Fake News in Venezuela: How the State and Social Media Promote Covid-Disinformation

Fake News in Venezuela: How the State and Social Media Promote Covid-Disinformation

This article is part of IranWire’s ongoing coverage of Covid-19 disinformation in different countries, in partnership with Health Studio.

By Ximena Herrera for Health Studio

At least once a day, I receive fake news through my family’s WhatsApp groups or see it on their social media posts.

It’s true that social networks have become an extremely important source of information in Venezuela, as an alternative to state-controlled or state-sanctioned media. But it’s also true that they have become one of the principal channels for spreading misinformation throughout the country. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), less than 25 percent of the news found on social networks in Venezuela can be considered reliable.

Because of its popularity, during the pandemic WhatsApp has played host to a particularly large volume of disinformation. The Venezuelan Fake News Observatory has called the instant messaging app a platform on which “misinformation circulates uncontrollably”. Of the 750 hoaxes that its team detected in the first 10 months of 2020, 612 had circulated on WhatsApp.

Twitter was also problematic. Just one in four Venezuelan tweets about news were found to be citing a reliable source: by far the lowest rate in the world.

But in a country where state control of broadcast and print media is near-absolute, the population will inevitably look for alternative sources such as social media. Unfortunately, in doing so, they become vulnerable to the spread of unverified and sometimes malicious deception.

In 2007, former President Hugo Chávez refused to renew the licence of free-to-air television network Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and ordered the seizure of its broadcasting equipment. The channel, which had been operating in the country for more than 50 years, was temporarily closed for “inciting a coup” before being made available as a new, state-owned TV station. Since then, censorship in Venezuela has notably expanded.

Carlos Correa, director of Espacio Público, an association that defends freedom of expression, explained how audiences reacted to this in an interview with Medio Analisis. He said: “When in 2007 the RCTV channel was closed… [viewers] migrated to cable TV. In 2014, with the radio station closures, [audiences] looked for other sources of information. This year, when you ask people how they are informed, they respond mostly with ‘WhatsApp’.”

It’s an open secret that the persecution of journalists who do not promote the government’s agenda is worsening. On March 21, 2020, Darvinson Rojas was arrested at his home for sharing a tweet that cast doubt on the officially-stated number of coronavirus infections. He was subsequently imprisoned for 12 days.

In March 2020, a conference examining the extent of Covid-disinformation in Venezuela was held by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America (AALAC) and its Digital Forensic Investigation Lab. Speaking at the event called “Coronavirus and disinformation in Latin America: a look at Venezuela”, Carmen Riera, a coordinator at independent news website runrun.es, said that although journalists around the world were facing difficulties reporting while in quarantine, things get much more complex in Caribbean countries: “The audience has no way of informing itself.”

There are also very few international television channels transmitting in Venezuela with state permission, and those that do have clearance only share the government’s narratives. For example, HispanTV, the Iranian state-controlled Spanish-language network, reported on “Maduro’s magic Covid-19 cure” without analysis, critique or qualification.

Clear and transparent information is key to maintaining public trust, which in turn is key to combating a deadly pandemic. The director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his organization is not only fighting against the pandemic but also against an “infodemic” that can pose as much, or even more, of a threat than the virus itself.

Paradoxically, the presence of a pluralistic media environment, in which journalists work independently on behalf of a population and can challenge the government line, can actually increase people’s trust in government-sponsored information and strategy. A clear example of a well-informed population successfully working to defeat coronavirus can be found in New Zealand.

Source: Iran Wire

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