Chavismo Goes Full Russian Troll

Thousands of fake accounts are working from Venezuela to divide the opposition to the Maduro regime and gather support from American leftists. How do we know it? Because Facebook and Twitter reporten them and shut them off.

Photo: Twitter, retrieved.

Last week, Venezuela landed a center stage role in the world of social media disinformation, with clear evidence coming up of digital toy soldiers playing pretend for the regime.

See, in a global context of mounting pressure over social media accountability, Facebook and Twitter shared details over their efforts to purge thousands of fake accounts off their platforms, many originating in Venezuela. Some Twitter accounts shared as many as 50,000 tweets, with content quickly metastasizing in social media.

While Facebook has taken the more discrete approach, Twitter is sharing clean datasets on the problematic accounts. In Venezuela’s case, you’ll find two sets: Dataset 1 and Dataset 2, and they speak for themselves. Here’s what comes up when you count how many times certain words repeat in the accounts’ descriptions:

Dataset 1 (1,196 accounts) Dataset 2 (764 accounts)
100 Revoluci(on/ario/aria) 470 (Donald) Trump
92 Chavista 225 News
50 Patria 127 MAGA
36 Imperi(o/alista) 110 Journalist
34 Bolivarian(o/a) 75 Conservative

I see what Twitter did there. They clustered accounts to uncover two different government-backed disinformation campaigns. Eyeballing the raw data, it’s super clear: Dataset 1, with usernames such as “TodaVzlaConNico,” appears organic, not your typical Russian bot, just a Bolivarian troll. These accounts voice support for Maduro, rejecting the alleged imperialista-backed radical right-wing. Instead, Dataset 2 shows unintelligible usernames with over thousands of followers and a tweet repertoire on the most divisive and polarizing topics of American culture. Remember, these accounts originated in Venezuela too.

And what’s fascinating here is, Twitter publicly stated that these accounts were suspended for being part of a “state-backed influence campaign” on its own citizens.

What we see on Dataset 1 is consistent with a known government strategy: coerce employees into engaging with their social media accounts, so they boost their wannabe trending topics and foster the illusion of popular support. From the same people who brought you March, or else,” arrives: “Retweet, or else.

It’s not that Venezuelans are lining up for low-rank government salaries; the government is virtually the only employer for many, and the job can land you a much-needed bizz on the side.

And what’s fascinating here is, Twitter publicly stated that these accounts were suspended for being part of a “state-backed influence campaign” on its own citizens. Some of the unredacted descriptions of the accounts read, in Spanish:

“ANTI: Chavista, Castrista, Madurista and everything that ends in ‘ista’ favoring the government! #TeamOscarPerez We don’t believe in the MUD.”

“We’re the opposition to the opposition and the government, we’re NAO the New Opposition Alternative because we don’t believe in the MUD regime appeasement.”

“We’re A Group of Opposition Unallied with the Damned Government And the Damned MUD. WE’RE RESISTANCE! FIGHT AND FREEDOM”

These are accounts that, posing as the opposition, attack the opposition. Check it yourself, look for the Venezuela entry and click on account information.

Why do we even care?

The Arab Spring lesson: live by the social-media-sword, die by it too.

If the “radical opposition’s” speech aligns with whatever chavistas are using against someone, you better raise that eyebrow and look further into it.

Notable social-media-powered uprisings have seen their most prolific leaders be the target of disinformation campaigns, with many figureheads ending below expectations and fading over time. It’s a double-edged-sword, and it’s one that the Venezuelan opposition is wielding heavily as it fights the uphill battle, by planning demonstrations, outlining steps to rebuild the country, and building consensus over touchy subjects like amnesty.

Sure, the Guaidó phenomenon galvanized the support of the discontent majority, with even historically chavista strongholds joining protests, and recent media counter-attacks by the regime have failed miserably (#GuaidóChallenge.) So, how does disinformation jeopardize Guaidó’s uprising? Well, if you agree that part of the interim government’s strength lays on its international support, I’ll leave you guessing why Dataset 1 shows coordinated efforts to portray strong Madurismo and unity against the alleged attack of the U.S.-backed radical right-wing.

Unfortunately, most people approach foreign conflict under a naive dichotomy: the good versus the bad. No wonder why, besides pictures of fake crowds, the regime pollutes the debate with a left-wing vs. right-wing frame, David (intergaláctico) vs. Goliath (imperialista), pick sides as you do with your favorite sports teams, don’t mind the humanitarian crisis. Although Fox News won’t grill the Trump administration for backing up Guaidó, other leaders across the globe may not tag along when asked to support a U.S.-backed regime change. The social media montage sponsored by chavismo is ammunition for hardliner left-wing and anti-U.S. intervention pundits across the world.

And it works. Look at movie star @BootsRiley; he took the ideological bait, digested it, and swallowed it back again. Like influenza or computer viruses, social media disinformation adapts to outsmart our technological literacy. Perhaps good journalism is the last line of defense in our public discourse, so support your independent-and-trusted journalists, resist the urge to forward that unconfirmed and divisive WhatsApp voicenote and, pretty please, remember that these datasets are from before the whole Guaidó affair. If you consider that there’s an actual campaign by chavismo to influence Venezuelans, and it includes tweets from “the radical oppo,” then you should be extremely wary of joining in lynching mobs against anti-chavismo figures. If the “radical opposition’s” speech aligns with whatever chavistas are using against someone, you better raise that eyebrow and look further into it.

Because, sometimes, they’re actually behind it.