By Silvia Higuera and Teresa Mioli
The protagonists during Venezuela's Dec. 6 parliamentary elections were new digital platforms and social networks that became the principal vehicles through which media, nonprofit organizations and citizens received and provided information.
For example, in recent months transparency activist organizations launched projects that sought to educate the public and provide platforms to receive and verify allegations of irregularities during the electoral process, including campaigns and the day of elections.
Collaborative project Monitor Legislativo featured an interactive map where users could learn about candidates running for election and can denounce irregularities.
Freedom of expression organization Espacio Público asked social media users, mainly on Twitter, to use the hashtag #YoVotoyDenuncio to report irregularities. From Dec. 2 to 7, about 700 posts used the hashtag, according to Keyhole.co.
Guachimán Electoral, an online platform that launched on Nov. 13, received thousands of reports of irregularities from citizens and a network of electoral monitors. Alberto Fernández, who helped run the operating center for the project, estimated that more than 85 percent of the information received came from citizens.
There were more than 11,000 visits to the platform’s map that showed where irregularities happened and more than 17,000 visits to the main site, Fernández told the Knight Center. The team received 5,337 messages through its platform, 1,179 emails, about 1,000 SMS and 3,704 Tweets with the hashtag #guachiman6D.
Out of these reports, 854 incidents were approved and placed on the platform’s map. A vast majority of the reports, 569, came from Caracas or the surrounding areas. In general, Fernández said the largest number of complaints were collected in the north of the country, which he attributes to a greater concentration of the population, Internet coverage and mobile network.
Yet, these weren’t the only projects tested during this December’s election coverage. As a result of government pressure on traditional media, which culminated in the dismissal or voluntary retirement of many critical journalists in recent years, the country has seen a growth of digital information initiatives led by these journalists.
These elections were the first in which any of these projects were tested as new media, in real time, and with these journalists at the helm, as noted by Luis Carlos Díaz, Venezuelan journalist and expert in new media, in conversation with the Knight Center.
"It was a very nice test, there was more organization, and although the reach of these media is smaller, it was an exercise in freedom for the journalists," Diaz said.
Several of these media used different strategies to guarantee they could carry out electoral coverage. One of these strategies were alliances made between various media that enabled them to share information, sources, as well as verification of data and other resources.
"Overall it went very well. We shared material and human resources and this allowed us to have more range on where the events were taking place," said Luz Mely Reyes, general director of Efecto Cocuyo — one of the emerging digital media outlets that was part of a media alliance — to the Knight Center . "It was a strategy of combining resources that was beneficial and that also resulted in a lot of learning.”
According to Reyes, one of the lessons was the need for these partnerships to improve journalistic work. Alliances should be based on agreements that allow for different views and that respect "the personality" of each media, including the uniqueness of the media’s voice.
However, one of the points that was made clear in the process was the importance of social networks, according to Reyes and Díaz. It was through these networks that most citizens found information not offered in traditional media.
"In most democracies, social networks are spaces for debate based on information given by the media, they take the lead in information. But in Venezuela the people use them to learn about things that happen," Díaz said.
Díaz recognizes that Internet access is exclusive and that not all people use social media. Therefore, he designated as important the role of social networker, which he calls the “hinge.” The citizen who uses social media makes a connection between information she receives and the people around her.
Also, social networks help to build the new relationship between the media and the so-called citizen journalist. They also help to connect media with their audiences; Efecto Cocuyo created an alert system, via Whatsapp, to report irregularities in the electoral process.
This information will be verified, serving as original notes for the media. For example, the site received a complaint about the increase of invalid votes because of voter despair and system errors. Efecto Cocuyo was able to address this complaint and created a "Quick Voter Guide" to ensure that votes were not lost.
"It was like thousands of eyes, thousands of cameras, telephones, very attentive to everything that was happening in different parts of the country," Reyes said.
According to Díaz, this mechanism only works for journalists that have entered the digital world and understand that they can receive help from the public or that they can make a community their "best accomplices."
Even traditional media got in on the social media and citizen journalist initiative to drive audience engagement and cover more ground for election coverage.
Leading Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional used Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and the hashtag #TúDecides to cover elections and receive reports of irregularities, according to Clases De Periodismo. It also used a network of citizen journalists through the program ReporteYa (Report Now), which works to confirm and distribute accurate information. Clases de Periodismo said publications in other countries also use the network.
"But Twitter did not do everything. It is people that find information and pass it to others,” Díaz said. “People understood that they could confront the hegemony and that they can fight the censorship."
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.