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‘Fake news’ war stokes Venezuela’s deadly crisis

May 5, 2017

“President flees into exile… Opposition leader murdered… President appears dancing… Opposition leader says: ‘I’m alive!'”

Venezuela may be short of food, medicine and toiletries, but in the chaos of its violent political crisis it has plenty of fake — or questionable — news.

Hoarse from shouting or breathing tear gas in weeks of anti- and pro-government protests, Venezuelans are also dizzy from the buzz of rumors and counter-claims.

In the streets, looting and clashes between protesters and police have left 36 people dead since last month. Online, the first casualty has been the truth.

“The debate about fake news is worldwide, but at least in other countries there are credible news sources of reference,” says Andres Canizales, a media specialist at Andres Bello University in Caracas.

“In Venezuela we don’t have those anymore. Misinformation is fertile ground for fake news to proliferate.”

– Chronicle of a death denied –

With international pressure rising on President Nicolas Maduro as he resists opposition calls for elections, tension was heightened this week by online claims about jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio claimed he had “confirmed @leopoldolopez has been taken to a military hospital in #Venezuela in very serious condition.”

Maduro’s hardline number two, Diosdado Cabello, responded by releasing a “proof of life” video in which Lopez appeared saying that he was alive.

The online rumor apparently started with a tweet by Miami-based Venezuelan journalist Leopoldo Castillo.

His claim that Lopez was taken from jail to hospital “without signs of life” was retweeted tens of thousands of times.

Lopez’s condition has still not been fully clarified. His wife Lilian Tintori said the video was false and that she has not been allowed to see Lopez for over a month.

– ‘Digital militia’ –

In a country where the government controls a broad network of newspapers and broadcasters, social media and new-wave journalism sites are key to following the political struggle between the socialist Maduro and his center-right opponents.

The sides in the conflict accuse each other of manipulating news online.

Maduro himself has created a “digital militia” to sign up citizens in the street for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and encourage them to circulate pro-government messages.

“It is a new front in the battle,” says sociologist Maryclen Stelling.

“We have had the electoral one, the street one, the power conflict, the media front, and now we have the cross-media front.”

– Political judgment –

When some of the fiercest clashes erupted on April 20, rumors spread online that Maduro had fled the country.

Videos spread purporting to show anti-aircraft searchlights being activated at the presidential palace.

It was later affirmed that the lights came from a theater show on a nearby square.

“There is a deliberate saturation of information so that you suspend your critical judgment,” says Stelling.

“You do not know what is true and what is false. You decide depending on which political side you belong to.”

– ‘Cyber terrorism’ –

Regular television channels have refrained from broadcasting images of the unrest in the streets even at the height of recent protests, screening light entertainment shows instead.

The Press Workers’ Union denounced that as evidence of “a regime of censorship and self-censorship.”

Reports of violence by security forces against protesters circulate unhindered online but have to compete with counter-claims by what Stelling calls “laboratories of war and cyber terrorism.”

Social media are a gauge of the vitriol of the crisis.

Maduro’s supporters have been using the hashtag #DerechaTerrorista — “TerroristRightwing” — against their opponents.

Supporters of the opposition overseas have been using #PrayforVenezuela.

In other messages, the tone is sharper, with leaders of the sides exchanging threats and insults.

Maduro retweeted a post likening the opposition to sewage, with a video showing protesters jumping into a river to escape tear gas.

His top opponent Henrique Capriles posted a video of Maduro dancing while protests raged.

“He who laughs last, lasts longest,” Capriles wrote.

“Soon we who have been repressed will be laughing at you @nicolasmaduro and your corrupt allies.”


Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.