By Luis Carlos Díaz
On February 12th, violent protests in Caracas led to the deaths of three people. Eyewitnesses sent video footage and photographs to the newspaper Ultimas Noticias, which then published them online. The footage shows both security forces in uniform and people dressed in civilian clothing opening fire on protesters, quite a different account than the one presented by official media. As with Ukraine and other countries in conflict, social media and citizen journalism is playing a crucial role in getting the truth out.
Protests began in Venezuela on February 4th after student demands met with heavy-handed repression. University students from Táchira called for greater security on campus after the attempted rape of a female student. Several young people were arrested during the initial demonstrations, and unrest spread to the country’s main cities, leading to a further clampdown from authorities. One of the more radical groups opposing President Maduro's government joined the wave of discontent and called for Maduro’s resignation. Opposition politician Leopoldo López was arrested on 18 February, accused of fueling protests and charged with instigating violence.
As of March 8th, the conflict has led to the deaths of 20 people, 2,382 reported injuries and the arrest of more than 1,250 protesters and activists. From the beginning, there has been a marked absence of media coverage and many Venezuelans have been left largely uninformed about what has been taking place in their country.
But, for many with internet access, citizen media has filled the gap. Venezuela, with a population of 29 million people, is estimated to have more than 12 million internet users: 10.5 million of them have a Facebook account and between 3 to 4 million are active on Twitter. It has been the main means of communication, and users have been able to respond quickly to rapidly changing events. Global Voices Advocacy journalist and lawyer Marianne Diaz appealed to Twitter users to report instances of censorship on Herdict, which collects information about web censorship in real time. Twitter has been an invaluable source of video footage, photographs, opinion, humor – as well as huge amounts of unsorted and miscellaneous data.
During the first days of the protests, the official telecommunication agency, Conatel, warned radio and television channels not to broadcast coverage of the protests in an effort to prevent them spreading. The state-owned, government-controlled broadcast media produced biased accounts of events; privately-owned media largely practiced self-censorship. Colombian cable television network NTN24 was taken off air on February 12th following its coverage of events. Opposition voices remained unheard, even on programs that were supposed to offer opinion and commentary, and protests were only shown on the news to cast opposition figures and protesters in a negative light, portraying them as violent. On February 21st, there were reports that the internet in Táchira had been blocked. There were also reports of electricity blackouts.
The print press continues to suffer from a paper shortage, resulting in the operational closure of many newspapers across the country and a reduction in the number of pages printed in the main newspapers. At any rate, the publishing cycle of a daily newspaper is insufficient and cannot provide adequate coverage of what is happening in every city, minute by minute.
“Info-citizens” Report the News
With social networks, citizens are given information firsthand, often raw data that can then be assessed for its relevance, significance and newsworthiness. In other words: the difference between journalists and citizens is their method of verification. This process happens live, for everyone to see, with a huge number of people feeding into the exercise of gathering and distributing information. It also increases the number of mistakes and false information available in the public sphere. Yet communities learn quickly: because collective intelligence builds rapidly, “info-citizens” and journalists can build a collaborative model for proactive use in a crisis. Some people contribute data to the project, others supply personal perspectives on specific events, others verify and validate. The citizen reports sent to Últimas Noticias are the most dramatic example of this, but there are many others.
People are also turning to Facebook, organizing and sharing information. The Zello “walkie-talkie” app allows people to send audio messages; and other apps, including Whatsapp, Telegram and BlackBerry Messenger, reach an even broader public that is not necessarily active online. But finding a way to share messages that will not be monitored continues to be a challenge.
During the crisis, citizen journalism has been able to achieve two powerful things. An alternate system of reliable information among citizens has been established, building networks of trust that become stronger day by day. Secondly, every item of information that is published on social networking sites builds on the public reputation of the person posting this information. In this way, those who are distorting the truth, manipulating information, spreading lies or promoting violence are identified and discarded from the trusted network. At the same time, those who are supplying useful, authentic information are being recognized and their voices are being heard by a wider audience. So, despite there being a “swarm” of commentary, reports and eyewitness accounts trying to fill the information gap, there are reliable, trustworthy circles and networks emerging within this.
Threats, Dangers and Limitations
There are, of course, regular attempts to censor social networks. On February 15th, it was reported that Twitter users were unable to access photos on the site. The president announced on February 22nd that his government was intercepting Zello messages to gather information about planned protests. Prior to that, there had been reports of 15,000 local message downloads in a single day. Shortly after, the app was blocked.
The problem of citizen coverage in times of crisis is that communities are extremely fragmented. It is often more difficult to refute mistakes and correct false information after it has spread. Every person putting forth an opinion or news has some sort of ideological or political bias. And how he or she absorbs information differs because of these biases. Often news items are distorted and misrepresented but make their way through social media networks and websites without being verified because they are so believable and realistic. In Venezuela, this is particularly true with photography – often, state-run media get caught out by this as well.
And, like anywhere, those with the most extreme views regularly benefit from media attention, and their views are often over-represented, whether it's in traditional or new media. They often know how to make more noise, have strong arguments and are at times very well organized, ensuring that their views are widely circulated. These factors do have an impact on the quality of citizen communication.
The media environment reflects the views of fortune-tellers and those wanting to fan the flames of violence – whether they’re close to the conflict or not – as much as it gives oxygen to those wanting to get out accurate coverage and the facts. When assessing the situation in Venezuela, or anywhere, it’s important to understand the limitations of social media and citizen journalism, as well as what it might promise.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.