#ElectionWatch: Close Eyes on Colombia from Venezuela

Venezuelan social media buzzed ahead of the Colombian election

Venezuelan social media users are talking a lot about the Colombian election. A study referenced by Spanish newspaper El Pais claimed that one in every six social media users posting about Colombia’s elections came from Venezuela. Another study, by the Electoral Observation Mission NGO, stated that some of the most influential posts about the election came from “Venezuelan influencers”.

Colombia’s left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, has been accused throughout the campaign of being close to the Venezuelan government, which is led by Nicolas Maduro. Petro was close to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and has been a vocal defendant of Chavez’s legacy, but he also expressed recent criticism towards Maduro’s regime.

The Venezuelan opposition has been historically close to Colombian right-wing politicians, such as Álvaro Uribe, Andrés Pastrana, and the Centro Democratico’s candidate, Ivan Duque.

Which of these two Venezuelan groups was more vocal about the Colombian election?

“Not another Venezuela”

A preliminary analysis performed by @DFRLab on Sysomos, a social media monitoring tool, showed that the most successful tweets about the Colombian elections that could be linked to Venezuelan accounts were linked to the opposition against Maduro. “Success” is measured in terms of retweets, responses and likes.

It is important to point out that users can fake the geographical information of their accounts in several ways. For certainty, the location must be confirmed manually each time. This article therefore focuses on posts from accounts which have a confirmed connection to Venezuela.

The most retweeted tweet about the elections was a false story.

Translation from Spanish: “Someone made the good decision of keeping this tweet from Gustavo Petro — This tweet disappeared from @petrogustavo, luckily I recovered it for him — My biggest wish is getting to power to continue Hugo Chavez’s legacy. Once I get it YOU WILL NEVER see an oligarch in the Nariño House again. We will close the media that had been in charge of deceiving the people.” (Source: Twitter / Ibéyise Pacheco‏)

Petro’s supposed tweet was a hoax that has been circulating on Twitter at least since March: at the time of its alleged date — April 21, 2012 — Twitter only allowed 140 characters per tweet, whereas Petro’s alleged tweet contained 229 characters. Still, this new iteration had a sizeable spread of more than 11,000 retweets.

List of the five retweeters of the original post who generated the most retweets in their turn. (Source: Sysomos)

The source account, @ibepacheco, is the verified profile of a Venezuelan journalist based in the US who has more than one million followers, and tweets anti-Chavista and pro-opposition content. The second most influential amplifier, @tulioalvarez, is another Venezuelan activist with more than 80,000 followers. Together, these accounts triggered more than 2,000 direct retweets, almost a fifth of the total.

Some of the top tweets from Venezuelan users were amplified by Colombian influential users.

Translation from Spanish: “Hey Colombia. In (19)98 Chávez was supported by a lot of intellectuals, politicians, journalists and opinion leaders. Most of them ended up in prison, on the run or in the exile. Too late they discovered the nefarious, destructive effect of a leader full of hate, follower of a reactionary ideology.” (Source: Twitter / Johnattan Bilancieri‏)

The account @bilancieri belongs to Jonathan Bilancieri, a Venezuelan journalist based in the United States, who works for Colombian news channel NTN24 and is followed by high-profile Venezuelan opposition profiles. Some of the top retweeters were Colombian: Claudia Gurisatti, a high-profile Colombian journalist and news director of RCN TV and NTN24, and Erika Salamanca, a Colombian uribista influencer with more than 68,000 followers.

Top influencers on Bilancieri’s tweet. (Source: Sysomos)

Another instance in which the Venezuelan opposition and Colombian right-wing led the conversation was in the hashtag #ColombiaNoTeEquivoques (#ColombiaDontMakeAMistake). The tag was a trending topic in some regions of Venezuela on June 14. The top tweets featured a mix of Venezuelan activists and Colombian influencers, and all focused on the closeness between Petro and Chavez, and the alleged risk of Colombia becoming another Venezuela if the left-wing candidate were to win the election.

Amplification of #ColombiaNoTeEquivoques. (Source: Sysomos)

Some of the sources of the top 10 tweets are accounts that tweet a lot about Venezuela — like @chillidogrito or @lestertoledo — and others are high-profile Uribista accounts like @MariaFdaCabal (a Colombian right-wing senator) or @cmbustamante.

However, not all tweets were right-wing. Maduro supporters also used the hashtag to spread their own narrative, fiercely against Uribe and in favor of Petro, albeit not explicitly.

Translation from Spanish: “#TrabajoYPazEconomica Maiquetía Griezmann Fertinitro #ColombiaDontMakeAMistake the narco government Santos and Uribe maintain wants to keep the murder and armed conflict in Colombia to keep filling their pockets at the expense of the Colombian people — When you go to a party and you are a narco-paramilitary-murderer.” (Source: Twitter / Princesa Revoluciona)

The tweet had 261 retweets, and was the tenth most successful tweet. The odd hashtags and words at the beginning seem like an attempt to push the tweet through several trending hashtags.

It is unclear if the account is a personal account or designed to anonymously amplify given narratives. It had a quiet period between November 2017 and January 2018, its avatar appears several times on a reverse search, and it has a relatively high rate of retweets, most of them to the Spanish version of Russia Today, Telesur, and several pro-Chavez accounts.

A snapshot of @LuciLucia55’s twitter activity. (Source: Tweetonomy)

The Chavista Support

Rumors of Maduro financially supporting Petro have run throughout the campaign, mostly on partisan right-wing media. However, the narrative spread to the op-ed pages of El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s most influential newspapers.

So far there is no evidence of any support by the Venezuelan government, directly or by proxies, to the Petro campaign. This is also the case for social media. While some Chavista social media users sent some content attacking Duque or supporting Petro, it has only had a fraction of the success of their opponents’ reach.

@DFRLab’s research did not find any highly shared tweets by Venezuelan officials or pro-government politicians supporting Petro or attacking Duque. This is not to say that there were no such tweets, but that any posts were too small in impact to appear in our analysis.

By searching the tweets made by members of several pro-Chavez Venezuelan Twitter lists with more than 1,000 users, we found only a few mentions of Iván Duque or Gustavo Petro, and they enjoyed just a fraction of the popularity of any of their opponents’ tweets. Most of them shared Telesur’s (the Latin American international state-funded news TV network) coverage of the elections.

The most popular Chavista tweet mentioning Colombia was this one, by the activist account @PatriotaObrero_.

Translation from Spanish: “WHAT A HORROR!! COLOMBIA COMMITS THE BIGGEST ELECTORAL FRAUD AND IS ENDORSED BY THE @OAE_official #OEASuckABall #HungerBasket” (Source: Twitter / 🇻🇪 Patriota Obrero2.0 🇻🇪)

It is worth noting that this tweet mentions several unlinked hashtags and texts, presumably a way to push it through several trending hashtags. It mentions the #FraudeElectoral rumors spread mostly by sectors close to Petro. Its 185 retweets are a far cry from the numbers of retweets opposition tweets had.

Conclusion

The Colombian elections have spurred significant interest in Venezuela, as evidenced by the social media activity of accounts based in the country or managed by Venezuelans.

There is more evidence of coordinated social media efforts between Venezuelan opposition supporters and Colombian conservative groups, than between the Colombian left wing and Chavista supporters.

The most successful tweet from Venezuela to Colombia, however, was a false story, which once again highlights our concerns about the misinformation flows in these elections and their political use.


Jose Luis Peñarredonda is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at @DFRLab

#ElectionWatch in Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.