venezuela
Social Networks

Twitter vs. the Revolution

When Nicolas Maduro was campaigning to become Venezuela's president last year he claimed Hugo Chavez's spirit visited him in the form of a little bird. Once in power he picked a fight with a rather different little bird: Twitter.

Venezuela's socialist leader accused the micro-blogging site of trying to destabilize the Bolivarian revolution, a blend of populism, nationalism and left-wing ideology named after independence hero Simón Bolívar.

Maduro vowed to break Twitter's “monopoly” and proposed setting up a rival micro-blogging service across Latin America. Officials also shut down Bitly, the link-sharing platform used by Twitter users, accusing it of economic sabotage.

These political diatribes posed an unexpected challenge to Twitter in one of its most loyal Latin American markets, raising several questions: What impelled the government's hostility? And would it follow through on its threats?

Targeting Twitter was all the more surprising because Maduro had been expected to soften the government's anti-imperialist rhetoric after succeeding Chávez, who died in March 2013, after 14 tumultuous years at the helm of the South American oil state. Maduro, a former foreign minister, was seen as a pragmatic politician who would try to tackle mounting economic problems.

His claim on television that Chavez's spirit had visited him in the form of a little bird was widely considered a clumsy but harmless attempt to tap his predecessor's popularity. No one expected him to later target the world's most famous little white bird.

After all Maduro himself used Twitter to spread his message, just like Chavez before him. Opponents also used the service to criticize the government but Twitter itself was largely seen as a neutral force.

This suddenly changed during last October´s local election campaign. After Maduro lost 6,600 followers overnight, he accused Twitter of attacking his account. The San Francisco-based company, he said, was doing the work of Yankee imperialism and trying to destabilize the revolution.

The president said Venezuela would pioneer an alternative to Twitter. “We must achieve independence, and we have to think about deep and radical ways we can free ourselves from these multinational corporations that have monopolized social networks.” He vowed to push the proposal at pan-regional summits, raising the specter of other leftist governments joining a campaign against Twitter.

The confrontation escalated in December when the government blocked access to Bitly, the platform used to shorten web addresses, as part of a crackdown on websites which published illegal black market currency rates. Socialist controls peg the bolivar currency at an unrealistic rate against the dollar – an economic fiction exposed by the black market, and by extension information services like Bitly.

In reality Bitly was a symptom, not a cause, of the distortions roiling Venezuela's economy. And Twitter routinely purges phantom accounts; according to experts, 6,600 was not so many set against the president's 1.4 million followers in November. Twitter did not respond to an interview request about its purging policies for this article.

The real reason the president assailed Twitter was to emulate Chavez's rhetorical thunder against the empire, said Victor Solano, an expert in social media and online reputation. “Maduro’s threats are an attempt to show himself as a rebellious South American leader.” To some extent the gambit worked: hard-core ‘chavistas' applauded the threats and some even demanded sanctions against Google for displaying black market rates.

Bluster aside; the president knew it would be “difficult, costly and inefficient” to attempt China-style curbs on Twitter, added Solano. “People could very easily use other programs to access Twitter from different devices and it would imply a high cost in reputation for Maduro.” Venezuela's government is keen to be seen abroad as democratic and a defender of human rights.

The ministry of information and communication did not respond to a query about whether the proposed Twitter alternative would be raised at a Mercosur summit this month (30 January) but so far the government has signaled no such move. Even Bitly is back. The revolution barked, in other words, but has not bitten. One reason may be that Maduro has gained 200,000 additional followers in recent months. Or, if Solano is right, it might be because the elections are over.

Twitter continues as usual in Venezuela. With almost half the population having an internet connection, Venezuela is among the ten most active countries in social media, according to Comscore. Maduro lacks the exuberance of Chavez, who garnered more than 4 million followers, but he relies on Twitter to project authority and power. The government recently tried to embarrass the opposition by tweeting a list of foreign destinations visited by its leaders during the Christmas holidays – in contrast to Maduro who “patriotically” stayed at home, and tweeted about it.

Earlier this month (January) Maduro tweeted a major cabinet reshuffle – not just in Spanish but also in four new accounts in French, Arab, English and Portuguese. Accounts in Russian and Mandarin are soon to follow.

Despite feeling the sting of government tweets, opponents are grateful for the micro blogging site. Shunned by cowed private media and pro-government state media, they have turned to the social networks to amplify their voice. This might partially explain why Venezuela ranks fourth in Twitter penetration per internet user, according to PeerReach, a social media research company.

Unlike the United States where Twitter is often an extension of mainstream media, in Venezuela it fills a media vacuum and offers a unique platform for politicians, journalists and activists to interact. “It is where we discuss politics,” said Lolybel Negrin, a community manager who specializes in political outreach. “People can express their opinions freely without having to beg for air minutes at a radio or TV station; because in a country like this the most active Twitterers become the de facto media.”

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Ligimat Perez

Bilingual freelance journalist based in Los Angeles following a career in journalism in Latin America for CNN, Venevision and the United Nations.

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