Social networks

In the repressive and authoritarian context of Venezuela, social networks have become a key element in the organisation of demonstrations or social movements, as well as a source of not state-controlled information. Even though they are still very polarised and the control of the government is not completely avoided, social networks have increased the variety of opinions and widened the public discourse. Social media, as well as digital news media, have allowed a certain customisation of messages and the production of contents aimed at smaller audiences. This has fostered the appearance of media focused on specific topics such as sports, environment, religion or local matters; in this sense, the access to international networks has also increased the volume of available information and content.

Another alternative use for social networks has been to access goods in the middle of a strong shortage of almost everything. Good exchange rates or, mostly, medicines, have been very demanded, and the use of the hashtag #serviciopublico has been reported to have had a huge impact in Twitter as lots of people used it to find medicines that were not available in close drugstores.

According to the survey of Delphos, 16.1 percent of Venezuelans considered social networks their main source of political information. The survey of Hinterlaces put this figure at 18 percent, showing also how Venezuelans trust social networks (23 percent in 2018, 32 percent in 2017) more than media in general (22 percent in 2018 and 25 percent in 2017). Social media are clearly preferred by younger and wealthier groups of people.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are becoming important communication alternatives, mainly among detractors of the government. This makes non-supporters of the government overrepresented in social networks, what might help spreading their message in the international sphere, while their voices are underrepresented in traditional media. This reason might help explaining why the use of social networks in Venezuela is over the Latin-American average. According to the Informe Latinobarómetro 2018, Facebook was used by around 70 percent of Venezuelan population, while YouTube was used by 36 percent and Twitter by 24 percent, making Venezuela a regional leader in the use of this platform. Twitter was stronger among adult users between 30 and 60 years old, while Instagram (29 percent of users) and Snapchat (5 percent), were preferred among younger people (Latinobarómetro, 2018). However, the data of the Digital 2020 study of We Are Social and Hootsuite show that 51% of Venezuelan population over 13 can be found in Facebook, 19% in Instagram and only 5.9% in Twitter. Where both studies agree is in the existence of a remarkable male-female balance; 56 percent of Facebook users are female, what makes Venezuela one of the countries with a stronger percentage of female presence. The disparity in the figures can be explained by the different methodology of both studies, but it also shows the fluctuations of the country, with constant increases or decreases from year to year. This last aspect is partly explained because of the clash between the interest of Venezuelan population to find alternative and independent information and the difficulties (technical, censorship or economic) that they face to do so.

The biggest collateral damage of the rising of social media and so-called citizen journalism as information sources, is the rising of fake news, which have found in these platforms their biggest trampoline. In the Venezuelan context of confrontation, both sides have accused each other of using fake news and misinformation campaigns. Pro-government actors have accused the US or other international parties of spreading fake news about Venezuela in order to force a regime change (McIlroy, 2017). At the same time, it has been common to find accusations of the use of fake news from the government, for example in official figures, in order to hide the dramatic situation of economy or society. In fact, one of the main challenges when trying to understand what happens in Venezuela is finding reliable information and differentiating it from fake, manipulated or strongly politicised one. These fake contents have not only taken place in social networks, as manipulation in the media is a common problem in all and each of them, but it has usually been social networks what has allowed them to grow and spread. Also viral contents, not necessarily fake, have been frequent, especially during moments of high tension, such as protests or demonstrations.