Accounts engaged in inauthentic behavior pushed hashtags on Twitter in Venezuela as a part of a coordinated propaganda and influence operation with close ties to the Maduro government. Among other activities, the anonymous accounts publish hundreds of times a day, devoting themselves exclusively to spreading propaganda.
Over the years, the Venezuelan government under Nicolás Maduro has benefited from coordinated bot-like activity and has actively pushed its supporters to engage in social media; little, however, has been reported in depth on ongoing influence operations. According to a report by Hootsuite, 44 percent of the country’s population are active social media users, making such inauthentic activity and programmatic influence operations particularly salient.
The hashtag operation diverted significant traffic of public debate on social media to pro-Maduro regime propaganda and was deeply ingrained inside the government’s communication and propaganda apparatus. Furthermore, the operation encourages inauthentic engagement by, among other tactics, integrating with one of the country’s aid platforms, the Motherland Card (translated from the Spanish “Carnet de la Patria”), by rewarding accounts that amplify the messages.
Late President Hugo Chávez promoted and celebrated Twitter from 2010, when he opened his account, @chavezcandanga, until the time of his passing. The platform has increased in popularity in the country since then. Alongside legitimate political propaganda, there have been several reports alleging that both the government and parts of the opposition used bots and anonymous accounts to amplify and broaden its messages.
These propaganda efforts on social media have been ongoing for years. Since Chavez, Venezuelan officials have asked their followers to engage in what they called a “communication offensive” via social media: they invited people en masse to open accounts on Twitter and to devote them to propagating the government’s messages and countering those coming from the opposition.
The Hashtag Mill
Twitter’s trending topics section is essential to the Venezuelan government’s propaganda effort, wherein the Maduro government pushes a daily hashtag to its supporters, usually in an attempt to spread certain messages or to highlight important milestones or achievements. One key coordination hub for the amplification of these hashtags seems to be the Twitter account @Tuiteros_Vzla, a highly influential account.
According to the @Tuiteros_Vzla Twitter profile page, it was established in November 2015. At time of writing, it had around 54,200 followers, had published approximately 95,600 tweets, and was mentioned in 9.5 million tweets by approximately 4.2 million users, mostly from Venezuela, from January 12, 2018, through January 11, 2019. Of note, it is difficult to determine with certainty the accurate location of a Twitter user, so the number yielded by a Sysomos query cannot be deemed as accurate. Still, it gives an idea of how heavily Venezuela-leaning is this account’s activity.
The account tweets in Spanish, Venezuela’s official language, and has three main thrusts:
- It proposes a hashtag almost every day for Twitter users to amplify;
- It alerts when any of these hashtags makes it to the Venezuelan trending topics; and
- It recognizes the “top tweeters” who used these hashtags on a daily and monthly basis, and a Telegram channel also acts like a direct feed bot to the account’s Twitter activity.
All the trends are heavily pro-Maduro government and are dedicated to highlighting its policies or achievements or to reinforcing its foreign policy messages. One such message pushed Venezuela’s support for the Cuban government or the ALBA alliance (a Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas), an economic alliance intended to serve as a counterweight to the now defunct FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas), a free trade agreement attempt led by the United States.
The hashtags promoted in the month prior to the January 10, 2019, Maduro inauguration were (with equivalent English translations):
- December 8, 2018: #AmorYLealtadPorChavez (#LoveAndLoyaltyForChavez)
- December 9: #20AñosVictoriaPopular (#20YearsPopularVictory)
- December 10: #ArrasóElChavismo (#ChavismWonByALandslide)
- December 11: #ChavismoProclamaConcejales (#ChavismProclaimsCouncilMembers)
- December 12: #VenezuelaNoSeArrodilla (#VenezuelaDoesNotKneel)
- December 13: #YaSon2Millones400MilViviendas (#2Million400ThousandHomesAlready)
- December 14: #AlbaEsFuturo (#AlbaIsFuture)
- December 15: #PlanVueltaALaPatria (#ReturnToTheMotherlandPlan)
- December 16: #ExpoJuventudProductiva2018 (#ExpoProductiveYouth2018)
- December 17: #Bolívar188AñosEnLaInmortalidad (#Bolivar188YearsInTheImmortality)
- December 18: #NavidadesFelicesParaElPueblo (#HappyChristmasForThePeople)
- December 20: #CongresoDeLosPueblos (#CongressOfThePeople)
- December 21: #PuebloEnDefensaDeLaPaz (#PeopleInDefenseOfPeace)
- December 26: #Hito2Millones500MilViviendas (#Milestone2Million500ThousandHomes)
- January 1, 2019: #60AñosDeRevoluciónCubana (#60YearsOfCubanRevolution)
- January 8: #VenezuelaDefiendeSuSoberanía (#VenezuelaDefendsItsSovereignty)
Almost all of these hashtags made it to the Venezuelan national or local trending topics section of Twitter at least once, according to @DFRLab analysis made with the tool Trendogate. Some of them even acheived worldwide trending topics.
