Venezuela's Twitter Revolution


  • Twitter has a high adoption rate in Venezuela and is used widely by the resistance movement seeking to oust autocrat Nicolas Maduro. Resistance tweets employ a number of distinct strategies.
  • An analysis of Twitter traffic suggests that follower networks are widely dispersed with little overlap. This suggests broad support for the resistance as opposed to a small group re-tweeting to each other.
  • For the last several years, Maduro’s regime has used bots to inflate the appearance of government support. Twitter recently terminated a number of accounts associated with Maduro.
Twitter Strategies Used By The Venezuelan Resistance
Twitter has been used in social uprisings in countries like Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Moldova. Venezuela has a high Twitter adoption rate: it is used by 14% of all internet users there. In fact Twitter is now the best way to get news regarding Venezuela. The Venezuelan resistance uses a number of distinct communication strategies to further their goal of ousting Nicolas Maduro:

1. Simple Dissemination of News: This can be simply re-tweeting media stories. However tweets often include primary reporting by citizens of repression by the Maduro government and its paramilitaries. These tweets often include phone pictures or video. This serves a variety of purposes including ensuring the resistance is informed, exposing outrages in order to build further support, warning resistance members where they may be in danger, and simply serving as a way to vent well justified anger.
2. Organizing Protests: These tweets inform protesters where they can gather for organized marches and “trancazos” (road blocks that are a form of protest).

3. Appealing for International Assistance: Tweets often ask for help from other countries and international bodies. These tweets are typically addressed to the US President, the Pope, the UN, Senator Marco Rubio, the Human Rights Commission etc. To date most international leaders have done little more than issue denouncements of Maduro’s repressions. Marco Rubio and Florida Governor Scott are exceptions with their recent actions designed to support the Venezuelan resistance. While it seems unlikely there will be outside military intervention, additional international actions may include embargoes, asset seizures, and increased prosecution of the regime’s illegal drug trafficking.
4. Exposing Corruption and Shaming Cronies And Their Families: Tweets in this category expose illegal transactions by Maduro cronies, their purchases of real estate and hiding of assets overseas, and/or their wealthy lifestyle and that of their children. These wealthy lifestyles are a stark contrast to the extreme poverty and hunger faced by Venezuelan citizens.
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5. Debating Resistance Tactics: Most of the tweets I see that oppose Maduro stress peaceful protest. However, the government and its paramilitaries have become more violent, often beating protesters and opposition politicians. Firing projectiles directly at protesters, they have killed approximately 90 people. Thus some in the resistance movement have begun to urge more forceful tactics including greater use of Molotov cocktails and destruction of government armored vehicles. There are also disagreements voiced on Twitter regarding the merits of various opposition political leaders. Just recently some tweeters have expressed concern that the intensity of street protests will lessen following the move to house arrest (from prison) of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

One strategy I do not see used often is direct appeal to members of the military and the regime to turn against Maduro (although limited approval is expressed for regime members like Luisa Ortega Diaz who have). It would be difficult to do given the current level of violence and repression, but the resistance has not laid out a path for current regime members to turn without fear of reprisal. Thus many in the regime may feel they have no option but to defend the status quo.

Twitter Data Traffic Analysis

On the morning of July 5th, I downloaded 15,000 tweets using the search term “trancazo” and another 15,000 tweets using the search term “protesta.” I set a fixed quota on how many tweets I downloaded, but that 30,000 quota was filled with tweets sent from just 7 PM, July 4th through 8 AM July 5th (Caracas local time). When I combined the two queries, I ended up with 29,156 unique tweets (844 of the tweets used both terms).

I selected these terms because I was interested in tweets related to actual protest actions. Over this period there would have been many times more tweets that expressed dissatisfaction with the Maduro regime. Note the search words I used could have been used in other Spanish speaking countries for other reasons, but you will see nearly all of these tweets referred to Venezuela.

These tweets were written (or re-tweeted) by 17,754 people. The greatest number of tweets from an individual tweeter in this 13 hour period was 118 -- so tweet traffic authorship was widely dispersed.

