Censorship, fake news, and the app that changed the game

The regime may have Communicational Hegemony. But we have Whatsapp.

“So, what do you think?” my mother says, excited. She just forwarded me a video she saw in her group of friends on Whatsapp. It purports to show some motorizados supposedly protesting against Maduro. I’m skeptical. Recorded from an apartment window at night, what you see mostly is a bunch of shadows.

“You can’t really tell what’s happening. I mean, they could be pro-government, or the whole thing could be from 2014.” She hesitates for a moment before making her mind up. “Are you sure? It seems pretty real to me.”

I shrug, but how could I blame her? It’s not like she can check news sources of diverse political tendencies and credibility allowing her to contrast information. That’s the way it used to be, but in today’s Venezuela you no longer have the freedom to choose where you get your news.

There are still newspapers, with fewer pages and higher prices every day, and broadcast news focused more on celebrities than on current events. But you know there are things media won’t say, because the very next piece of news you report could be your last.

(This is the kind of thing TV was showing on April 13th, with half the country on fire.)


So the media landscape in the country is dire, but we’re not totally defenseless. As the great Joanna Hausmann put it, Whatsapp has become a must for Venezuelans. The app is very popular across Western Europe and the developing world, with Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil among its top users; but Venezuela’s case is special.

For us, using Whatsapp is about way more than gossip, it’s a matter of survival. When you’re caught between an ailing communicational infrastructure, censored or sellout media, and a government at the intersection of serial opacity, winging it, and pathologically lying, directness and urgency are big issues.

I have a group with some friends from college. (Who doesn’t?) We’re in three different countries, but keep hablando paja and joking around almost every day. I live in the same city as a third of the group; and we still find it difficult to meet up. And the few times we do, guess what’s mandatory for each of us when we’re back home —we report in our group to let everyone know we made it safely.

When the political situation gets hot, Whatsapp becomes the hub for all kind of rumors and speculation about what’s going on in the country.

Lately, my friends and I have done it all: sharing memes and sharing news and debunking each other’s shared rumors, then posting pictures and videos and official statements to try to make sense where we are and where are we going with this.

Then, there’s the neighbors’ group. I joined it a few months ago just because when you don’t have electricity or running water at odd hours, every day, the notice board doesn’t help a lot. It didn’t take me long to find out that the last thing they talk about in that group is the building.

In such a group, you have cutesy images wishing you a good morning or inviting you to pray for Venezuela, along with New Age health advices and Zeitgeist-type “documentaries” on YouTube. And you can find useful stuff too, like when Polar’s truck arrives at the abasto around the corner or when someone sells or exchanges medicines, black beans or old clothes.

When the political situation gets hot, Whatsapp becomes the hub for all kind of rumors and speculation about what’s going on in the country. Badly-written rumors, anonymous voice messages and supposedly-official statements have reached virtual immortality by being endlessly shared from one group to another.

Here’s a small sample recently posted on that group, about the takeover of the National Assembly by the TSJ:

* Written by former Supreme Court judge Rosa Mármol de León

If the people does NOT take the streets today, if we don’t take the streets this week, have no doubt that we are in for a dictatorship at least as long as the one Cuba has gone through.

Now it is true. Very true. We’re betting the farm here, and it’s not true that Venezuelans’ fate depends on the opposition leaders.

Today, our fate depends only and exclusively on ourselves.

If there’s not enough attendance to democratic leaders’ callings, we’ve lost EVERYTHING, including the little bit of freedom we were left with.

This is the most important week for Venezuelans.

If the government, an absolute minority, notices that we, despite being so many (at least 80%), do not go and kick them out!!!!, they will perpetuate in power, and there will NEVER EVER BE FREE ELECTIONS!!!!


The message, as you can see, doesn’t have a date or a link to a reputable source. The writing is sloppy, the proclamations half-baked, and a quick Google search reveals it’s been going around for a couple of years now. Even a click-baity website posted it…twice!

Needless to say, Whatsapp-roots love it.

Like its first world counterpart, Fake News, the fishy Whatsapp thread thrives on confirmation bias and is not knowing any better. Unlike it happens in developed countries, they spread in a vacuum of real news, making Whatsapp fiction harder and harder to set apart from truth.

Meanwhile, the official version of events —a threadbare, pretending to maintain normalcy at all costs— manages to muffle dissenting voices through stubbornness, repetition, and extortion. The official story may not be credible, but it makes up for it with a unified narrative and relative coherence.


Just a few days ago, there was panic when red tear gas started to be used in protests. Nobody knew what it was, and rumors of nerve gas were quickly picked up by some opposition leaders, like David Smolansky. All the government had to do was sit back and watch, then eventually accuse the other side —rightfully, for once— of spreading misinformation.

But as much as the government has its communicational hegemony, things still manage to slip in through the cracks and they worry.

This was clear as far back as the 2014 protests, when communications in Venezuela were partially blocked and Whatsapp became, for a couple of days, the only way to know what the hell was going on. Phones were flooded with pictures and recordings of the protests on the streets; and, unsurprisingly, this is happening again —with a more tech-aware opposition leadership giving statements through Twitter and Periscope, and with Venezuelans sharing info, because they have no other option.

And what happened when WhatsApp “failed” for a couple of days in 2014? We just switched to Telegram. People are not going to stop speaking, no matter how much others try to silence them.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.