Still, this effort fell short of dominating the Twitter conversation in the country. As the following Trendsmap analysis made shows, the pro-government hashtags are only part of the trends in Venezuela. Of note, this is a geolocated analysis and can only be regarded as a general trend.
Tweeting for Money?
@Tuiteros_Vzla rewards “active tweeters” with money. The service has an agreement with an app called VeMonedero, a digital wallet where the government deposits aid money to an account tied to Venezuelan people’s Carnet de la Patria (Motherland Card), an ID card that identifies social aid recipients. In order to receive money for tweeting, people register their Twitter accounts in the app and tweet the hashtags. @Tuiteros_Vzla detects active Twitter users and transfers money to their wallets.
The Motherland Card account, @Patria_Ve, has devoted several tweets to explaining to users how to earn money through their Twitter accounts (example below). In one week alone, according to a tweet, they rewarded some 5,000 users.
It is not known how @Tuiteros_Vzla selects an account to receive a reward. The message to account shown above seems to encourage users to post “real” and meaningful messages, instead of only retweets or quotes than can be easily automated. Some of the accounts that have received rewards exhibit signs of such automated behavior, and the rewards potentially create incentives for users to engage in account automation in order to boost their reward compensation.
An award, reported by an account on May 1, 2018, amounted to 350,000 Bolivars (approximately $5 USD, officially, or $0.50 USD on the Venezuelan black market, at the time of the tweet). This amount comprised almost a third of the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela at the time.
Chavista Bots or Bot-like Humans?
While the strategy drives significant and legitimate engagement by presumably real supporters, a significant proportion of it is being pushed through techniques that amplify pro-government positions and that deliberately push trending topics.
To analyze the extent to which these trends were amplified by accounts that showed signs of inauthentic behavior, @DFRLab used Sysomos to extract a random sample of 5,000 tweets from each hashtag, filtered them by those that have authority of at most 3 out of 10 and that were responsible for at least 1 percent of the total tweets on the sample. Per Sysomos, “authority” is a measurement of how influential an account is on a 10-point scale — the higher the number is the more authority it has — based on metrics such as the account’s number of followers, other accounts following, posted updates, and retweets.
@DFRLab then examined each of these accounts for signs of bot-like behavior such as a false or stolen avatar image, an extremely high retweet rate (defined as the ratio of retweets to original tweets), a recent creation date, or authored tweets that were published verbatim by several other users; as well as suspicious activity of other kinds, such as massive quoting of tweets with a specific hashtag.
All the hashtags promoted by @Tuiteros_Vzla and analyzed for this research have been amplified by accounts that behave suspiciously, with a publication rate of over 72 tweets per day and featuring generic or stolen profile photos. Some of the accounts following @Tuiteros_Vzla’s instructions were created in 2018, have a retweet rate of over 95 percent, and a publication rate in the hundreds of tweets per day.
Several accounts exhibited a behavior similar to @Francis17501650, which exclusively retweets the Venezuelan government and has no original tweets, yielding a retweet rate of 100 percent. The account’s likes are almost the identical to its retweets, indicating that it might be using an automated script.
The account was created on November 27, 2018. Between its inception and December 17, 2018, it tweeted 3,838 times, an average of 192 tweets per day. It has a retweet rate of 100 percent. Its avatar is a stolen photo of the flower grown in the International Space Station. It is worth noting that it tweets on an 8-hour schedule, and it tweets mostly at nights, especially around 10:00 p.m. local time.
Our analysis found several other accounts with similar features, including @Yolanda26199567, which has a 100 percent retweet rate and tweets exclusively Chavista content, and @Elianag02954718, which has a 100 percent retweet rate, an anonymous avatar, was created on April 2018, and exclusively uses pro-Venezuelan government hashtags.
