During the COVID-19 pandemic, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp spread information easily and efficiently, often becoming the most ubiquitous forms of communication between government officials and the wider population.
Throughout Latin America, working-class people typically access social media on mobile phones, often as their primary source of information, surpassing television or radio. In Venezuela, however, this communication has fallen short.
Between March 16 and 19 — just as COVID-19 terrified millions through the first reported cases in the country — more than 40 Twitter accounts were suspended among Venezuela’s top officials. The accounts of four ministers, four governors and the ministries of health, education, science and housing were wiped away. Vice President Delcy Rodríguez — the appointed government informant to the public of COVID-19 — was virtually shut out, yanking away the ability to broadcast essential information at a critical time.
Twitter is designed to broadcast openly and is therefore valued by many as an efficient and effective way to obtain information. Yet, while social media is purported to be a tool of the people, a method of democratizing communications, it can also hinder crucial messaging to the very people it aims to assist.
In Venezuela, Twitter was taken away when it was most needed. Social media analyst and scholar Zeynep Tufekci explains how the internet can be an instigator of social movements and increased communication, while simultaneously revealing how the plug to this open forum can easily be pulled. The relatively quick and easy distribution of information can be subject to manipulation, causing confusion and ultimately revealing the fragility of these information distribution systems.
Governments have the same ability to spread information and can alter it to become distractors, exhibiting how they can keep the media under tight control. But now the tables have turned. Venezuelan officials have had their Twitter accounts suspended or manipulated before. In fact, a recent tweet posted by President Nicolás Maduro was deleted when he claimed there is an “antidote” for COVID-19. In the case of the suspension of the 40 officials, however, no official reasoning has been offered.
Venezuela is already handling COVID-19 with a health care system impoverished by U.S. sanctions, which made the early weeks of March essential in the fight against COVID-19. Venezuelans who relied on Twitter for updates were cut off from important health safety information, raising a serious question about the anti-humanitarian effects of Twitter’s policy that are closely related to the anti-democratic foreign interventions and the issue of sustaining the public good.
Fortunately, cases of COVID-19 are relatively low in Venezuela. As of June 15, Venezuela has only experienced 3,052 cases and 26 deaths, compared to thousands of cases accounted for in neighboring countries.
Venezuela may be seeing a lower number of fatalities and cases because of the swift precautions it took early in the global pandemic. While other countries failed to issue lockdown orders and testing kits, Venezuela’s response was prompt. Even before any cases were confirmed in the country, Maduro had already issued a warning that groups should disperse and limit contact. A survey was sent out to calculate the health of the population and found that “approximately 90% of the population was heeding the quarantine.” Without these preventative measures, it is highly likely that Venezuela would be navigating far more cases and deaths.
It’s ironic that a social media platform that considers conversation and connection so valuable would shut off an important platform in a time of crisis. For many of those in Venezuela, repercussions of a crisis are nothing new; they have had to cope with crises before. Venezuelan activist Leonardo Flores noted that since 2013, “Venezuela has lived through the death of wildly popular leader, violent right-wing protests, an economic war characterized by shortages and hyperinflation, sanctions that have destroyed the economy, an ongoing coup, attempted military insurrections, attacks on public utilities, blackouts, mass migration and threats of U.S. military action.”
Although the global pandemic is unprecedented, Venezuelans have unfortunately lived through violence before and have developed a culture of cooperation necessary to successfully overcome adversity. Communities are coming together to make and provide face masks. Medical students are stepping in to hinder whatever course the disease may take. The Maduro administration stepped in and suspended rent payments and prevented telecom companies from shutting off people’s phones and the internet. The administration also offered workers bonuses and asked hotels to allow beds to be used for patients.
Given these measures, it appears that the Venezuelan government’s actions concerning COVID-19 are more progressive and surpass a simple, quick response, especially when juxtaposed with the current U.S. administration’s response.
Venezuela’s response to the pandemic is enviable. However, Twitter’s actions evidently attest that its promise of upholding the public good is dubious. Further investigation is needed to determine just how interventionist Twitter’s policy was in the case of Venezuela, putting into debate its principles of “pro-democracy” and humanitarian values.
Twitter’s interventions hide under the pretense of democracy when, in reality, they deepen the discord already present in the crisis. But does this trend track around the world? How much is the media dictating the amount of public good allowed to people worldwide? How does this affect democracy?
After expressing their adamant intentions of connecting the world, those with power in the media seem to have a discrepancy between their goals of being for the people and ultimately the upholding of democracy. It is time for the public to go beyond checking other people’s statuses by checking the actions of media outlets worldwide.
Adriana Ortega is a junior majoring in media studies and a research apprentice of the Latinx Research Center at UC Berkeley.