The unpopular socialist government of Venezuela has been using an army of thousands of Twitter “bots” to inflate its support network on the social media outlet, the Associated Press reports in an extensive exposé.
The news outlet does not quite estimate the number of bots working to promote President Nicolás Maduro and the Chavista movement on Twitter, but notes that, in the past, Maduro has protested when Twitter has attempted to shut them down, as many as 6,000 canceled in one go. The bots, in addition to socialist government supporters who are instructed by state television to use certain hashtags and retweet President Maduro as often as possible, have made Maduro’s popularity on Twitter appear astronomical, comparable with Pope Francis and the King of Saudi Arabia.
Today, Maduro is promoting the hashtag #A29MesesDeTuSiembraComandante,” or “At 29 months of your sowing, Commander,” honoring late dictator Hugo Chávez. This tweet establishing the hashtag currently has 1,657 retweets:
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) August 5, 2015
Despite Maduro’s apparent popularity on Twitter, the AP notes, Maduro’s approval rating is hovering at 30%. Some polls place it as low as 22%. Nonetheless, the government uses Twitter to claim that the majority of Venezuelans support the government. For example, during a failed campaign to get President Barack Obama to repeal sanctions on high-ranking law enforcement officials for alleged human rights violations, hashtagged #ObamaYankeeGoHome, Foreign Relations Minister Delcy Rodríguez used the hashtag to claim that “there is global clamor for that barbaric decree to be overturned. … The peoples of the world, yesterday and today, are telling the Obama administration to repeal the order now.”
The shady world of state-sponsored Twitter bots is a difficult one to break into, and the Associated Press did not quite catch the organizers of the operation red-handed. What they did find, however, is that many of these bots and puppet accounts (not automated, but run by government workers paid to promote the government’s agenda on Twitter) seem to originate in Aragua state, described as “a state west of Caracas run by rising stars in the ruling party.”
Its governor, Tareck El Aissami, is a well-known Chavista with an extensive history of being implicated in the most nefarious plots attributed to the socialist Venezuelan government. El Aissami has been accused by name of being a high-ranking member of the Cartel de los Soles, a cocaine ring alleged to be run by the nation’s second-in-command, National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello. One report also accused El Aissami of being the Venezuelan government’s liaison to the Iranian-Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah, allegedly helping Hezbollah terrorists create fake passports to use to travel more freely and engage in terrorist operations.
The AP notes that Venezuela is just the latest government to get caught manipulating Twitter to silence dissent and appear more popular. The Russian government has been for years documented as using bots on Twitter to attack opponents of President Vladimir Putin, as well as spam dissenters with a barrage of tweets that make it impossible to hold a reasonable discussion of politics on the social media platform.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has also been accused of this. He is believed to have once been in control of 18,000 Twitter accounts, all of which were put in jeopardy by Erdogan’s campaign to ban Twitter entirely.