Social Media Impact on Venezuelan Crisis

I have lived outside of my birth country for the past 7 years. The power of social media through social networks has allowed me to be in touch with my country. Having access to the videos, photos, testimonies, and dialogues in real time found on the social networks, has allowed me to witness the crisis unfolding in Venezuela. The current Venezuelan government has taken TV channels off the air, closed down radio stations, and censored or tightly controlled the newspapers.This severely restricts access of real-time information in Venezuela.

Latin American is one of the most active regions in social networks. It has 97.5% Social Media penetration in Internet users. Five of the ten most active countries are located in the Latin American region. Venezuela’s Internet penetration is 44% in which 31% own a smartphone. In terms of Twitter, Venezuela is the 4th country in the world with 14% of active users.

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February 12, 2014 was the ‘Day of the Youth’ in Venezuela. Crowds of students made up primarily of students took to the streets in more than 100 cities. The authoritarian regime has accelerated reforms aimed at centralization of power by censoring the media, jailing and torturing activists, restricting spending abroad, promoting polarization and violence and submerging Venezuela into a severe economic crisis.

In the communication gap left by the TV networks through censorship or self-censorship, social networking and the digital media have stepped up and filled this void. This can be seen in the marches, demonstrations, posters and other manifestations posted to the social media. This poster below is an example of this influence. The banner expresses, “I graduated in Communications: Major: Twitter.”

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I graduated in Communications, Major: Twitter. #Venezuelafearlessz

This banner reflects the power and the strength of social networks in Venezuela. People now go to marches with phones and cameras to immediately share what is happening on social networks.

This next photo shows how the national TV networks, Venevisión, RCTV, andVenezolana Televisión (logos respectively) are not transmitting the news of what is happening in Venezuela.Therefore, this news is being reported in Venezuela through social networks.

Venevisión: “Kneeling”, RCTV: “Closure”, Venezolana: “Biased.”

Venevisión: “Kneeling”, RCTV: “Closure”, Venezolana: “Biased.”

This phenomenon of using social medial to circulate uncensored information and to organize political movements has been used for many years as witnessed in the US when youth were encouraged to participate in the electoral process, to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and to the events in Ukraine, Turkey and Spain today. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other media have not only played an important role, but have been essential tools for achieving objectives.

In the case of Venezuela, social networks are politicized and people of all ages are politically active and participate. It’s easy to promote slogan in which “You are the medium”. This means that you assume all the risk and you control the use of the medium. The government is very afraid of the power of this new technology, which offers citizens regardless of status or economic level, easy access to reach the masses and spread the word of what is happening in Venezuela. Censorship and attacks on the social media also occur.

One example was when on February 12th, Twitter confirmed that the government was blocking their site and not allowing users to have access to images. Another case of censorship occurred with ‘Zello’, a free push-to-talk application for smartphones and PCs.  It was so serious that the company created another more powerful application for free use in Venezuela in support of no censorship and freedom of expression.

Messages alerting users to not use Zello App as being intervened by the government.

Messages alerting users to not use Zello App as being intervened by the government.

This phenomenon is circulating throughout Venezuela and empowering its citizenry to denounce injustices and allowing activists to quickly report these incidents without going through social media filters. Social networks are taking over the transmission of marches, protests and activism, which has not been broadcasted on national television.

Notorious examples of these demonstrations can be cited in the following examples where images have been published immediately in social networks.A great example of the importance of social media was the arrest of Marvinia Gomez, and they were later identified and their profiles revealed on social media. Likewise,  people were asked to spread the word of anyone missing or taken to jail while protesting. Social media has allowed the sharing of this information before any other medium can making them viral and accessible when traditional media is being censored in Venezuela.

 

Marvinia Gomez’s brutal attack by Venezuela’s National Guard

Marvinia Gomez’s brutal attack by Venezuela’s National Guard

People asking to spread the word through Social Media channels

People asking to spread the word through Social Media channels

The weight of social networks has also been reflected in Venezuela in previous years, as it was during the crisis of the illness of the late President Chavez in which his status was made known only through the use of Twitter.This polarization between the government and the social networks has created a ‘Hashtag war’. This phenomenon has been used in election campaigns.Nowadays, Nicolas Maduro’s twitter feed is a frenetic mix of threats to his ‘fascist’ rivals to carry out the Chavez revolution and RT messages from sympathizers while Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the opposition, uses it to stay informed on the marches and protesting and to encourage his supporters to fight nonviolently for their human rights.

On the other side, it’s also relevant to note that social media can generate disinformation that because of people having realized the power of the content released in social media it can be misused if the source is not verified. Sometimes this content can be used by external sources that fail to verify its content. In this example, this image was taken somewhere other than Venezuela.

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These actions also create awareness and initiative that can filter the information given in social networks. This is the case of some twitter users profiles who have become spokespersons providing information and status about detainees. Furthermore, other organized groups are seeking to bring the message beyond the social networks by inviting protesters to take posters to the streets and sharing their message when there is no Internet.  Example:  “LEE A VENEZUELA’.

There is also a movement called the ‘Echo Effect’ whose purpose is to echo what is happening in Venezuela by having celebrities and known personalities narrate the tortures and incidents that occur during the protests.

The Eco Effect is a digital motion that replicates the voices of the streets in Venezuela. Created by artists and journalists who promote freedom of expression, to spread complaining phrases and statements from students and people on the street who have suffered repression.

The Eco Effect is a digital motion that replicates the voices of the streets in Venezuela. Created by artists and journalists who promote freedom of expression, to spread complaining phrases and statements from students and people on the street who have suffered repression.

Furthermore, there is a more organized movement of people living outside of Venezuela and this is drawing international attention. A facebook page called “SOS Venezuela” with more than 160K likes, publishes information both in English and Spanish about Venezuelan news, and events organized across the globe. A big initiative was the use of “#SOSvenezuela” to show support for Venezuela, in which people from different countries would form the “SOS” to display their support and be internationally exposed to what’s happening in Venezuela.  The “SOS” was form in more than 150 cities and its images were published in many portals and its Facebook SOSVenezuela page gained through Facebook more than 100K views.

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Another momentous example was the Oscars event, which aired on March 2, 2014. Venezuelans promoted the hashtag ‘OscarsForVenezuela’ and sent messages to nominees and presenters of the event seeking to promote the cause of the students and attract attention to the violations of human rights. Actors such as Kevin Spacey and Jared Leto expressed their support to Venezuela during the event.

Topsy, an analytic tool, revealed that #OscarsforVenezuela had more than 250M tweets and more than 6K mentions occurred when the images were published and went viral.

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Furthermore, Topsy, revealed that there have been more than 6M mentions to its hashtags since the Venezuela movementstarted.The most popular are,#SOSVenezuela +5M, #PrayforVenezuela +2.5M, #IamyourVoiceVenezuela +800K mentions.

Additionally, it’s relevant to mention that a Per survey of 22 developing countries found that Venezuelans were most likely to say they’d learned that someone’s political beliefs were different than they thought based on something the person posted on social media (49 percent of Venezuelan respondents said they shared views about politics on social media, compared to a median of 38 percent for the countries polled).

Venezuela is the first country in which 74% of social network users learn that someone political belief were different to the one they thought because of some info they posted on their profile (theatlantic.com).

The below graph that the impact of social media in Venezuela’s politics is huge and that more than ever Venezuelans are using some form of social media.

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