Table 1 summarizes the language used in the tweets. Not surprisingly given the Spanish search terms, 86% of the tweets were in Spanish.
Location is self-identified and often missing (or whimsical like “Earth”). Of this sample, 39% of the tweeters did not supply location; 55% of those that did were easily identified as being in Venezuela. I suspect the actual percentage is much higher (probably a figure near the percentage of Spanish used in Table 1).

Figure 1 shows when those that tweeted in this sample have had their Twitter accounts for some time. The growth up to 2010 partly reflects Twitter’s growing popularity following its creation in 2006.

Figure 1: Year of Account Creation Of Tweeters From Sample

Table 2 illustrates the tweeters in this period with the largest number of followers. A number of these are news organizations or politicians. These “broadcasters” tweet a lot and are well followed, but they absorb relatively little information from others on Twitter.
The million plus follower numbers shown in Table 2 are atypical of most of the tweeters who issued tweets in my sample. The median tweeter in my sample had 400 followers and 75% had less than 1,225 followers. The median tweeter also followed 608 people -- thus they are net absorbers of information. Figure 2 shows the distribution of followers for the vast majority of these tweeters with less than 2,000 followers.

Figure 2: Distribution of Followers For Tweeters w/<2000 Followers From Sample

To look at follower overlap, I took an arbitrary subset of 15 tweeters in this period with approximately 500 followers (this limited sample was due to the fact that Twitter rate-limits how much follower data one can download). For these 15 tweeters, 98% of their 7,500 aggregate followers were unique. In addition, less than 1% of their followers were themselves also tweeters in my 13 hour sample. Again, the picture that emerges is of a large, non-overlapping group that is sending and receiving information (not a small, highly overlapping group communicating within themselves).

Retweets (obviously) dominate tweet traffic in any period of time. Table 3 lists the most retweeted tweets during this period. Again, not surprisingly, the most often retweeted messages tend to be written by those with a large numbers of followers who then retweet the message. Interestingly the number of likes a tweet receives is not highly correlated with how often it is retweeted.


Maduro’s Twitter Strategy

The government uses Twitter as a propaganda channel. The government attempts to manipulate Twitter rankings and uses automated “bots” to inflate the volume of pro-government tweets.

“In fact, a Freedom House report from 2013 acknowledged that the Venezuelan government had been using social media platforms to spread their point of view and drown out political opposition, and a Twiplomacy study found that Nicolas Maduro, current president of Venezuela, is the third most effective world leader on Twitter. Curiously, this last study also found that Maduro’s tweets were ten times more likely to be retweeted than liked, raising the suspicion that the accounts doing the retweeting could be bots.”

Jose Blanco Oliver, founder of @trendinalia has reported on the regime’s false account creation, methods they use to artificially create “trending topics” favorable to the regime, and an example where 47% of pro-government tweets came from 386 bots. In a move which may not be related to this manipulation (but instead to content violating Twitter’s policies), Twitter suspended a large number of Maduro-related accounts in June.[1] The move angered Nicolas Maduro who understands the importance of social media.

Maduro’s own Twitter account is still active and you may have seen in Table 2 that one of his tweets occurred during my sample period. His activity during that period was just one retweet without comment of a story from the Russian news service RT about a young man killed during a protest by his mishandling of an “explosive device.” The article included quotes from regime leaders blaming his death on the opposition. No one "liked" his tweet and no one retweeted it.

Evidence of the regime's unpopularity is shown in Figure 3. While Maduro's (bot inflated) "likes" run around 500 to 2,000 per tweet, former prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz has seen her likes dramatically increase to numbers as high as 15,000 after she turned against Maduro.[2]

Figure 3: Luisa Ortega Diaz vs. Maduro Individual Tweet Likes

Maduro's account is highly active, but features very little original content. In a telling contrast, 97% of his tweets are simple retweets, while 97% of Luisa's are original content.

[1]  Information Minister Ernesto Villegas admitted 80 accounts were suspended according to Reuters, however as many as 3,853 account suspensions were reported by Jose Blanco Oliver.
[2] Twitter API data constraints limit how far back I was able to download Maduro's tweets in 2017. Twitter limits timeline downloads to 3,200 entries.  As Maduro retweets more frequently than  Luisa, that 3,200 limit was filled with data only back to May.

Transparent and reproducible: The R code used to produce the tables and figures is available in “VZLAtwitter.rmd" on github.


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