The Virtual Troops of the Chavista Revolution have their Matrix

Even Diosdado Cabello has false followers. The Government of Venezuela has been able to measure itself in political cyberspace. Hence, it has created an authentic machinery of robots at the service of the governing party in social media that is mainly controlled by public officials and coordinated from ministries. This is the result of several studies, testimonials and applications that measure the "Twitterzuela" convulsion.

14 January 2018

At the cry of "troop", Mario Silva, a legendary presenter of the Venezuelan television channel (VTV), used to decree trends on Twitter. The call to post tags favorable to the ruling party in this social media was followed by other faces of the public television. Thus, Chavismo has earned for years a privileged space on the Trending Topics list in Venezuela. But that is not the result of force of popularity or simple influence of followers only. Or, at least, that is what documents like last year’s leak from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice and the virtual programs that detect a virtual army at the service of the self-styled Bolivarian revolution showed.

The Government of Venezuela stands out among 28 countries evaluated by the University of Oxford, presented in the report "Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation" (published in 2017), which appeal to a range of cybernetic tools to try to penetrate virtual audiences. Based on the 37-folio study, these troops are directed from the Ministry of Communication and Information with money from the Venezuelan State and with political objectives. Other nations analyzed were Vietnam, North Korea, Ecuador, China, the Philippines, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Israel, Mexico, the United States of America, Ukraine, Germany or India. "Cybernetic troops are often made up of a variety of different players. In some cases, governments have their own internal teams that are employed as public officials. In others, talent is subcontracted to contractors or private volunteers," explains the study.

At the cry of "troop", Mario Silva, a legendary presenter of the Venezuelan television channel (VTV), used to decree trends on Twitter. The call to post tags favorable to the ruling party in this social media was followed by other faces of the public television. Thus, Chavismo has earned for years a privileged space on the Trending Topics list in Venezuela. But that is not the result of force of popularity or simple influence of followers only. Or, at least, that is what documents like last year’s leak from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice and the virtual programs that detect a virtual army at the service of the self-styled Bolivarian revolution showed.

The Government of Venezuela stands out among 28 countries evaluated by the University of Oxford, presented in the report "Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation" (published in 2017), which appeal to a range of cybernetic tools to try to penetrate virtual audiences. Based on the 37-folio study, these troops are directed from the Ministry of Communication and Information with money from the Venezuelan State and with political objectives. Other nations analyzed were Vietnam, North Korea, Ecuador, China, the Philippines, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Israel, Mexico, the United States of America, Ukraine, Germany or India. "Cybernetic troops are often made up of a variety of different players. In some cases, governments have their own internal teams that are employed as public officials. In others, talent is subcontracted to contractors or private volunteers," explains the study.

Two testimonies found by Armando.Info agree that the orders are issued from an office of the Ministry of Communications and Information, exclusively enabled to coordinate social media, and sometimes they hire the services of private companies engaged in the virtual world. The manual of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Justice and Peace, entitled "Training Project of the Bolivarian Revolution Trolls Army to face the Media War" - leaked to the Institute of Press and Society of Venezuela in 2017 -, gives instructions for the consolidation of a virtual battalion. Throughout 14 pages, the manual warns that the cybernetic army will be made up of several squads: press, design, IT, content "incubators," and an attack squad called "flames," which is capable of sowing "false positives."

This entire organization chart operates from three command posts divided in the creative, IT and those commissioned to attack. Thus, in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice only are over 600 people - among employees and contracted - in charge of around 15,203 accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google+ and Whatsapp. Of the five squads projected in that portfolio, the one of the "fake news" or "false positives" stands out. "In times of tension or conflict, the order was to generate rumors or false news to confuse and thus, subsequently, disprove and discredit certain characters of the opposition," says an insider who was part of the troop.    

Undoubtedly, the Government has tried to use social media as a measure of popularity. President Nicolás Maduro has assumed the challenge imposed by cyberspace as a real war. In June, the Head of State criticized the Twitter company for deactivating thousands of accounts of activists of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) "just for being Chavista," while arguing that it was "fear" because the governing party entails a political "majority" in this country. "Of course they (Twitter) have the key, they have the server and they said 'it's over', and they closed thousands of our accounts, but if they closed a thousand accounts, we will open 10,000 more with the youth and the revolutionary force of public opinion and the Venezuelan truth... The battle in social media is very important. They know that it is very important and they use social media for permanent psychological warfare," he said. The claim was made while anti-government protests were taking place between April and July, one of the most discredited episodes for Chavismo due to the death of over 120 people and hundreds of arrests.

Thanks to the Botometer application, Armando.info analyzed several Twitter accounts of politicians related to the ruling party. The one of Diosdado Cabello -one of the hierarchs of Chavism- portrays him with false followers. Of a sample of a thousand of its two million followers, 15% are part of inactive users, robots or spammers.

The figure, however, is not entirely atypical either, as 9% to 15% of active Twitter accounts behave like bots, aimed to act with different "target" groups to influence opinions and thus publish content of connected applications, according to the conclusions of the Eleventh International Conference of the AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) on Web and Social Networks, held in 2017.

Robots - Diosdado Cabello

But it can be about the smallest calculations against the sophisticated mechanisms to create false profiles in social media. Luis Carlos Díaz, a journalist focused on the study of social networks, indicates that in the detection of a false Twitter account, the outdated metrics are no longer valid. "The question of whether or not it has an identity has already been overcome. When one follows the false accounts of the Government they have a face, an avatar, a name. How are they detected? The idea is to see the trends that the Government originates in Twitter; for example, verify some key details: a same tweet, replicated again and again, can offer us indications of inorganic accounts."

"Undoubtedly Maduro has fake accounts and an army of bots to replicate content and echo in favor of official propaganda.

Many of Chavismo's accounts have a profile characterized by spreading rumors and conspiracy theories, in the Marxism-Leninism propaganda style. It is not an exclusive issue of Venezuela. In the Philippines, many of the so-called "keyboard trolls" were hired to spread propaganda for presidential candidate and current head of state Rodrigo Roa Duterte during the election. Based on the Oxford study, this strategy has been continued with the aim of spreading and amplifying messages to support his policies now that he is in power.

Twitter has a specific role in Venezuela because it has become an information channel against the censorship of traditional media. Díaz explains, however, that in that virtual ecosystem there is a voracious contest between political players. “Undoubtedly Maduro has fake accounts and an army of bots to replicate content and echo in favor of official propaganda. That is a reality."

In the history of the virtual battles of Chavismo, Díaz adds an unforgettable anecdote, the use of an application to attract followers during the presidential campaign of Nicolás Maduro, in 2013. "Many people joined the official website of the then candidate of the governing party. After registering their Twitter accounts, they automatically retweeted content favorable to Maduro. The trap was evident after the company suspended thousands of users for that reason, as it has done on other occasions. In addition, there are many complaints from laboratories operating in the state Aragua, especially during the government of Tareck El Aissami, and with the support of state officials and public institutions for the purpose of conducting official campaigns through social media.”

The political turmoil of the Bolivarian Republic is not alien to the Web. With bots and robots, Chavismo creates its virtual reality.

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