Despite claims that social media ‘democratizes’ the media, it is clear that in Venezuela it has had the opposite effect, exacerbating the trend towards disinformation and misrepresentation, with overseas media groups and bloggers reproducing – without verification – opposition claims and images of student injuries allegedly caused by police brutality and attacks by government supporters.
In its reporting, the Guardian newspaper cited tweets by opposition activists claiming pro-government gangs had been let loose on protesters. No evidence to substantiate this extremely serious allegation was provided. It also reported on the arrest of 30 students on 12th February, following serious disorder, including barricade building, tire burning and Molotov cocktail attacks, as if it were an egregious assault on human rights. The report was subsequently tweeted by Machado. By way of context, 153 students were arrested in the UK during the 2010 protests against tuition fees.
The images disseminated, for example, to a Green Movement activist in Iran and then circulated to her thousands of followers with the tag line ‘pray for Venezuela’s students’, and to other democracy movements around the world show Egyptian and not Venezuelan police beating demonstrators. This same image was carried by the Spanish newspaper ABC.
Photographs and video clips of Chilean, Argentinian and Bulgarian police suppressing demonstrators and carrying out arrests (in their home countries) have been circulated and published as of they were assaults in Venezuela, and one widely reproduced image shows Venezuela’s Policia Metropolitana corralling student protesters. The Policia Metropolitana was disbanded in 2011.
Twitter has additionally been used to harangue commentators, including this author, who checked the accounts of her abusive critics to find most had only been tweeting for a day and in that space of time had accumulated around 40,000 followers.