Amid Venezuela protests, social media serves as imperfect source for journalists

The tone was fearful, and the story was dramatic. “There’s a military tank outside my streets. I’ve heard gunshots for over two hours,” said a Venezuelan enduring another night of unrest in the country’s weeks-long protests against President Nicholas Maduro. “I’m sitting on my home’s door with a knife next to me, afraid of dying tonight.”

It’s the kind of scene often presented in TV or newspaper coverage of such events. But in Venezuela this year, on-the-scene accounts are far more likely to be found on Twitter – like the one about the gunshots, which appeared under the hashtag #Chacao, named for a municipality of Venezuela’s capital Caracas.

Such Twitter reports underscore the reality for Venezuelans trying to follow the news about unrest in their own country: few mainstream media outlets are covering it live. State media are showing the celebration of Youth Day, a Venezuelan holiday, while private broadcasters air soap operas and entertainment shows.

That leaves Venezuelans largely dependent on social media, where there’s a constant flow of information about the protests. But in searching Twitter and other social media sources, Venezuelans confront another reality: the reports can include misinformation and phony photos.

Among recent photo postings purportedly showing the Venezuelan protests have been some that actually depicted events in Brazil or Ukraine.

“Some of them even had snow on them,” said Francisco Toro, founder of the English-language blog Caracas Chronicles, which is closely followed by Maduro’s critics inside and outside the country.

A Venezuelan expat based in Montreal, Toro relies on information gathered through social media to cover the region. He said he takes care to verify images before using them, looking for consistency and checking the Twitter streams of established journalists in the country.

Another verification effort was started by NTN24, a Colombian TV channel, using the hashtag #ReporteroNTN24 and a web page for users to submit information for crowd sourcing. Staff at NTN24 contact submitters privately to verify the information before they use it for reports. However, the overwhelming number of entries, many of which aren’t original but retweets, is a challenge for the newsroom’s staff, said Johnattan Bilancieri, web director at NTN24.

“The big issue here is that [the verification process] is very slow right now,” he said. “It’s a huge risk if you don’t verify the information, if you don’t have a very thoughtful process to test everything that’s received.”

Another big issue for NTN24 was the Venezuelan government’s decision to pull the channel’s TV programming off the air during the first week of the protests. The reason for the ban was NTN24’s “efforts to actively support destabilization,” said William Castiollo, the director of CONATEL, Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator.

Like his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, Maduro has been a vocal critic of Venezuela’s polarized media. In the volatile political atmosphere, attacks on the press are frequent.

As of February 23, 62 press workers — including reporters, camera operators, photographers and production crew members – had been abused or harassed by Venezuelan police forces, the National Guard, or motorized armed groups, according to a list gathered by the National Press Workers’ Union in Venezuela.

Maduro also threatened to expel correspondents from CNN, accusing the network of spreading propaganda against Venezuela. A day before his threat, CNN correspondents told their network that plainclothes police confiscated their equipment.

“The media landscape becomes more restricted for independent journalism and media,” said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Although the current atmosphere is particularly tense, newsrooms have faced pressures from the Venezuelan government for at least a decade, said journalist Fabiola Zerpa at El Nacional, a newspaper critical of the government.

In the past, El Nacional was often not invited to official press conferences held by the government, said Zerpa. Under President Maduro, newspapers have faced a new challenge: the government uses currency control to limit their ability to import newsprint, which is not produced in Venezuela, according to Zerpa. One result is that the newsroom is downsizing its reporting staff in order to save money, she said.

Some of the most bitter fights between the media and Venezuela’s government have involved broadcasters. Globovision, the last TV station in Venezuela that had a history of being critical of the government, was sold last year to owners with close ties to Maduro’s administration. Globovision’s editorial tone is now more favorable to the government, leaving a void of critical voices in broadcast media.

While Maduro’s administration dominates the conversation in the country’s traditional media and calls the protesters “fascists,” leaders of the current protests dominate the Internet and use the word “genocide” to describe the government’s crackdown, said freelance journalist Girish Gupta, who writes for Reuters, Al Jazeera and other international news outlets.

“I primarily use [social media] to show what I’m seeing on the ground,” said Gupta. But the polarization of opinions can make it hard to understand the situation, he noted.

Despite the polarization and difficulties in verifying information, “The Internet and social media have become an instrument to get news and to be informed,” said CPJ’s Lauria. But it’s still vital to have professional journalists and media who can report independently and freely, he said.

“The ability for citizens to make informed decisions will depend on the capacity of media to do their jobs,” said Lauria.