Conspiracy Theories Make Inroads in Venezuelan Politics

Our political discussion and the limits on free press have given more resonance to outlandish interpretations of what’s happening. A new paper explains why their impact could increase further, thanks to state-sponsored disinformation.

Photo: Poster Foundry, retrieved.

Days after the release of the Bachelet Report, the response from both Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello is one and the same: the things decried are not based on the actual work of UN personnel, because they’re instead dictated by the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams.

Therefore, the state’s latest stance is dismissive to the report’s content, as part of the ongoing conspiracy of “the empire” against the Maduro government. Findings, like this one, are irrelevant.

Despite how predictable (and tiresome) it has turned out, the Maduro government’s repetitive use of elaborate plots and Machiavelian-styled traits against their adversaries doesn’t come out of pure laziness (or Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez’s hunger for attention); conspiracy theories have not just found their way into our political discussion for quite some time now, they’ve won acceptance. 

Dartmouth College professor, John Michael Carey, wrote a paper titled “Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories in Venezuela?” recently published by the Latin American Research Review (LARR). One of its opening paragraphs describes the scenario:

“Across Latin America, Venezuela can stake a strong claim as the regional champion of conspiracy. In the past decade, the presidential administration of Hugo Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro have promoted political conspiracy theories at a staggering rate. These narratives are advanced by high government officials, up to and including the president, and they are promoted and disseminated by state news agencies.”

Conspiracy theories have not just found their way into our political discussion for quite some time now, they’ve won acceptance. 

The paper shows a catalogue of ten state-pushed conspiracy theories between May 2016 and June 2017. The fact that the government is the one pushing them is rare, according to Carey. Speaking to Caracas Chronicles, he says that conspiracy theories “tend to be promoted by those on the margins of power, who have only informal means of dissemination.”

When asked about how important the state media apparatus is in setting those theories, he answers that “starting under Chávez and increasingly under Maduro, all the resources of the state have been mobilized in the production and dissemination of conspiracy theories, promoted in presidential speeches, statements by government agencies, on news networks and websites funded and sponsored by the government. As a result, they are unavoidable and they become part of mainstream political discourse.”

Carey’s paper frequently cites the work of Venezuelan sociologist Hugo Pérez Hernaiz, which includes his blog Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor. “There are political movements which base their whole worldview on a conspiracy theory explaining everything,” Pérez Hernaiz told Caracas Chronicles, “and if those movements reach power, they can turn that theory into its official discourse. That’s what happened in Venezuela with chavismo.”

Pérez Hernaiz shares Carey’s view on the importance of the communicational hegemony in setting those theories, spinning things for a post-truth era: “In chavismo’s view, the enemy (the empire, the oligarchy, etc.) controls the big media, so there are outlets not informing objectively because they’re controlled by the enemy. The true communicational hegemony is the one held by the powers adverse to the revolution. Therefore, it’s fair for the revolution to fight against that communicational hegemony with its own.”

There are political movements which base their whole worldview on a conspiracy theory explaining everything.

After all, the hegemony’s spread of progressive disinformation can help conspiracy theories to make inroads when major public issues are kept in the dark. The “economic war” mantra wouldn’t be as successful if there were actual accountability on the matter.

But such influence isn’t happening in a vacuum: The current global tendency has been the push of those theories by geo-political and ideological actors, to shake institutions and create distrust. Carey considers that “the involvement of foreign actors could affect the spread of conspiracy theories, and other sorts of misinformation in the Venezuelan discourse,” although Pérez Hernaiz believes that “chavismo has proven to be hugely creative to foster conspiracy theory rhetoric without any foreign advisory.”

As part Carey’s research, a survey was applied in late 2016 asking about three specific theories: the “economic war,” the “Chávez assasination” and the “PSUV plot,” the last one coming from the opposition and suggesting that high-ranking chavistas want to overthrow Maduro.

Yes, opposition circles have developed their own set of conspiracy theories. Pérez Hernaiz agrees that “there is in effect a rhetoric from the opposition that is having important consequences,” mentioning the example of conditions to hold free and fair elections, with other issues, like the “unity” between political parties or the reaction to the Norway-sponsored dialogue talks, being a fertile ground for wild speculation.

Maduro himself has accused his opponents of being “conspiracy-driven”, but Pérez Hernaiz offers an essential clarification: “People conspire all the time and in politics, conspiring is a normal thing” and that’s a separate field from speculative theories on our reality.

With a hyperpolarized environment like ours, though, it’s unsurprising that those theories are widely embraced, even if they’re mostly grounded on partisan boundaries. When it came to identify groups, “the demographic measures, age, sex, and household income show no consistent patterns,” but those who had higher education were more skeptical.

Education could serve as a deterrent in the long-term (along with a stable political settlement), despite its uphill battle with our reality, which allows people to abandon logical reasoning and find refuge in manichaeism and fatalist mindsets. Carey’s paper concludes that “Venezuela’s current political and economic context provides a perfect environment for conspiracy. The country’s economic free fall is unprecedented, and more Venezuelans face economic insecurity than at any point in living memory. Violent crime has also reached levels among the highest in the world. Venezuelans have plenty of reason to sense that their fates are buffeted by forces beyond their control.”

If outlandish conspiracy theories, once subject of mockery, have become more influential than ever in shaping narratives, and even change behaviours that can lead to dire outcomes, what happens when they’re encouraged by a nation’s government?