Shaping Online Public Opinion, Maduro’s ‘Army of Trolls’
By Diálogo February 07, 2020
In early January, Twitter suspended dozens of accounts linked to the Nicolás Maduro regime citing “platform manipulations.” Maduro’s presidential office, the Bolivarian Armed Forces’ Strategic Operational Command, the Central Bank of Venezuela, including state oil company PDVSA, and other government agencies temporarily lost access to their accounts.
In 2019, both Twitter and Facebook took down thousands of accounts linked to disinformation campaigns in Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. In Venezuela, Twitter removed about 2,000 accounts that were considered by the company to be engaging in “state-backed influence campaigns targeting domestic audiences.”
According to a 2019 report on online propaganda by Oxford University, seven countries were singled out for using social media to control information and to influence audiences, including China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. The report indicates that the Venezuelan regime not only relies on bots (automated software applications), but also on a large budget and large number of people tasked with manipulating public opinion online. The report estimates that “multiple brigades of 500 people” with “evidence of formal training” carry out computational propaganda for the regime.
According to Venezuelan journalist Adrian González, who operates Cazadores de Fake News (Fake News Hunters), one of six Venezuelan fact-checking sites that verify materials circulating on online platforms and fight disinformation, many of Maduro’s brigades operate from two call centers in Caracas and receive orders directly from the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information.
“Some of those [accounts] are easy to catch, with bot behavior,” González said. “They retweet between 100 to 400 times a day, but you can see they are human operators […]. I’ve denounced these accounts thousands of times.”
González said the brigades are lured with easy money earned by simply engaging in disinformation campaigns to suppress the opposition and to reinforce the regime’s message.
“With prizes, that’s how they get people to tweet,” González said. “They say position this trend, get $10. With a little bit of money you can incentivize a whole lot of people and there are some who spend their entire time doing just that.”
A document from the Venezuelan Ministry of the Interior and Justice, “Formation Project for the Bolivarian Revolution Army of Trolls,” leaked in 2017 to the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela detailed the regime’s online propaganda plan of action. According to the document, the “Army” consists of squadrons (1 person), pelotons (10 people), companies (50 people), battalions (100 people), and brigades (500 people), who are responsible for operating from 23 to 11,500 accounts in the most popular social media sites. The trolls are categorized as pro-government, (false) opposition (pro-Maduro trolls whose online task is to infiltrate the opposition and interfere in their conversation), neutral, distraction, and fake news. Their role is to monitor online content and spread false information.
According to González, the trolls owe their social media savvy to training they received as part of the Maduro regime’s “Robinson Digital Mission“ a 2016 initiative under the Ministry of Education. State-owned media described the mission as a “new digital capability sought by the State to counter the communications warfare the national and international right is waging.”
“I am creating the Robinson Digital Mission […] to defend the people of Venezuela’s right to truth, independence, and peace,” Maduro said as he approved the mission’s creation.
In her late 2018 study, “Venezuelan Government Strategies for Information War on Twitter,” Iria Puyosa, a Venezuelan researcher in political communication and a visiting professor at Brown University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, identified three strategies the Maduro regime uses on Twitter to manipulate public opinion. Puyosa’s research indicates that the regime coordinates official accounts and those of its Army of trolls to ensure the reach of daily trending topics, to promote distracting hashtags with misleading or false information, and to hijack the hashtags of the opposition to alter their message and meddle in their conversations.
“The combined deployment of the three strategies constitutes a systemic violation of Venezuelan internet users’ right to participate in public affairs,” Puyosa said in her report. “Furthermore, these strategies contributed to the violation of expression and association, access to information, and participation in public affairs debates, which are fundamental to a free, open, and human rights-oriented internet.”