The Venezuelan information war
Why there are so many conflicting reports about the basic facts on the ground
Joshua Collins 5/12/2019
Confused? That is the point. A few google searches can lead you to media outlets who support each of the above statements. The deluge of contradictory information from differing sources is quite intentional.
Because there is an information war happening before our eyes.
The truth is a zero sum game and if enough people believe a narrative, that narrative becomes the truth. Both Nicolás Maduro, and the Trump team are lying not only about their intentions, but also conditions on the ground. It is not just the United states that lives in a post-fact reality, but rather the entire world. Cynical disbelief has spread through the internet to every corner of the earth, and the intelligence agencies and media companies of every country know it.
As Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède wrote: “The use of propaganda is ancient, but never before has there been the technology to so effectively disseminate it”.
Disinformation can cause wars, sow dissent and propagate doubt. And right now, doubt benefits Maduro. The more the world community doubts that there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela (there is), that he commits human rights violations (he does) and that he is a legitimately elected leader (very debatable), the longer his few remaining international allies will have cover to support him.
John Bolton and Elliot Abrams have been guilty of their own lies, and their motives are twofold- not to look like the blundering warmongers they have shown themselves to be, and to sow doubt among Maduro military forces.
The Trump administration, like every administration before it, is the “official source” for US actions on Venezuela. And Trump has already shown he is quite willing to lie. Leaders set the tone for the actions of their teams. And Abrams was convicted for lying to congress once before. Neither of those truths inspire much confidence.
The answer to the question of why we get so many conflicting accounts about the real situation in Venezuela is actually pretty simple; everyone involved in the power struggle has a powerful motive to lie.
The power of propaganda is ancient. As every leader in the world has learned at some point, information may be critical, but disinformation can topple empires just as easily as the truth. That is even more true in a digital age, where communication is instant and can affect revolutions real-time.
And exploiting the existing divisions within society is the fastest way to sow doubt. If you are a fervent Trump supporter, chances are you discount stories from MSNBC. And if you are a fervent Trump critic, chances are you don’t pay much mind to Fox news.
Media outlets know this and the people engaged in the information war do as well. And each act according to the interest of the power structures they support in Venezuela. This is backed up by tribalism. I believe most of the journalists reporting on Venezuela have good intentions. The Maduro defenders remember all too well the lessons of Iraq and hope to avoid another war. Those calling for a more active approach see a people suffering greatly at the hands of a corrupt dictator.
But in the world of the commentariat, the motives are much simpler. Sell the story you want the people to believe. And there are a number of easy exploits to do so.
One of the most common methods is to demonize “mainstream media”, which depending who is using the phrase can have a variety of possible definitions (though usually it just means the media they don’t like). Though coined by the right, the term is now thrown around by the entire political spectrum.
Most of the time when people use this term, what they’re really saying is “I hate news sources that disagree with me.” They rarely uses the term when retweeting articles they find pleasing.
That’s not to say that the big outlets haven’t gotten it wrong more than once on Venezuela. They have. CNN has had a particularly difficult and embarrassing time of it since January regarding Venezuela. And TeleSur, proponents of Nicolas Maduro, regularly just make stories up.
Information has been weaponized, and consumers are free to pick and choose the facts that fit their preconceived worldview. And just like that, those interested in sowing dissent can do so easily by stoking the passions of the far-left and the far-right against one another.
This political tribalism puts some on the left in the awkward position of being Maduro apologists. And puts some on the right in the position of being pro-intervention. But one does not have to be either. It is a false dichotomy.
Adding to the opacity of the situation is the lack of a free press in Venezuela. According to the Center for the Protection of Journalists, Venezuela has the second worst press freedom rating in the western hemisphere behind Cuba. Government shutdowns of media critics, journalists and even social media are common. And crackdowns on the press have intensified considerably in the past few months.
This is how we end up in a world where Code Pink is effectively retweeting the propaganda of the ministry of information of Venezuela and Breitbart is all but calling for open war.
Somewhere in the middle of this loud argument between screaming shills, the truth gets lost. Journalists have deadlines. And when they are receiving deliberate misinformation from official sources on both sides, sometimes they get it wrong. We are humans. Mistakes are going to happen. And when they do so under polarized circumstances, it solidifies the assumptions of the extremists. The seed of doubt blossoms into fruit.
Jon Lee Anderson, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, spoke on this exact subject expertly.
"Venezuela really does pose some serious challenges for news coverage today, and as journalists covering Venezuela there are a lot of interests at stake right now. Venezuela is emerging as one of the principal stages for what is essentially Cold War 2.0. You have the Russians playing alongside the Americans and even the Chinese.
Everybody has something they want to push, so whose agenda do you want to believe? I would say try not to believe anything you hear."
Do you doubt there are state-sponsored troll farms purposely exploiting this divide in the public sphere from all sides involved as I write this? Well, I am taking bets on the matter. You can pledge your wager in the comments section below. I can use the easy money- being a journalist doesn’t pay very well.
But all of this is to say that doubt is a good thing to have when engaging stories about Venezuela, particularly on Social media.
You should doubt the stories you read. Oversight and too much trust in government propaganda is what lead to the Iraq war. But there is a world of difference between healthy skepticism, which questions everything, and cynicism- which refuses to believe the truth when it presents itself.
The latter leads to believing that the world is flat, that global warming isn’t real, and that lizard people control our planet. To me, that’s where both Code Pink and Breitbart end up. Their (intentional, I believe) cynicism has made them impervious to ever actually discovering the truth, or at least bothering to look for it.
If you want to find the truth for yourself, there are plenty of primary sources available about conditions on the ground in Venezuela. And there are plenty of well-meaning and trustworthy sources about the politics. Like anything else, check a few different sources- preferably from a few different countries. Don’t just go blindly with your personal super-favorite media source like it is gospel truth.
We are free to choose the information we consume. But we shouldn’t make up our minds before we seek it out.Why bother to gather information at all if your mind is already made up? That is the path by which democracy dies.
We have to avoid forming our opinions about the world outside of the United States based on partisan media. Because the majority of the rest of the world doesn’t care about our partisanship. They’re just being the world.
I’m here on the Venezuelan border , not to be a cheerleader for any “team”, but rather because it is crucial to have a deeper understanding of the world if we are going to make informed decisions about it.
It’s also why I receive so much hate mail.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.
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