Venezuela pays an army of pro-government Twitter warriors. And it’s not the only one
Many of us have long suspected that several Latin American governments have created ejércitos de twiteros — literally, twitter armies — to smear political opponents. But recent scandals in Venezuela and Mexico have shed new light into how extended this practice has become.
In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship not is only paying people a fee for writing or re-tweeting pro-government messages, it also is doing so openly, according to a new report scheduled to be published Thursday.
The report, “Digital Autocracy: Maduro’s control of the Venezuelan information environment,” by the Washington D.C.-based Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab says the regime pays the equivalent of a minimum wage to people who amplify pro-government messages at least 400 times a day.
“The Maduro regime has implemented a full spectrum manipulation apparatus that ranges from repressive measures such as censorship, internet shutdowns and silencing of critics, to ‘positive’ propaganda” such as Twitter postings performed by paid citizens,” the report says.
Daniel Suarez Perez, the report’s co-author, told me in a telephone interview from Bogota, Colombia, that, “There are many governments that try to influence social media, but Venezuela is the one that does it most openly.” He added, “You can find instructions in the government’s own social media about how to make money for tweeting official propaganda.”
Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information announces almost daily on its Twitter page a “hashtag of the day” to its army of paid and tweeting warriors, the report says. The hashtag is a word or short sentence used to identify a topic on Twitter.
Paid Twitter activists write or re-tweet messages using the recommended hashtag. To get paid, they first must register their Twitter accounts in a government app linked to the Carnet de la Patria, or Motherland’s Card, the government’s app used to make payments to social-aid recipients.
Often, top producers proudly post their government receipts on Twitter, showing how much money they have made from their pro-Maduro tweets.
One such example, posted in a pro-government Telegram account on Jan. 19, shows a “weekly performance payment” of 384,000 Bolivares — the equivalent of 22 cents — the report shows. As little as it sounds, it’s about the weekly minimum wage in economically devastated Venezuela.
By flooding social media with pro-government messages, the Maduro regime can easily manipulate trending topics. It can make readers believe that something it is promoting is the most talked-about issue in Venezuela, the report says.
It’s a model that other Latin American government are following.
In Mexico, the government’s Notimex news agency has been accused of creating social-media accounts to attack government critics. The operation was directly orchestrated by Notimex Director Sanjuana Martinez, according to a 2020 study by the Article 19 free-press advocacy group and the ITESO University in Guadalajara.
Ten witnesses told Article 19 that Notimex executives used a WhatsApp chat group to order the agency’s journalists to create fake Twitter accounts and post messages against government critics.
A March 30 U.S. State Department Human Rights report says that, “Journalists who asked difficult questions of the president during the daily press conference received attacks via Twitter. Tweets disseminated their identities and their media outlets and also made veiled threats.”
Instead of immediately firing Martinez, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has supported her.
A day after the State Department report was released, Lopez Obrador said Martinez “deserves our respect and is a good journalist.” He then lashed out against her accusers.
In recent years, Ecuador’s former President Rafael Correa and Argentina’s former president and current vice president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, also have been reported to run networks of pro-government Twitter activists to harass political opponents.
There is little that we can do regarding Venezuela, because it’s a dictatorship that is following Cuba’s steps in totally suppressing freedom of expression.
But in the case of Mexico and other countries that claim to respect fundamental freedoms, their governments’ efforts to intimidate opponents on Twitter should be denounced for what they are: blunt attacks on freedom of expression.
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