro”, “#NikoLike”, “Nico TikTok Live”, among others. We found 65 videos as the most relevant which, by May 30, accumulated 5,613,044 views, 231,742 likes, 50,407 comments and had been shared around 26,079 times. These are the most relevant findings: 

 

  • Four (4) of these videos come directly from Maduro’s official account, but only one of these videos accumulated more than 3.5 million views as of May 30. That is to say, approximately 62.4% of the accumulated reproductions come from this video of Maduro

 

@nicolasmadurom Soy un Presidente duro y vamos duro con el 1×10 del Buen Gobierno. #presidenteduro #nicolásmadurom #venezuela ♬ sonido original – Nicolás Maduro

 

  • In addition to the President, the account @luiselvisoficial stands out as the user with the most publications, with 268.5 thousand followers, who describes himself in his biography as “Venezuelan influencer in economy, pensions, bonds, geopolitics and cryptocurrencies”, who published until May 30 four videos with almost 180 thousand views, denouncing the alleged banning of Maduro while promoting his campaign in contents such as this one.
  • Also noteworthy is the account @tvfanb, “Televisora de la Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana. Multiplatform Channel” with two videos like this one that accumulated a little more than 160 thousand reproductions. The latter, being identified as an account of the FANB, in case it is official, would be violating the constitution by publishing political and partisan content. 

 

The impact of this new “battle against the algorithm” is that, of the 65 videos analyzed, there is one with the highest number of reproductions (3,500,000) and “likes” (more than 65,200) and another with the highest number of comments (more than 20,200) and shares (more than 13,500) coming directly from Nicolás Maduro’s account. 

 

Officialism lies about the use of paid advertising online

 

The narrative surrounding #NicoLike denounces the alleged blocking, censorship or invisibilization of content related to Maduro on social networks, which has motivated a large multiplatform deployment with the use of tags, anti-censorship jingles, videos, new radio programs, podcasts and the constant repetition of “follow and like” Nicolás Maduro. 

 

The same day that the MIPPCI promoted #YoSigoAMaduro, the President made a live broadcast on TikTok together with the pro-government communicator Miguel Ángel Pérez Pirela, affirming that this was a “new strategy to break the communication censorship against him and the Venezuelan people”. In this he mentions that Jorge Rodriguez (former Minister of Communications and current President of the pro-government National Assembly) in the framework of the dialogue meetings with the Venezuelan opposition, has claimed on several occasions to “the gringos” (referring to the US government) that his candidate, Maduro himself, was not allowed to advertise “as the candidate of the majority of the people that he is” in social networks, and again gives instructions to “break the censorship”. 

 

But the truth is that this last statement is also false. 

 

The ad library of Meta, the technology company responsible for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social networks, publicly maintains its “ad library” as a system of transparency about the content that is promoted through paid advertising on its platforms, especially highlighting political ads. 

 

It is enough to search for “Maduro” with the political ads filter to find several publications with paid advertising from Venezuela, especially from the official accounts of Venezuela News, a “news” portal that we have repeatedly denied before C-Informa for openly promoting disinformation and more recently, Maduro’s campaign for reelection.   

 

This list includes at least 27 advertising spots in favor of the ruling party on Facebook and Instagram scheduled between November 2022 and June 2024; and these are only those linked only to Venezuela News. 

 

 

For example, between May 28 and June 4, Venezuela News promoted a video with a summary of Maduro’s mobilizations in the framework of his electoral pre-campaign, in which between 300 and 399 dollars were paid in a single ad on Facebook and Instagram with the goal of reaching almost one million people, in several states of the country. This shows that this alleged censorship or banning is just another fallacy of Chavismo.

 

Disarming network influence operations is not censorship

 

Due to the growing use of this network for the consumption of political content, the platform has been dedicated to verify the authenticity of the publications made, and in the framework of this verification, Chavismo was affected. In the report “Covert Influence Operations”, TikTok revealed information about the covert influence operations that were disabled under the logic of “promoting transparency and sharing learnings with the industry” of social networks. 

 

In April 2024 TikTok disabled two networks of accounts aimed at political discourse in Venezuela. The first of these was a Chavista network containing 521 accounts totaling around 38,428 followers. In its report, TikTok stated that “this network operated from Venezuela and targeted a Venezuelan audience”.

 

According to the platform, the individuals behind this network “created inauthentic accounts to artificially amplify Spanish-language narratives favorable to the current Venezuelan government and manipulate the discourse on the Esequibo territorial dispute. The operation reused content by posting the same videos on several accounts.” The operation behind the Esequibo referendum was also analyzed by ProBox and #LupaElectoral

 

But, in this “cleaning of accounts” made by TikTok, not only the ruling party was affected. The second network detected had 83 profiles that accumulated approximately 227,154 followers “in order to artificially amplify the narratives in Spanish in support of a Venezuelan opposition politician”. 

 

It is important to note that the dismantling of these user networks is not related to censorship, but to the implementation of the regulations established by the platform, which state that our policies define covert influence operations as coordinated and inauthentic behavior in which networks of accounts work together strategically to deceive people or our systems and influence public debate. This may include attempting to undermine the results of an election, influence parties to an armed conflict, or influence public debate on social issues.”

 

For journalist and cyberactivist Luis Carlos Díaz, this measure by TikTok is not something new, since Chavismo has already experienced it on other platforms such as X, Facebook and Instagram, due to the excess of non-organic campaigns, the creation of profiles that violate the rules of the community and the use of unethical practices in the networks.

 

“To see this from a power group that also controls newsprint, television, radio and the entire public media system, is to find that they continue to insist on communicational hegemony and to think the platforms in a military way, with obedience, line of command, verticality, single thinking and propaganda and counter-propaganda practices that have behind them advisors, resources, time, money, talent, personnel and a lot of things that are not being used to address the humanitarian emergency or the problems of public services”, he assures. 

 

For more information on electoral manipulation of authoritarian regimes you can follow us on our social media as @ProBoxVE. 

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