On December 2nd, Twitter announced the suspension of 277 Venezuelan accounts that promoted the massive dissemination of accounts, hashtags and trending topics that support the Maduro government’s propaganda and disinformation. The platform also identified that many of these users had authorized the Twitter Patria set of applications, in which they allowed the government access to their accounts to monitor their activity.
Twitter publishes these analyses and publishes the report with the dataset for researchers, academics and the media, in order to maintain transparency and impartiality on how they apply actions to accounts that violate their policies.
But, what does it mean? Is there a bigger picture? Can we use this case to analyze Twitterzuela’s behavior? Is this measure enough to fight government disinformation?
What did Twitter do and why did they do it?
The Twitter Policy against Spam and Platform Manipulation is applied in these cases under the “Accounts and Identity” section. Users can’t deceive through the use of fake accounts or artificially amplify or obstruct (with bots or coordinated content) the conversations and experiences of other users. This includes a rule that prohibits users from receiving payment to promote inorganic activity, which can be related to the Maduro Twitter user bonus, which we wrote about during our coverage of the elections. How do we know Maduro has a special bonus for those who promote government propaganda? He tweeted it:
#ULTIMAHORA || Inicia la entrega de Mención Premio a las personas que se destacaron en Redes sociales (Twitter) a través del Sistema @CarnetDLaPatria durante la semana comprendida entre el 15 al 21 de Noviembre 2021.@MSVEnContacto #22Nov #VictoriaPopular pic.twitter.com/oOLFtGyZnf
— Somos Venezuela | MSVEnLinea (@MSVEnLinea) November 22, 2021
Do we know anything about the 277 accounts?
- 18 of the accounts had been used to amplify, in a coordinated and inauthentic way, propaganda content generated by the governments of Chávez and Maduro, from 2012 to 2021.
- The accounts made use of a set of special applications, Twitter Patria, that published tweets and retweeted chavista leaders, automatically, especially the Twitter account of Nicolás Maduro.
- Also listed in the data collection are 18 bot-like accounts that were part of Alex Saab’s advocacy campaign on Twitter.
- The dataset also contains accounts related to platform manipulation operations that were carried out in Mexico and Colombia. Evidence was found that at least one of the accounts that participated in promoting coordinated Twitter trends for Mexican audiences also helped drive trends of this type in Venezuela, including some defamatory labels against Juan Guaidó.
- Cazadores de Fake News has a thorough presentation where they analyze the Twitter dataset:
What’s Twitter Patria?
Twitter Patria is like a group of apps with the same function: linking a Twitter account to the carnet de la patria, to monitor and make payments according to the content shared by the users on Twitter, especially the use of hashtags promoted by government entities, officials and authorities.
Are there more existing accounts with similar behavior?
These types of accounts are identified by Probox as digital troops (tropas digitales). And they have some characteristics we can highlight:
- They belong to real people, but they have inauthentic behavior: they operate with patterns, posting schedules, devices, locations, and IP addresses.
- Most of the accounts are linked to the Patria System.
- They are dedicated to replicating hashtags, promoting users and retweeting in a massive way.
- They generally fulfill their task by using the government’s daily label, mentioning members of the regime in their tweets, like Nicolás Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, Delcy Rodríguez, among others.
- Usually, the message of the tweet isn’t directly related to the content on the hashtag they promote, its only purpose is to position it among the trending topics.
- They promote hashtags from many government accounts, support and massively share content from state entities, authorities and officials of the radical ruling party, but they usually focus on those by the account of the Ministry of Information (@Mippcivzla).
- In five different tutorials consulted by Cazadores de Fake News, disseminated from the beginning of 2019 to 2021 on websites, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups of Tuiteros de la Patria, they indicated that the “goal” was to publish at least 400 tweets per day. This is the equivalent to posting a tweet every one minute and forty-eight seconds, for an uninterrupted time of twelve hours. In practice, it’s a job that could be done continuously for 34 minutes, at the rate of one tweet posted every five seconds.
Has this happened before?
Yes. There have been three Twitter security operations that have shut down a considerable amount of accounts associated with political inorganic activity in Venezuela:
- January 2019: Twitter shut down 1,960 Venezuelan accounts
- June 2019: Twitter shut down 33 Venezuelan accounts
- December 2021: Twitter shut down 277 Venezuelan accounts
How did Twitter become aware of this situation?
As we’ve seen before, journalism has been a great tool to visibilize corruption, disinformation and irregular activities of the Venezuelan regime. In this case, Cazadores de Fake News led important investigations about tuiteros de la patria. EsPaja.com, Medianálisis and Probox also made a relevant investigation titled “Auge y declive del escuadrón tuitero del Estado venezolano en tiempos de COVID-19,” in alliance with Transparencia Venezuela and with the support of the European Union.
These efforts are essential to defend access to information on platforms like Twitter, which, far from being just a social media platform, represents a space in which Venezuelans can practice their freedom of expression and organize digitally to claim their rights.
Should we worry about how chavismo controls social media?
First, let’s look at how Twitterzuela usually works: there’s a big difference between how chavismo and civil society shape the conversation on Twitter.
- In November, for example, chavismo promoted 76% of the trending topics and was responsible for approximately 77.64% of the registered tweets.
- Meanwhile, the civil society, the opposition, the anonymous networks and other participants in the sociopolitical conversation only promoted approximately 24% of the trends and generated 22.36% of the tweets registered in the month.
Is Twitter’s effort against chavismo’s inorganic accounts enough?
It was determined that the minimum number of retweets received by the tweets of Nicolás Maduro’s account on Twitter decreased to almost 14% compared to the number of retweets he received before this massive suspension.
Twitter’s action visibilizes the work by these organizations, academics and independent media that have documented how the State uses propaganda and disinformation strategies to alter the conversation on social media, financing the digital imposition of its narrative with state resources.
Probox identified approximately 8,900,623 tweets in 125 political and social labels, only in November. The ruling party generated 95 of these labels and 6,910,645 tweets. The level of inorganicity in the official trends is the highest with respect to the socio-political tendencies, generating 52.73% of inorganic activity in November through 37,475 possible bot users identified in their labels. These represented 82.69% of all the possible bots (45,316) detected by Probox throughout the month.
The suspension of 277 accounts by Twitter in proportion to the aforementioned indicators reflects that there is indeed manipulation and domination of the political conversation by the Maduro government. Although this effort exposes and generates consequences against the mechanisms of manipulation of the ruling party in the socio-political conversation on Twitter in Venezuela, unfortunately, it still seems to be insufficient in terms of proportion, speed and scope of disinformation on Twitter.
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