The Blackout Confirms the Growing Trend of Misinformation

One of the side effects of the nationwide power outage of the last few days is the confirmation that Venezuelans are getting less reliable information about what’s going on.

Photo: The Thrive Global retrieved

After more than 100 hours, as the power returns to my home in the early hours of March 12th, the first reaction is automatic relief. As time goes by, that sense is quickly replaced by the frustration of figuring out what happened beyond the confines of my immediacy.

The issue is that many across the country, like me, passed days with barely enough information about the situation, handling the little data (and battery) on their phones to get news and keep a communication line open with family and friends at the same time.

As NGO Espacio Público points out, connectivity was very scarce and at least social networks could partially fill the huge void that traditional media couldn’t. The state media system failed in assuming its role to provide useful information to the population, instead repeating ad nauseam the official storyline, keeping up with the propaganda.

At least, I can offer my deep appreciation to those journalists who are still in the country, working under the hardest conditions and doing their best to gather and deliver reliable news. The same goes to colleagues abroad, working to help us out.

The clampdown of what’s left of free press has intensified in recent months and especially during the last few weeks.

But as the overall situation stabilizes, I’m hugely concerned: the clampdown of what’s left of free press has intensified in recent months and especially during the last few weeks, being a journalist has gotten harder in the face of both growing technical limitations and harsh pressure by the hegemony.

In the wake of the recent arrest and release of CC contributor Luis Carlos Diaz, whose work is now gravely curbed by legal limitations and the seizure of his personal equipment, it’s important to remember that his case is not an exception, but part of a larger pattern of repression against those covering Venezuela, either local reporters or foreign correspondents, like Jorge Ramos and Cody Weddle right before last week’s blackout.

That, along with other factors like the drastic reduction of newspapers, the self-censorship of the remaining private broadcasters or the increasing blocking of internet by the authorities, has created a very serious problem of misinformation in Venezuela.

Misinformation is the mere lack of information available, leaving aside the deliberate intent to create and distribute inaccurate and/or clearly false news, a particular aspect classified as a whole under the term of “disinformation” or the simpler “fake news”.

During the blackout, radio and TV weren’t able to function properly for obvious reasons. In the case of radio, many stations preferred to either play music non-stop, or not broadcast at all. Those stations under the state media umbrella were more focused on pushing the “sabotage” angle, than on providing info suited for an emergency like this.

In the meantime, a number of journalists who covered the situation in situ, in different parts of the nation, found harassment from security forces and paramilitary groups, like the case of CC’s own Gabriela Mesones. Several NGOs like IPYS Venezuela, Espacio Público and the National Press Workers’ Union (SNTP) have done an excellent job of tracking down and registering many of these cases.

In spite of the obstacles, an important amount of information was gathered, but the distribution and diffusion was still severely limited. Our national telecom infrastructure was pushed to the limit, as long-denounced problems like vandalism, theft and lack of investment intensified the woes of dealing with an unprecedented blackout.

Journalists who covered the situation in situ, in different parts of the nation, found harassment from security forces and paramilitary groups.

People still have access to news, either to the state-sanctioned narrative or its more diluted version in private media. The alternative? The ocean of social networks, on which actual journalistic efforts have to compete for attention against rumours and exaggerations of all kinds, including those coming from organized disinformation efforts. For those who aren’t patient and savvy enough to know where to look, or simply don’t have the energy (no pun intended) it could bring them more harm than good.

The damage caused by this perhaps isn’t measurable in ordinary standards, but it’s still worrying for the foreseeable future: our own public sphere is suffering the consequences and that could hurt our capacity as citizens to understand basic points of our political, economic or socio-cultural situation.

I hope I’m wrong about this, but whatever the outcome, it’s gonna take a lot to recover.

Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote in the Washington Post that “it goes without saying that Venezuelans are living through a huge news story. But the government of Nicolás Maduro wants to keep the people of Venezuela in the dark.”

Simon, along with well-known Venezuelan journalist Luz Mely Reyes (who just wrote an op-ed for the New York Times en Español) are calling out the international community, from regional governments to the media, to focus more into Venezuela and give support to local journalists. This request isn’t frivolous or misguided, given the rampage seen so far this year.

Right now, the best we can do is to keep working in the face of adversity: both the ones we know and the ones yet to appear, keeping our composure and thinking first. Maybe it’s a little too much to ask in these desperate times, but I can’t offer better advice.