Fake Trending Topics and the Failed Mercenary Operation Against Venezuela

Marco Teruggi
Militares venezolanos (imagen referencial)

The call for U.S. military intervention was the number one trend on Twitter in Venezuela. It coincided with Operation Gideon. That trend was not spontaneous, but created by an artificial mechanism that few know about and that poses a threat.

Is it possible that the request for a foreign military intervention is a first position Twitter topic? This question was asked by Julián Macías, a network specialist, when he observed that the tag #VenezuelaConfíaEnTrump had been ranked number one in Venezuela on May 7.

The messages included in the hashtag not only supported U.S. President Donald Trump, but also contained images of the U.S. Army, calling for armed intervention and the assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Macías, a Spaniard who is responsible for the Telegram Pandemia Digital channel, analyzed the hashtag and discovered that the accounts that had created the trend had used fake name names and profile images and had the capacity to send 30 tweets within 10 seconds.

Is it possible that TT1 is a request for foreign military intervention?
That the accounts involved are bots launching dozens of tweets per second?
And that these accounts support the campaigns of the extreme right in Spain and make Alvise, Abascal and Casado RT?
Yes pic.twitter.com/noUz3naItb
– Julián Macías Tovar (@JulianMaciasT) May 10, 2020

“There are some features, such as the automation of tweets, launching several per second, which are obviously not possible other than through automation software,” explains Macías in a conversation with Sputnik.

Other features of these accounts include a tracking system called follow unfollow, which is prohibited by Twitter rules, according to the specialist. “It consists of following a number of accounts and those that do not return the follow up are no longer followed, so that these accounts accumulate a lot of followers and usually have a number of followers very similar to the number of follow ups,” he adds.

Macias also discovered that all of these accounts “are related to journalists and fake news media in Venezuela, Latin American media of the same persuasion, and fake news media in Spain. When talking about the political trend, Macías referred to the Venezuelan and Bolivian right-wing coup leaders, or parties such as VOX, in Spain.

How do you manufacture a trend?

Trends on Twitter, known as trending topics, are the most popular topics on the platform in real time: when you click on a trend, what people tweet about it appears. They vary by country, time of day, and show the issues that most people are discussing at the moment, such as a pandemic, a football match, or an event around a celebrity.

Behind the trending topic there is an algorithm, “complex and secret”, explains Macías. But the main elements for a topic to be a trend “are the numbers of tweets per unit of time; if there is a large concentration of tweets with one [same] word or hashtag in a given time, then a trend is created.

Another factor is, for example, the number of accounts, “the larger the number that participate is also influential”. Also relevant is “the participation of accounts that are verified by Twitter or have a large number of followers”. This set of elements achieves a trend and its placement in the list of trending topics.

This means that an organization in the framework of a political action, for example, can artificially create a trend: there needs to be a large number of tweets in a short time. How can this be done? By creating a series of fake accounts, which are not corresponding to any real user and are managed by a program. There can be hundreds of accounts that send certain tweets, or fewer accounts with a message posting capacity that nobody can achieve, such as several in a single second.

Thus, what at first sight seems spontaneous, like a tag, may actually be the product of a political operation. This is what happened with #VenezuelaConfíaEnTrump, which occurred at a key moment in Venezuela.

Operation Gideon and Trends

The label #VenezuelaConfiaEnTrump was posted on May 7, five days after the beginning of Operation Gideon, when a group of mercenaries, former Venezuelan military and members of a U.S. military contractor arrived at the country’s shores. By that day, a large number of those who had arrived had already been arrested by the Venezuelan Government.

The objective of the hashtag was to position an ideology that drives the coup sector of the Venezuelan opposition: that the United States should intervene militarily in the country, particularly in view of the dismantling of Operation Gideon.

Such operations on Twitter are frequent from the right in Venezuela. Three days later, for instance, on May 10, two tags were positioned among the first: #MañanaQueSePrendaElPeo and #11MVenezuelaArmaElPeo, announcing and calling on people to protest, to perform guarimbas (as the escalation of violent actions by the opposition are known).

Another phenomenon that Macias analyzed occurred in this case: the appearance of the @WilexisPetare account that grew from 500 followers to 20,000 in 24 hours, according to Macias. Wilexis is the name of the man who leads an armed gang in Petare, one of the largest popular neighbourhoods in Venezuela.

This took place in Petare during the days before and after the mercenaries landed, which was presented by the opposition media as a series of armed confrontations between gangs. However, President Maduro explained that with the investigations the conclusion was that these were not real confrontations, but rather a distracting action so that the state security forces would be focused there while the ships arrived at the coast.

Among those who made the news in networks was Wilexis, who suddenly became a “malandro-tuitero” calling for a protest against Maduro. Analyzing the @WilexisPetare account, Macias discovered that it was a fake account.

“The origin of the account is very similar to the accounts that spread #VenezuelaConfiaEnTrump. It is curious that a gang leader has time to campaign, going from 500 followers to more than 20,000 in a single day, making it an automated account, putting in a lot of tweets and being the one that had more tweets and retweets on both tags,” he said.

Finally, the man who was running the fake account revealed that he was not Wilexis and concluded: “There are only two ways out, military intervention or the uprising of a sector of the military force”. According to Macías, the plan went badly wrong:

“It turned out badly because what it intended was to mobilize demonstrations against Maduro, but they had no repercussions, because the networks were artificial; that you are capable of being the number one trend to carry out a mobilization and then no one will come…”

What impact does an artificial trend have?

How do you measure the impact of an artificially created trend? It depends on the objectives of the operation. One might be to try to function as a convener, a trigger, for example, for protests or demonstrations. In that case it often happens that the distance between the hundreds of automated messages and the streets is huge.

Other times the connection results and the tendency can amplify or overdimension the facts. But not everything aims to translate into protest actions. The construction of messages as political operations is part of a much larger media device that seeks to implant ideas, construct meaning, and ways to see others, to influence votes.

“All this is synergic, Twitter is the tip of an iceberg of a much more global system of disinformation in that other platforms that can be more visible participate, such as YouTube, Facebook, and different media, both digital and paper, radio and television.

Twitter has, within that set, a characteristic, which is “a kind of loudspeaker for the media, the media usually look at the Twitter accounts of other media such as political leaders or the news itself, it is the one that most quickly jumps to the media”.

In the case of Venezuela, the use of Twitter and the creation of trends has been central in recent years. Its tendencies tend to be mostly political, unlike in other countries. Each escalation of the coup right was accompanied by a large deployment in social networks, particularly Twitter.

Although this dynamic has been particularly marked in Venezuela, it has not been exclusive. During the coup d’état in Bolivia in October-November 2019, nearly 68,000 Twitter accounts were created to legitimize the overthrow of President Evo Morales.

Macias points to an “international connection” where “many think tanks have participated to unify this new extreme right-wing movement (…) and are developing a very strong international media. The network specialist points to Donald Trump among these forces; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – with the massive use of WhatsApp in his 2018 election campaign; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; VOX – who mobilized to defend the coup in Bolivia; among others.

“Almost all of the world’s technocracy, the technology elite, have strong ties to the current U.S. government and are implementing a very effective system based on the dissemination of hoaxes and the generation of hate,” he explains.

That has its translation in each country, with common mechanisms. In the case of Venezuela, among its recent manifestations, there were those Twitter trends that sought to provide support to the flow of actions to overthrow the government. The danger posed by these operations is global, warns Macías:

“It is an international threat to democracy. The first step is to diagnose and denounce, but I see an enormous amount of impunity, both by international institutions and by the digital platforms themselves”.

Translation by Internationalist 360°