Pro-Maduro accounts are tweeting about the Chilean protests, but there is no evidence of a state-backed information operation
Nearly 20 percent of Venezuela-based accounts tweeting about the ongoing protests in Chile self-identify as “chavistas,” supporters of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The DFRLab analyzed 1.1 million tweets about protests in Chile, posted between October 16 and October 25, 2019, in the first attempt to determine empirically whether the Maduro regime’s digital militias are attempting to influence the online discussion about Chile.
Beginning in October, an escalating series of protests have riled Latin America, particularly Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. As the heads of state of most of the countries experiencing social unrest are political rivals of the Venezuelan regime, Nicolás Maduro has been accused of instigating the demonstrations.
Pro-regime Twitter accounts operating from Venezuela have a history of attempting to influence domestic events in other countries. During the Catalan independence crisis of 2017, Venezuelan “chavista” accounts, along with Russian counterparts, spread links from Kremlin-backed outlets highlighting Spanish police brutality. Venezuelan accounts were also involved in the state-backed operation to try to intervene in the United States 2018 midterm elections, according to Twitter.
The DFRLab findings, however, did not find any evidence that the chavista accounts were a state-backed operation orchestrated by the Maduro regime to interfere in Chilean domestic affairs.
“Latin American spring”
Over the last couple of months, Latin American political leaders that supported Maduro’s ousting suffered a series of backlashes. In Ecuador, Lenin Moreno’s government faced street protests, initially instigated in response to a cut in gas subsidies, that prompted the government to move its base of operations temporarily. In Argentina, incumbent President Mauricio Macri lost the presidential race to his left-wing opponent. And, in Chile, protests that started because of a metro fare increase escalated to demands for structural change in the country, building on the frustration with regard to the neoliberal market-based policies supported by the Chilean government.
In an official statement published on October 16, the Organization of American States (OAS) stated that “the recent currents of destabilization of the political systems of the hemisphere have their origins in the strategy of the Bolivarian and Cuban dictatorships.” According to the organization, these regimes were trying to reposition themselves in the region “through their old methodology of exporting polarization and bad practices, to essentially finance, support and promote political and social conflict.” The organization, nonetheless, did not offer any evidence of Venezuelan or Cuban involvement.
Maduro and his allies’ dubious reaction added more fuel to the fire. Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Constituent National Assembly and Maduro’s number two, said the “Bolivarian breeze” affecting these countries meant Venezuela was not isolated. Maduro facetiously claimed credit for the unrest, saying that the left-wing regional organization Foro de São Paulo was achieving its goals, only to joke after that “they think I move my mustache and bring governments down. I’m thinking, ‘Which is the next government I want to overthrow?’”
To isolate those tweets that were Venezuelan in origin and propagating the Maduro regime’s messaging on the Chilean protests, the DFRLab first segregated those accounts that had some form of location identifier –201,840 accounts — within the overall set of 421,868 accounts. This subset was in turn segregated by country, isolating those accounts with Venezuela as a location (24,764 of the 201,840), and then by those that self-identified as “chavista” (2,862 of the 24,764 Venezuela-based accounts).The 2,862 Venezuelan chavista accounts comprised 0.7 percent of the overall total number (421,868) of accounts analyzed. To determine whether an account was “chavista,” the DFRLab searched for the following key words, which tend to indicate support for the Venezuelan regime, in the accounts’ bios: “chávez,” “chavez,” “chavismo,” “chavista,” “maduro,” “bolívar,” “bolivar,” “psuv,” “bolivariana,” “bolivariano,” and “Diosdado.”
In terms of tweets, the 2,862 Venezuelan “chavista” accounts posted 20,443 of the approximately 1.1 million total tweets in the full dataset, or 1.86 percent. The “chavista” accounts, however, contributed a far larger proportion of the tweets from all Venezuela-based accounts, at 19.2 percent, or 20,443 out of 106,626 tweets.
Actualidad RT, the Spanish-language bureau of the Kremlin-backed outlet RT, Marco_Teruggi, a Venezuela correspondent for Telesur, and Telesur TV, a multi-state funded Latin American broadcaster launched by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, were among the most retweeted accounts. These accounts posted links to articles that highlighted police brutality in Chile, where 23 protesters have been killed since November 6, 2019.
The focus on amplifying reports of police violence echoed an earlier campaign by Venezuelan accounts targeting Catalonia. In that earlier operation, Venezuelan accounts, some of which were inauthentic, shared links from Russian-state media related to Spanish police brutality against protesters in the semi-autonomous region.
In the case of Chile, however, the DFRLab found no evidence to suggest that the accounts’ engagement with Kremlin media articles was part of an inorganic campaign. The Chilean protests were widely covered in the Venezuelan media, and the online attention to police brutality toward the protests may have been organic.
A pro-Maduro regime account with a profile picture featuring Chávez,@juancardenasr26, was the most prolific account, with an average of 214 tweets per day. Despite the high level of activity, which can be a sign of automation, the DFRLab found no other indication that this account was a bot. The other main tweeters were Venezuelan outlets, including El Nacional and La Patilla, which suggests that the conversation about Chile was in the news cycle in the country, likely because Maduro and his allies repeatedly drew attention to the topic.
The most common hashtags mentioned by Venezuela-based users were “#ChileResiste” (“Chile Resists”), “#Protestas” (“Protests”), and “#ChileSeCansó” (“Chile got tired”). These hashtags also trended in Chile, and the DFRLab found no indication that they did so because Venezuelan accounts had spammed the hashtag. The hashtag #ChileResiste was particularly popular among Venezuelan accounts — on average, each Venezuelan account posted the hashtag four times. This number is high for the patterns the DFRLab usually observes but not sufficiently so to suggest artificial amplification. The analysis did not find any other indication of traffic manipulation; in other words, there was no suggestion that a small group of accounts had tried to position the hashtag artificially among the trending topics in Chile.
The most discussed topics were “Estado de emergencia en Santiago de Chile” (“State of emergency in Santiago, Chile”), “Manifestaciones estudiantiles” (“Student demonstrations”), “Aumento en las tarifas del metro” (“The increase in metro fares”), and “Foro de São Paulo” (“São Paulo Forum,” the left-wing regional organization mentioned by Maduro in a comment on the protests).
The recent wave of social unrest in Latin America affected mostly countries governed by right-wing leaders who oppose Maduro’s regime in Caracas. His rivals accused him of being the mastermind behind the protests, and the Venezuela leader added to the confusion by making oblique statements.
The DFRLab analyzed over 1.1 million tweets to assess whether a Venezuelan state-backed information operation was involved in the online discussions about the Chilean protests. Among the Venezuelan-based accounts tweeting about the protests, nearly 20 percent self-identified as “chavistas.” These accounts were following the Venezuelan government narrative — though there was no indication that they were directly tied to the government itself — that characterized the protests as a victory of the Venezuelan socialist model over the right-wing policies adopted by Chile. They also amplified content from Russian-state outlets about police brutality against protesters. While reports of police brutality in Chile have been substantiated, amplifying that content also served the Venezuelan regime’s narrative by weakening the position of the Chilean government. This narrative also served to distract from Venezuela’s own human rights record.
The DFRLab did not find any indication, however, that there was substantial inauthentic activity among the accounts analyzed. First, there was no evidence of widespread automation. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the “chavista” accounts’ engagement with the topic of the Chile protests was inorganic. The social unrest in Chile was closely followed and widely discussed among the Venezuelan media and political elite; the accounts may have been expressing genuine interest in the topic.
Esteban Ponce de Leon is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) and is based in Colombia.
Luiza Bandeira is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the @DFRLab and is based in Colombia.