It is one of the countries with the highest rates of Twitter usage in the world while for many Venezuelans, speaking about their homeland in 140 words or less is akin to participating in a national sport. In fact, in recent years ‘Twitterzuela’ has conquered all others as the most favoured medium for political discourse.
But do social networks help establish a dialogue in Venezuela's polarised society or just inch it further in the direction of crisis?
The great social media standoff
In Venezuela, as in other countries in South America, social media has become a necessary precondition for promoting large and peaceful rallies. Ironically, this is perhaps one of the few golden rules of domestic politics that both supporters of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's left-wing president, and his opponents, are completely agreed on.
Leopoldo López, one of the most popular leaders of the opposition, kicked off the #30MVenezuelaHora0 movement — which initially aimed at producing a huge protest on May 30 but has continued long after the protest finished — by making a viral YouTube video from jail. Lopez has been incarcerated for over a year pending trial since his arrest for allegedly provoking violent anti-government protests in early 2014.
The video was widely shared in Venezuela's social media and also outside the country through the country's growing diaspora, something that upset many inside the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or MUD), the main opposition party.
López is one of several political prisoners whose cause is being championed on social media by supporters even as pro-government accounts seek to discredit him. Another is Daniel Ceballos, ex-Mayor of the San Cristóbal municipality, who was detained in March last year for disobeying a precautionary ruling from the Supreme Court against holding demonstrations as riots and protests against President Maduro's government gathered pace during that time.
— Patricia de Ceballos (@PatrideCeballos) May 26, 2015
#MaytheHairFall #StandUpVenezuela #FreeCeballos #FreeLeopoldo #FreethePoliticalPrisoners
Ceballos’ wife, Patricia de Ceballos, whose tweet is above, has used social media to kickstart another movement. The words in the campaign's hashtag “May the Hair Fall” (as seen in the video below) are a play on words and a blast directed at Venezuelan Speaker Diosdado Cabello, whose name translates in English as “hair”, and who is viewed by regime opponents as a Machiavellian schemer representative of the worst elements of local politics.
Part of the campaign consisted of videos and pictures of Patricia de Ceballos cutting her hair in front of a camera along with other Venezuelan women:
#YoCortoCon “la intolerancia que separa a los venezolanos” (#ICutWith the intolerance that divides Venezuelans), she says in the viral video. #QuecaigaelCabello: #MayTheHairFall.
But somebody struck back.
Liliana Tintori, a former kitesurfing champion of Venezuela and wife of the jailed López, had her Twitter account hacked the night before the May 30 protest. The tweet attributed to Tintori read: “Even at the cost of thousands of Venezuelan lives!!! We will continue the struggle for a #Venezuela of wellbeing and progress”. It promptly made the front page of a prominent pro-government newspaper.
Tintori claimed the hack as the work of the government. Her response quickly became major news in a country where tweets have substituted interviews as the country's main newsmaker.
ALERTA: mi cuenta en Twitter @LilianTintori ha sido hackeada. Todo es para desmovilizarnos. No nos quebrarán! Por favor ayúdenme con su RT
— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) May 30, 2015
ALERT: my Twitter account @LilianTintori has been hacked. All to demobilize us. We will not break! Please help me and RT
Esta infamia si seria causal de una demanda por difamación! Esto es absolutamente falso, un vil montaje pic.twitter.com/qP6xlIS0Sd
— Lilian Tintori (@liliantintori) May 29, 2015
This disgrace is defamation. This is completely false, a vile creation!
Is more social media always better?
Social media provides a perfect mirror for divisions that exist on Venezuela's streets. In response to the opposition information campaign, the pro-government camp have begun producing their own hashtags:
— Cuatro F Digital (@CuatroFDigital) May 29, 2015
#MaduroIsThePeople: While the right calls for violence, the revolution triumphs
— José David Cabello R (@jdavidcabello) May 30, 2015
Venezuela is a peaceful country…United by revolution we will continue overcoming… @NicolasMaduro #UnitedSocialistPartyofVEnezuelaTowardVictory
Although Twitter is a platform that theoretically makes the interaction of different schools of thought possible, in the case of Venezuela, this does not appear to take place. Instead, each party in the conflict uses its own discourse and its own Trending Topic to endorse its own position. Overwhelmingly the aim is to attack the other side whether it is listening or not:
— María Corina Machado (@MariaCorinaYA) May 30, 2015
All of Venezuela applauds you, Patricia. The regime knows that our strength is moral, that's the reason for their infamous attacks on @PatrideCeballos.
Luis Carlos Díaz, talking on his Political Hangout explains the phenomenon:
También pasa algo en redes que a la gente se le olvida, y es que los grupos están sobrerepresentados. La gente siempre parece más de lo que es. Los [partidarios de la MUD] creen que son la mayoría aplastante de 7 millones de votos opositores de las elecciones donde [Henrique] Capriles casi gana […] No lo son. La mayor parte del país está desconectado informativamente de las decisiones de la MUD […] La gente de [Voluntad Popular] son muy efusivos, pero tampoco son la mayoría de los opositores del país. Son un grupo. Pero como están en redes y todos se ven las caras y todos se dan la razón entonces [parecen] más que los demás.
There is also something that happens on social networks, something that people tend to forget, and it's that that these groups are over-represented. It always seems like there are more people than there actually are. Supporters of the [Democratic Unity Round-table Party or MUD] believe that they are the crushing majority that almost made [opposition candidate Henrique] Capriles win with with 7 million opposition votes during the last presidential elections […]. They are not. The majority of the country is disconnected — from an information standpoint –from the decisions of the MUD. People from [the political party Voluntad Popular -The People's Will-] are very expressive, but they are not the majority of the country's opposition either. They are one group. But since they are all connected online on social networks, and they see each other's faces, and they agree with one another, they have the feeling that there are more of them than the others.
So, is Twitter an information lifeline or a catalyst for the Venezuelan crisis?
Given the domestic media's reliance on social media, it is unsurprising rumors that last for a few moments turns to news. Supporters of government and opposition spread recordings of alleged phone tappings or controversial images wihout verification. Many seem to believe anything which debilitates an opponent in the information war is fair game.
The high level of social network penetration in Venezuela, especially on political topics highlights the absence of impartial media in the country. Venezuelans are forced to inform themselves via social media given the shortage of reliable newspapers and the closure of specific digital media outlets.
Unfortunately, as the information war heats up between the government and its opponents there is not enough awareness that the social influencers using 140 characters or less to reach the masses are only presenting their version of Venezuela.