For a while, I’ve been fascinated by the word Twitterzuela, the term for the broad network of Venezuelans on Twitter. Not only because it’s a very fun word to say, but also because it speaks to the fact that social media platforms have become places that our digital selves inhabit rather than just momentarily visit. We interact with current events, buy and sell things and build communities. Social media platforms, like Twitter, are not an alternative to the real world, but rather an extension of it.
Venezuelans are no stranger to this process. The country was an early adopter of Twitter, which started in March 2006. In fact, in 2011, a report by Comscore showed that Venezuela held the fifth highest Twitter penetration rate in the world. In a month, 21% of internet users in Venezuela passed through the Twitter website. As the crisis in Venezuela developed, this early adoption was combined with multiple historical and political factors. Media censorship and political repression made Twitter one of the few places in which free reporting could happen in the country. The harsh economic situation turned it into a place in which people asked for help to cover costs of medical emergencies, and the massive waves of migration made Twitter a place in which Venezuelans abroad can continue to be connected to what’s happening in the country, and find a community with other Venezuelans that share similar experiences.
The combination of all of these variables gave birth to Twitterzuela, a corner of the internet where you can see some of the harshest parts of Venezuelan reality. On any given day, you can see dramatic footage of the armed conflict in Apure or Caracas. You can hear harrowing tales of migrants crossing borders across South America and you can see hundreds of crowdsourcing campaigns for people who need to cover their COVID-related medical expenses. If you read the replies of tweets by political figures, you’ll see massive battles between groups of bots with intense messages supporting the different political factions. However, if you stay long enough, you can also see parts of the Venezuelan story that show that our country is more than the sum of its pains. You can see the work that nonprofits and activists do to mitigate the effects of the crisis. You can see artists and scholars showing their work and succeeding in global stages and you can hear stories and discussions of an emerging diaspora trying to make sense of its identity while explaining to international audiences about our country.
While it’s a fascinating place, Twitterzuela is vulnerable to the same issues that affect the rest of Twitter. There is a myriad of disinformation, polarizing echo chambers, lack of nuance in discussions, and bots that push particular points of view by pretending to be humans.
This can make Twitterzuela an overwhelming place to be. But, participating in this conversation can make a very big impact on the narrative that is heard about Venezuela around the world and can help us feel connected to other Venezuelans abroad. So, we have to be very careful about how we use it. Here are a few lessons that I have learned.
Twitterzuela Isn’t Venezuela
It’s easy to believe that Twitterzuela is an accurate depiction of Venezuelan reality. It isn’t and we shouldn’t expect it to be. The discussion around Twitter often criticizes it for not being a mirror of reality. I reached out to Luis Carlos Díaz, the journalist and cyber activist to talk about this. The conversation originally started as a discussion about what was the best data to measure the size of Twitterzuela. Some estimates predict about 1.3 million users and others claim that it amounts to 37.96% of social media traffic in the country. However, measuring the size of Twitterzuela is rather difficult as, according to Díaz, there are multiple variables and decisions that need to be considered. For instance, whether we are measuring the number of or the number of users or if we measure the active accounts or the number of accounts created over the last three months. Furthermore, Díaz emphasized that we need to look at Twitterzuela for what it is. Even though it’s a small group, this sector of the internet is inhabited by people that are used to consuming a high volume of information. So, you will find people that are interested in the national discussion, as well as opinion leaders and their hyper-informed followers. This group cuts through the different cross-sections of Venezuelan society and creates a space that, unlike TikTok or Facebook, is uniquely positioned to shift the national conversation, bring it into the news cycle and make it worthy of analysis.
Additionally, Twitterzuela is a very heterogeneous place. Not all accounts are humans, for instance. Both chavismo, and to a lesser extent, the opposition use very elaborate inorganic content creation schemes with trolls and bots to make their hashtags trend. This can be seen in the massive campaign to sway international public opinion in favor of Alex Saab. Furthermore, because of massive migration, not all the accounts tweeting are in the country. Many are abroad and have different perspectives.
