Chaos and panic lead to misinformation after Colombia’s national strike

While the protests in Colombia were mainly peaceful, xenophobic videos and social media narratives stoked potential vigilantism

(Source: Mapbox)

Following a November 21 strike across Colombia, videos showing looting — which suggested Venezuelan migrants and vandals were alleged to have committed — appeared on Instagram and Twitter, among other social media platforms. On WhatsApp, inflammatory and xenophobic audio clips and text messages encouraged Colombians to defend their homes from looting and vandalism.

Colombia is the latest Latin American country swept by anti-government protests. In recent months, citizens across the region — most notably in Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia — have taken to the streets to decry economic austerity policies and political corruption. The protests were accompanied by significant unease around the country, which itself led to xenophobic rhetoric directed at Venezuelan migrants.

Over the past few years, millions of Venezuelans have fled the country as a result of the dire economic, political, and humanitarian crisis. Estimates suggest over 1.4 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, making it one of the countries most affected by the influx of migrants and refugees. Migration from Venezuela to Colombia has created social and economic challenges in the country, and those migrants face difficult and often dangerous realities on their long journey to a new home, including assault, threats, and harassment.

The DFRLab looked at social media chatter around the protests and a number of videos purportedly showing looting, often attributed to Venezuelans, and found that the claims did not hold up under scrutiny.

The national strike and the supposed widespread looting

The protests in Colombia were initially referred to as a national strike, organized as the culmination of a series of actions put in motion on October 4 by the Central Union of Workers of Colombia, student organizations, and indigenous groups. Thousands of other people, however, joined the November 21 march to voice their concerns and proclaim discontent with the Colombian government.

Many of the protesters participated to push back against economic and labor reforms proposed by some members of congress, but people took to the streets for other reasons as well, including to demand new action against corruption and renewed protections for human rights activists, who are increasingly subject to violence in the country. Many who marched also asked for full implementation of the embattled 2016 peace deal between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The marches were mostly peaceful, though both the police’s abuse of power, including brutal confrontations, and public unrest by some protesters led to confrontations between demonstrators and members of the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron, the Colombian National Police riot control force. In response, the government placed Cali and Bogotá under curfew in an effort to reestablish public order.

Some of the messages shared on WhatsApp — prior to the start of the curfew in Bogotá — suggested Venezuelans, alongside local vandals, planned lootings throughout the city.

Text messages alleging that migrant Venezuelans planned to loot buildings around the Colombian capital were shared on WhatsApp on November 22. Both messages encouraged neighbors to be alert and stay prepare to defend their homes. (Source: WhatsApp)

Amid the protests and the public unrest on November 22, videos posted on social media and messages spread on WhatsApp encouraged chaos and panic in the city. Neighbors started to arm themselves against impending looting sprees. On Twitter, however, the information encouraged xenophobic narratives and led to misinformation.

The supposed main neighborhoods for looters in Bogotá, where neighbors started to arm themselves to defend the households. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

Xenophobic narratives against Venezuelans

The DFRLab examined 306,670 tweets containing the word “Venezolanos” (Venezuelans), posted in Spanish between November 21 and November 24. Among the hashtags used in this set of posts were #Venecos (a pejorative reference to Venezuelans), #FueraVenezolanos (“Get out Venezuelans”), and #NoMásVenezolanos (No more Venezuelans). These hashtags garnered 2,679 mentions published by 2,195 accounts, which mainly highlighted narratives contributing to xenophobia, often including words such as “looting,” “robbery,” and “vandalism.” Some posts by these accounts accused Venezuelans of vandalism during the demonstrations.

Graph shows the top 50 words used by accounts using the hashtags #Venecos, #FueraVenezolanos, and #NoMásVenezolanos. The red circle indicates words commonly employed in xenophobic narratives. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

The DFRLab used concordance, a Natural Language Processing method, that permits a researcher to see the words that surround a search term in a given set of written data. In other words, this method allows a researcher to see the context in which the search term is used, enabling the researcher to determine general sentiment around a given word or phrase. In this case, the word “Venezolanos” was commonly preceded and succeeded by the hashtag #FueraVenezolanos and accompanied by terms such as “looting” and “vandalism.”

