Far-Right Media Weaponizes the Venezuelan Power Struggle for a Pro-Gun Agenda

Blogs and news sites in the United States and Brazil attributed the Venezuelan crisis to the disarmament of the country’s population

(Source: @luizabandeira/DFRLab via Unplash)

In the days following Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s April 30 failed uprising, far-right blogs in the United States and Brazil focused on reframing the power struggle in Venezuela to advance a pro-private gun ownership agenda.

April 30 marked Guaidó’s latest large-scale attempt to oust Nicolás Maduro from power. That morning, the opposition leader rallied outside of a military base in central Caracas in an attempt to broaden his support within the Venezuelan military, in particular, as it is unlikely that he can topple Maduro without the military’s support.

Following the day’s events, far-right blogs started to reframe the events using two rhetorically spun premises.

First, they claimed that the ban on private gun ownership instituted by the Venezuelan government in 2012 left citizens vulnerable to an authoritarian government and unable to remove Maduro from power.

Second, they relied on a recent quote from MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders, in which he stated that, since the Venezuelan military controlled the guns, they controlled the country. Far-right blogs in the United States interpreted this comment as supportive of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which pro-guns rights activists argue enshrines a private right for citizens to bear arms.

Gun Control in Venezuela

Venezuela approved a gun-control bill in 2012, and the law took effect in 2013. In an effort to reduce violent crime in the country, the law banned the commercial sale of guns and ammunition. At the time the bill was approved, Venezuela was one of the most violent countries in the world, with a homicide rate of 73 per 100,000, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence NGO. Members of the opposition criticized the law on the grounds that the government, while banning the sale of guns, was backing illegal colectivos, armed groups that support the Maduro regime.

Spinning Gun Control to Make a Pro-Gun Argument

The first story to amass significant engagement was published by far-right news site The Daily Caller, known for its ties to white supremacists. Under the headline “Venezuela Banned Private Gun Ownership Less Than a Decade Ago,” a Daily Caller writer argued that Venezuelans could have fought Maduro if they still had broad access to guns.

The article, heavily based on a Fox News piece published in December 2018, quoted four people (two Venezuelan migrants, one opposition Venezuelan politician, and one person living in Venezuela). None of the people interviewed supported the gun ban. Impartiality is one of the pillars of good journalistic practice. The Daily Caller was labeled “damaging to public discourse” on a media bias chart compiled by independent research firm Ad Fontes, and Fox News straddles the line between “fair” and “unfair” interpretation of the news.

Image from BuzzSumo showing interactions with The Daily Caller article amounting to 73,000, mostly coming from Facebook. (Source: @luizabandeira/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Two days after the Daily Caller published its piece, the Brazilian far-right blog “Renova Midia,” which had previously published false information concerning the Brazilian general election in 2018, translated it into Portuguese. On May 2, the Mises Institute, a conservative Brazilian think tank, repeated the claim that the gun control law disempowered Venezuelans.

Finally, Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s sons and a congressman in the country, published a video of colectivos in Venezuela and wrote in his post that “disarmament is a power project.” In his successful presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro promised to reduce criminality in the country by loosening gun ownership rules. On May 7, he published a decree that made it easier for Brazilians to buy guns and ammunition and expanded their rights to carry guns.

Facebook post by Eduardo Bolsonaro that reads: “The [Brazilian] NGO Viva Rio helped to disarm the good population in Venezuela. On the other hand, [Hugo] Chávez bought more than 100,000 rifles that he gave to colectivos, groups like the ones in the video. And now, how to restore democracy in Venezuela? Disarmament is a power project.” (Source: Eduardo Bolsonaro/archive)

Kerry Sanders’s Comment on MSNBC

While some blogs decided to focus on the Venezuelan gun control law, others highlighted a comment made by Kerry Sanders, an MSNBC reporter, that they claimed supported private gun ownership in Venezuela. While talking to host Andrea Mitchell about the situation in Venezuela, Sanders said: “You have to understand, in Venezuela gun ownership is not something that’s open to everybody. So, if the military have the guns, they have the power, and as long as Nicolás Maduro controls the military, he controls the country.”

For many blogs and biased news sites, Sanders’s comment served as an accidental defense of the Second Amendment, which concerns the right of the people in the United States to keep and bear arms. This argument was first made by the libertarian blog The Washington Free Beacon and then amplified by Breitbart, The Daily Wire, The Blaze, and Hot Air. All of these websites, except for Hot Air, are identified on the Ad Fontes chart as “extreme/unfair interpretations of the news” or even “damaging to public discourse.”

A BuzzSumo search for the keyword “Venezuela” between April 30 and May 6 identified The Daily Wire article as among the top 3 articles in terms of engagement. BuzzSumo is a social listening tool that measures engagement through Facebook likes and shares as well as Twitter posts, among other metrics.

BuzzSumo analysis of an English-language search for “Venezuela.” (Source: @luizabandeira/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Altogether, the articles mentioned above garnered 273,228 interactions (shares, comments, likes, and other reactions) on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, another social media monitoring tool. Among the main amplifiers were conservative commentator and founder of The Daily Wire Ben Shapiro and conservative commentator Michael Knowles.

CrowdTangle analysis showing engagement and pages and groups that amplified The Daily Wire’s article. (Source: @luizabandeira/DFRLab via Crowdtangle)

Conclusion

Rhetoric at the extreme ends of the political spectrum is frequently used as a starting point for disinformation campaigns. The recent spin around the complex and messy Venezuela conflict as a rationale for policy prescriptions in other countries is the exact type of language that can be easily misunderstood or deliberately misapplied.

Far-right blogs in the United States and Brazil have used the situation in Venezuela to spin support for a pro-private gun ownership agenda in their respective countries. To back their claims, these blogs argued that, in banning private gun ownership, Venezuela left its citizens unarmed and unable to remove Maduro from power.

The blogs also mentioned a comment made by an MSNBC reporter who had stated that part of the reason why Maduro was still in power was that he had the support of the military, and the military had access to guns. According to these far-right publications, the reporter’s comment supported the right to private gun ownership. This reframing of the discussion constituted an attempt to reshape events in Venezuela to further a particular policy agenda. Furthermore, it highlighted the internationalization of the far-right agenda, as several right-wing blogs in Brazil and the United States pursued the same narrative.


Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant for Latin America at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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