Other accounts, such as @seijas_lilibeth, seem to have both human and bot-like features. While that account has an avatar that does not appear elsewhere on the internet and has tweeted several photos of the same woman, it has a nearly 100 percent retweet rate and tweets an average 350 times per day. On January 7, 2019, it tweeted 920 times, 99.7 percent of them retweets. During some hours on January 7, the account managed to tweet 296 times per hour, amounting to a post almost every 20 seconds.
An analysis of a representative sample of the 2.6 million tweets that featured at least one of these hashtags in the month between December 9, 2018, and January 9, 2019, made with the tool Botornot shows that 57.9 percent have a bot-probability score of at least 0.87, meaning the accounts are likely to be fully automated accounts or to exhibit several features of bot-like activity.
Botornot measures if an account has bot-like features such as massive publishing or recent creation date, yielding a bot-probability score, which is a number between zero and one where the closer the number is to one, the higher the probability is of the account being entirely automated. While bot-like features does not mean necessarily that an account is engaging in inauthentic activity, they are prime indicators of suspicious behavior from an account.
Evidence points to a link between the @Tuiteros_Vzla account and the Maduro government. While it currently does not have a URL as a homepage in its profile, a version of it archived in October 2017 does show a link to the website www.tuiteros.org.ve.
A Whois search for this domain shows its owner is the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the government party. According to the Whois report, the domain was created in April 2013 and renewed in September 2017.
The site is a registration form where people enter their Twitter account, their Venezuelan phone number, and a code that is sent to their phones. According to the terms and conditions of the site, once a person registers they will receive SMS with “messages and instructions for defending the truth.”
Separate from the www.tuiteros.org.ve database, a 2014 press report says that Delcy Rodriguez, then-Minister of Communications and current Vice President of Venezuela, invited Chavista tweeters to join the platform. It claimed:
“The goal is to create a national database that allows the government to work with the people.”
@Tuiteros_Vzla profile’s contents also reveals coordination between the Government communications and propaganda operations and the account. @Tuiteros_Vzla often tweets the same images as official press releases, suggesting that both have access to similar photo services and banks, presumably those maintained by the Venezuelan government.
Official accounts from the government use these hashtags in coordination. For instance, the verified account from the Venezuelan Ministry of Communications, @Mippcivzla, tweets a “hashtag of the day” every day and uses it profusely. For instance, it tweeted the hashtag #AlbaEsFuturo 173 times on December 14, 2018.
The timing of the tweets shows how the Ministry takes the lead on setting the daily hashtags. It used used the hashtag #AlbaEsFuturo on December 13 at 11:00 p.m. At dawn on December 14, the next day, @Tuiteros_Vzla followed the Ministry’s lead by using the same hashtag.
These hashtags are also pushed in other state media. Several shows from Venezolana de Televisión, a state-owned broadcast television channel, feature them extensively. For example, on January 8, 2019, two programs, “La Hojilla” (The Razor Blade) and “Punto de Encuentro” (Meeting Point), featured the hashtag of the day (#VenezuelaDefiendeSuSoberanía) on their screens.
Venezolana de Televisión also occasionally publishes online pieces that make it seem as though these pro-government hashtags are organically amplified on Twitter. One segment from December 8, 2018 claimed “users have pushed the label #AmorYLealtadPorChavez (#LoveAndLoyaltyForChavez).” The effort referred to a manufactured celebration for the anniversary of Hugo Chavez’ last public discourse on that day in 2012.
The Venezuelan government has a long-running influence operation devoted to shaping political debates in the country’s social media landscape. Since 2010, when late President Hugo Chavez created the account @ChavezCandanga, Twitter activity has been a significant point of interest for the country’s propaganda operation.
One online focal point is the coordinated hashtag operation steered by the Ministry of Communications and followed by accounts such as @Tuiteros_Vzla, which pushes and monitors these hashtags and rewards accounts who also push them, and also by the state media. Part of this support is monetary, which creates incentives for some users to engage in inauthentic behavior such as automation of their accounts or use of bots. A significant proportion of the traffic from these hashtags comes from accounts that exhibit bot-like features, often combined with some non-bot traits.
As international pressure mounts against Maduro regime, which started a second six-year term on January 10 and which is not recognized by most Organization of American States country members nor the European Union, this propaganda activity is likely to increase in volume and intensity. The hashtag operation is useful to consolidate the regime’s supporters inside Venezuela, while also offering a distorted impression for international audiences of the real support domestically for Maduro.
Kanishk Karan is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at @DFRLab.
@DFRLab, along with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, will continue to monitor the situation.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.