The words that occurred before and after “Venezolanos” in the set of tweets the DFRLab examined showed a preponderance of xenophobic sentiment. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

Although some posts that contributed to the xenophobic narratives referenced both “Venezolanos” and “#Venecos,” tweets also used the same words to draw attention to the spread of xenophobia on Twitter on November 22.

Tweet drawing attention to xenophobia on November 22, after Twitter accounts blamed Venezuelans about acts of vandalism during the Colombian national strike. (Source: @edsimon11/archive)

Videos supposedly showing the looting of houses

On November 22, Citytv, a TV network affiliated with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, launched the hashtag #ReportoEnCity (“Report in city”), focused on the marches in Bogotá during the second day of the Colombian national strike. The hashtag reached the trending topics with more than 64,000 mentions and was used by almost 33,000 accounts.

The hashtag aimed first to create a citizen report, inviting users to collaborate on Twitter about events happening in the protests. It pivoted, however, into misinformation when Twitter accounts, including traditional media outlets and Colombian politicians, started to share videos supposedly showing looting attempts in houses in specific neighborhoods.

Identical looting in identical locations… all around Bogotá

The number of videos using the hashtag #ReportoEnCity increased in the afternoon of November 22. After 8:00 p.m. that night, the videos about looting attempts and new videos showing neighbors armed with machetes, bats, and knives for defense against the supposed looters began to circulate increasingly, which generated chaos and reactionary panic in many areas of Bogotá.

Some looting videos were posted that allegedly showed different neighborhoods around Bogotá but, in actuality, contained identical footage, thus precluding any possibility that they were different areas. Media outlet Twitter accounts with millions of followers, such as El Tiempo and El Espectador, fell victim to this trend. Both posted the same video claiming that the events happened in the neighborhood of Castilla in Bogotá, while Red+ Noticias posted the same video to its 130,900 followers, saying the events depicted in the footage took place in Ciudad Verde, in the suburban municipality of Soacha in Bogotá. These posts featuring the identical video garnered 45,100 views, 371 retweets, and 320 likes combined.

Image shows media outlets accounts posting the same video but targeting different neighborhoods (Source: @RedMasNoticias/archive, left; @elespectador/archive, middle; @eltiempo/archive)

The DFRLab tracked the videos posted in #ReportoEnCity and found that the first tweet posting the same video was published by the account @empanadaconaji_ at 7:39 p.m. Colombia time. The tweet garnered more than 56,800 views, 855 retweets, and 1,300 likes.

The original tweet featuring the video that was later used by El Tiempo, El Espectador, and Red+ Noticias. (Source: @empanadaconaji_/archive)

Other videos showed the same pattern: a video with different locations. The following images show three examples of how such posts led to misinformation about the location of looting videos.

The first example of the same video being spread to show a different location. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)
The second example of the same video being spread to show a different location. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)
The third example of the same video being spread to show a different location. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

By November 23, Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa had to address irregularities found in 612 calls related to lootings received between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on November 22 to Bogotá’s emergency response line. According to the mayor, “an orchestrated plot by a high-level organization” started to spread a campaign to destabilize the city. The irregularities were detected after calls were geo-referenced — i.e., locating the origin of the call — by authorities, who determined that the calls had come in 20-minute waves from an isolated few localities within in the city. It was not explained, however, who was behind the campaign described by the mayor, although he did mention that the looting threats outlined in the calls had not been real.

The xenophobic narratives on Twitter targeting Venezuelans finally started to decelerate after November 22, indicating that public unrest during the protests and the looting videos were highly connected to such narratives. On November 25, however, Colombia’s migration authorities deported 59 Venezuelans who were — according to the agency — “engaging in a series of activities that put public order and national security at risk.” Krüger Sarmiento, General Director of Migration Colombia, stated that, while the agency had respected foreigners’ participation during the marches, “[it] refused to allow the actions of a few to affect security or generate xenophobia.”


Esteban Ponce de Leon is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Colombia.

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