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Amid Chaos, Venezuelans Struggle To Find The Truth, Online

Jan 26, 2019
Originally published on January 30, 2019 1:19 pm

In Venezuela, where media is controlled by the government, figuring out what is truth, rumor or propaganda has always been difficult.

In recent days it's gotten even more confusing. President Nicolas Maduro has refused to cede power to the opposition party. There have been widespread protests and looting — and the rumor mill has been churning on social media.

But many Venezuelans have found a way to use social media in their favor.

Forced to get their news on social media

Javier Rojo owns a pharmacy in the capital city of Caracas. As the chaos started, he gave his workers the day off, went home and turned on the TV — only to find nothing was being reported.

"Independent media has been gradually attacked or shut down over time," says professor Gregory Weeks, who teaches Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "So that in general social media becomes the means by which you learn what's going on, on an ongoing basis."

Back at his house, Rojo says he started getting messages on WhatsApp like this one from from one of his employees: "Tanks are rolling into the park. They are launching tear gas."

Rumors spreading on WhatsApp, Twitter

But then, Rojo started receiving WhatsApp messages with rumors from people he doesn't even know. One man, who says his aunt's husband is a military officer, swore that Maduro has resigned.

Professor Raisa Urribarri researches technology and politics at Universidad de Los Andes in Venezuela. She says it's hard to trace the origins of some messages in Venezuelan social media. They can be from panicked citizens, the opposition or the government.

It's not the first time social media has been caught up in international turmoil. Last year, the military in Myanmar used Facebook to spread rumors about the Rohingya Muslim minority — eventually leading to atrocities. In Brazil's last presidential elections, gossip about candidates spread like wildfire on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, recently announced it will no longer allow users to forward messages to more than five people.

Using WhatsApp to spread real news

Still, Urribarri says, Venezuelans have lived with misinformation for so long, they've become smart news consumers. She points to a WhatsApp group called Servicio De Informacion Publica, or Public Information Service.

The audio messages sent on the group are so low-production, they almost sound fake. But it's a service created by Venezuelan journalists, who were tired of all the fake news and censorship in the country. Every few hours they release a bulletin, which gets shared countless times on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

In one broadcast, the announcer listed the neighborhoods and streets that have been experiencing violent clashes, looting and government repression.

"Follow us," he says. "We are online."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Venezuelan media is controlled by the government. Figuring out what is truth, rumor, propaganda has always been difficult. In recent days, though, it's been even more confusing. President Nicolas Maduro has refused to cede power to the opposition party. There have been widespread protests and looting. And the rumor mill continues to churn on social media. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Javier Rojo (ph) owns a pharmacy in the capital city of Caracas. This week, as chaos took over the country, he gave his workers the day off, went home and turned on the TV - only to find nothing was being reported.

JAVIER ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Rojo says right now people get their news on social media and WhatsApp. Professor Gregory Weeks teaches Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He says in Venezuela...

GREGORY WEEKS: Independent media has been gradually attacked and shut down over time so that, in general, social media becomes the means by which you learn what's going on on an ongoing basis.

GARSD: Back at his house, Rojo says he started getting messages on WhatsApp from one of his workers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Tanks are rolling into the park," she says. "They're launching tear gas." She's one of his employees. He trusts her. But then he started getting WhatsApp voice messages from people he doesn't even know.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: One guy, who says his aunt's husband is a military officer - and he swears Nicolas Maduro has resigned. Rojo is getting bombarded by fake news and wild rumors. And it's happening to a lot of people in the country. Professor Raisa Urribarri researches technology and politics at Universidad de Los Andes in Venezuela. She says it's hard to trace the origins of some messages. It can be panicked citizens or the opposition. The government has also gotten savvy at digital propaganda.

RAISA URRIBARRI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In the last few days, she says, there's been a wave of tweets in favor of the current regime - #ImWithMaduro - from many accounts she and her colleagues have traced back to Turkey, a country that has backed Maduro. It's not the first time social media has been caught up in international turmoil. Last year, the military in Myanmar used Facebook to spread rumors about the Rohingya Muslim minority, eventually leading to atrocities. In Brazil's last presidential elections, misinformation about candidates spread like wildfire on WhatsApp. Just this week, WhatsApp announced it will no longer allow users to forward messages to more than five people. But professor Urribarri says Venezuelans have lived with fake news for so long, they've become smart news consumers. She points me to this trusted WhatsApp group.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: The audio bulletin is so low production it almost sounds fake. But it's a public information broadcast created by a group of Venezuelan journalists. Every few hours, they release audio which gets shared countless times on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In this one broadcast, the announcer lists the neighborhoods and streets that have been experiencing violent clashes and looting. Follow us, he says. We are online. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.