|Social media is often regarded as a powerful tool for ordinary people to disseminate information, practice freedom of expression, and promote democracy throughout the world. However, sometimes that sentiment simply isn’t true.
Nowhere was that better demonstrated in recent memory than in Venezuela. Protests organized by right-wing groups and activists against the left-wing government of Venezuela took to the streets in February 2014, sparking clashes between protesters and state security forces. According to the narrative supported by a plethora of photos and posts on Facebook and Twitter (among other social media sites), the state brutally cracked down on the demonstrations through violence and intimidation. These photos showed disturbing images of police officers and soldiers in riot gear beating protesters, throwing tear gas, restraining protesters in chokeholds and handcuffs, and even shooting at protesters.
Other posts surfaced, portraying the protestors as more-or-less freedom fighters using mostly non-violent tactics to get their point across. In addition, many posts and articles that leaked out claimed that the government, headed by socialist President Nicolás Maduro, was silencing traditional media and trying to suppress news of the unrest from being reported elsewhere
By looking at these social media posts alone, many users viewed the conflict as an attempt by a repressive regime to silence the grievances of its people. The Twitter hashtag #SOSVenezuela soon gained traction from followers throughout the world. Media outlets, especially those from the United States, began to use this information itself as politicians and activists began to condemn the Maduro administration as despotic and violent.
However, after a more careful look at many of these social media posts, teleSUR reports that many of these assumptions were simply unfounded. In fact, several of them seemed to be deliberately fabricated.
Quite a few of the photos that leaked out, for example, weren’t taken in Venezuela at all, but at other protests altogether. One photo that was quickly disseminated depicted a police officer in riot gear dragging a protester using a headlock –a photo that was originally taken in Chile during the 2011 student protests. Another photo, apparently showing a protester being forced to commit sexual acts on a police officer, actually came from an American pornography site. Before the photo’s origins were revealed, it was posted by Venezuelan actress Amanda Gutierrez to her 228,000 followers.
“The opposition protests of 2014 were really decisive proof of both the strategic usefulness and the powerful dangers of social media,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, professor of politics at Drexel University and author of We Created Chavez. “False images and manipulated claims spread and circulated like wildfire, and while it was possible to discredit some — for example, images from other countries, other periods in history — by the time one was debunked, a dozen had emerged in its place.”
Steve Ellner, a leading expert on Venezuelan history and politics and author of Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, believes that the right-wing oppositional groups, along with biased Western media sources, used social media to establish credibility and, indirectly, to portray themselves as being more “in touch” with the common citizens than the ostensibly dictatorial government. Social media, after all is used by 91% of American adults, and the statistics are similar in Venezuela and many other countries. It is the perfect venue to spread powerful, but unverified, information.
“The international corporate media are experts in presenting unreliable information disguised as viewpoints,” Ellner said. “By doing so they promote opinions, or at least doubts, among millions of people who do not have ready access to more reliable information.”
A major perpetrator of these false claims came from Francisco Toro, the founder of the right-wing opposition blog Caracas Chronicles and a writer for the New York Times. In an online article called “The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night — and the International Media Is Asleep At the Switch,” Toro characterized the conflicts as “state-hatched offensive to suppress and terrorize its opponents.” He reported that “state-sponsored paramilitaries” were “shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting” and that the entire campaign could be considered a “tropical pogrom.”
Toro’s claims were mostly unfounded. The “pogrom” amounted to the death of one person, who died four days after sustaining injuries. When confronted with this fact, Toro wrote that his claim was an “overstatement in the heat of the moment.”
In fact, many of the anti-government protesters actually instigated violence and even gathered weapons such as mortars, explosives, firebombs, slingshots, clubs, and guns, as reported in the New York Times last February. Several people were literally decapitated when protesters put up barbed wire barricades to block “pro-government” motorcyclists.
Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Public Policy at the Central European University in Budapest, believes that the misinformation stemming from social media sites and other sources is part of a larger, American-led effort to destabilize Venezuela’s left-wing government.
“The focus on youth has been a long running strategy, while the social media element is a more recent (and cheaper) instrument of soft power, which is, in my opinion, wholly deleterious to the interests of genuinely pluralistic and democratic voices,” Buxton said.