This is by no means trying to discredit voices abroad in Venezuelan discourse. Migrants’ and refugee’s experiences enrich and are key to the conversation that happens on Twitterzuela and the definition of what it means to be Venezuelan in the contemporary world. However, migration is a deeply impactful experience. Some of the opinions of those of us who have left can sometimes become “frozen” in time and not address the latest developments, while other perspectives can be modified as people start to interact with the political environment of other countries. For instance, a study by the International Crisis Group showed that opposition politicians who left Venezuela became even harsher critics of Maduro and adapted aggressive foreign policy alternatives quicker than those inside. This is further evidence that the reality that we see in Twitterzuela is a little bit more complex than just a mirror of Venezuela.
Diversify Your Feed and Be Mindful of Networks
While it’s important to recognize that we should not look at Twitterzuela to find a reflection of the country, it is also important to diversify our feeds. This advice is often presented as an argument to prevent polarization. The common narrative argues that being in echo chambers that have similar views to ours might polarize your beliefs. However, recent research suggests that it’s not the mere presence of the echo chamber that polarizes people, but rather the fact that the architecture of social media favors centralized networks in which a few users have a lot of influence over a vast number of accounts as opposed to egalitarian networks, where all of the accounts are of similar size interact with each other.
Polarization in Twitterzuela happens because a few accounts with massive followings are able to persuade public opinion in favor of their views. These accounts, in order to stay relevant, create shocking and polarizing content so that they can be favored by the algorithm and, in turn, polarize their audiences. So, we have to be mindful of the power of networks and we have to diversify our feeds to be exposed to different perspectives and mitigate polarization.
However, diversifying the feed doesn’t exclusively mean having different political views reflected. One of the great things about Twitterzuela is that you can access layers of the Venezuelan experience that can’t be traditionally accessed outside of Twitter. While a lot of the content on Twitterzuela is about politics, it’s not all about it. So, it’s very important to follow people from different fields and professions so that we can make sure that our experience in Twitterzuela enriches our perspective as much as possible.
Read Laterally Before Retweeting
Much like the rest of Twitter, fake news is a problem on Twitterzuela. However, on this platform, it spreads even faster than real news. A 2018 analysis from MIT shows that fake news spread significantly faster than real news and that, even after taking bots out of the picture, these differences prevailed. Therefore, when on Twitter, it’s super important to be vigilant against false information.
One of the best ways to avoid spreading is to engage in lateral reading, a method used by professional fact-checkers. When encountering a news article or information on Twitter, even from a source that we trust, it’s important to fact-check the information as we consume it. This might mean, on a surface level, checking to make sure that it’s being reported in other trusted places, and in more depth, cross-referencing multiple reports of that information while you read it.
Furthermore, you can also support the work that Venezuelan fact-checkers have been doing by following EsPaja, an initiative by Transparencia Venezuela that checks for false information through Twitter and WhatsApp and Cazadores de FakeNews at @cazamosfakenews, which also dispels fake information as well as provide insight on bot campaigns and propaganda.
Twitterzuela’s What You Make of It
There’s no one right way to engage with Twitterzuela, in the same way there’s not only one right way to use Twitter. However, from my experience navigating this corner of the internet, it’s a lot better to actively participate in the conversation that’s happening rather than just passively interacting with it. There are hundreds of thousands of tweets happening on Twitterzuela every day and each new perspective makes for a valuable addition to the discussion of what it means to be Venezuelan in the contemporary world, and what it means to exist around the complicated crisis in our country. Twitterzuela can be chaotic, but amid the bots and the incessant influx of information, there are a lot of interesting memes and people who care deeply about Venezuela, with extraordinary stories to tell from different parts of our society: academia, art, business, politics and journalism. Interacting with them is a rewarding experience and I highly recommend it.
Twitterzuela won’t go away any time soon, and as the multi-layered crisis continues to develop, it will continue evolving and providing an incomplete, yet useful glimpse, into Venezuela. Despite its chaos, I think that it’s a place worth staying, so we need to become skilled explorers of our corner of the internet and be a part of the conversation.
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