Although Congressman Luis Parra insists that he opposes Nicolás Maduro’s government, his behavior in the past few months, which includes his activity on social media, generated doubts.
A study published by Probox, a digital tracking observatory, states that in February 2020, the legislator positioned a hashtag trend on Twitter’s Trending Topics where 53% of the users used the hashtag also generate interaction with pro-Chavism hashtags.
Twitter accounts using the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui [#LuisParraEnAnzoategui] –the only trend the congressman has positioned- also wrote in favor of such trends as #ChavezPorAhoraYParaSiempre [#ChavezForNowAndForever] and against interim President Juan Guaidó using the hashtag #GuaidoEngripado [#GuaidoDownWithTheFlu]. Despite this virtual push by Chavism forces, Mr. Parra’s Twitter account was suspended on April 10, 2020, just days after meeting with Nicolás Maduro at Miraflores Palace.
Luis Parra quietly helping Chavism
Before his public involvement with Chavism, the National Assembly’s representative for the State of Yaracuy was not a well-known politician, despite being the secretary-general of the Primero Justicia (PJ) party in his state. He held this position until December 2019 when he was expelled from the party following complaints by a group of party members and an exposé published in the investigative journalism website Armando.info.
Mr. Parra, 41, was directly signaled of being the contact of Carlos Lizcano, a businessman linked with corruption activities behind the acquisition of contracts and distribution of the Local Committee Supply and Production (CLAP) boxes in Venezuela and accused of allegedly buying off a group of congressmen belonging to the National Assembly’s Comptrollership Commission to clean his image.
Lizcano appears as the frontman of Salva Foods, C. A. one of the companies believed to be owned by Alex Saab, a Colombian national sanctioned by the United States for alleged money laundering and close ties with Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
According to Armando.info’s investigation, this operation was orchestrated in 2018 in the Comptrollership Commission directed by Mr. Parra who was also a member of the Commission for the Environment and Climate Development. The investigation claims that the Yaracuy representative managed to convince a group of his colleagues, money upfront, to carry out a series of actions in national and international organizations intended to clean Mr. Lizcano.
From then on, conversations held around the hallways of the National Assembly were not only about congressmen tainted with corruption but also about a complex network known as “Operation Scorpion” which aimed to bribe congressmen to avoid Juan Guaidó’s reelection as President of the Legislative Power in 2020.
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Without votes or quorum, Luis Parra swears himself as the new National Assembly President
Parra is believed to be the head of this operation. Days before the election of the Venezuelan parliament’s new directors, he began to campaign as Mr. Guaidó’s successor, referring to a third way and the need to untangle the political conflict by avoiding a confrontation with Nicolás Maduro.
On January 5th, 2020, amidst aggressions to legislators of the opposition and the media, Mr. Parra swore himself as president of the National Assembly, following a procedure that does not comply with any stipulation provided by the Constitution of Venezuela. To obtain the necessary votes, the congressman received help from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), whose members even ordered him on when to speak, be quiet or sit down.
That same day, Nicolas Maduro recognized Mr. Parra as president of the National Assembly. Eight days later, the Russian Federation also gave their support to Parra – so far, the only country to do so.
However, Mr. Parra’s legitimacy has even been questioned by Maduro’s system. Such is the case of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ in Spanish) who demanded that congressmen Parra, Franklyn Duarte, and José Gregorio Noriega, submit a report as well as the voting lists that allegedly validated them as members of the National Assembly’s board of directors for the 2020-2021 terms.
In a ruling issued by the Constitutional Chamber, signed by Justice Juan José Mendoza, the TSJ requested that the aforementioned representatives submit a report “on the parliamentarian session that elected the new Board of Directors of the National Assembly as well as the quorum records”. To date, the highest court in Venezuela has not issued a judgment on this matter.
While the TSJ answers this controversy, Congressman Parra continues to introduce himself as president of the National Assembly. Press releases summons to meetings in the Federal Legislative Palace and his biography on Twitter and Instagram indicate his new status.
But not everything has been a bed of roses for him on social media, specifically on Twitter. Despite being supported by the government and all of its entourage on every social media platform, his account @LuisEParra78 was suspended by Twitter on April 10th, 2020. No known motive was given behind this decision.
Despite this decision, Mr. Parra opened a new account, @LuisParraVe. To date, he has 2,183 followers, follows 40 people (the majority of them are congressmen who have joined the so-called CLAP fraction) and tweets daily.
“Red, reddish” help
On Friday, February 7th, 2020, Mr. Parra visited Anzoátegui state where he assured people in a public rally that voting is the best tool Venezuelans have to solve the country’s political conflict.
“Our message to Nicolás Maduro is that sooner than later we will organize and vote to take him out of power”, added Parra who was joined by congressmen José Brito (representative of Anzoátegui) and Conrado Pérez (Trujillo). Both are involved in the Scorpion Operation and have ties with Alex Saab and Carlos Lizcano.
However, the speech Mr. Parra gave does not seem to coincide with his social media activity. Just three days after his visit to Anzoátegui, the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoátegui became a Trending Topic on Twitter. Although he did not have any direct participation in the generation of this hashtag, the aid of other Twitter accounts who also express their support for Chavism forces was pivotal for the positioning of this trend on Twitter.
Probox was able to determine that ever since Mr. Parra’s self-proclamation as president of the National Assembly he has only been able to position that specific trend on Twitter. The hashtag trended for 8 hours, 5 minutes, and produced a total of 13,900 tweets.
Using a sample of 1,503 tweets, the digital tracking observatory detected a total of 169 users, 25 of which are bots which amount to 14.79% of the total.
A bot is a computer program designed to tweet, reply, or amplify messages. A 2019 report published by Oxford University entitled The Global Disinformation Order concluded that Venezuela employs a high number of cyber troops, around 500 people, for “psychological operations or war information” purposes.
In the case of Congressman Parra’s trending topic, Probox detected that 72.6% of its content was inorganic. This means that more than 70% of tweets were generated by 15% of users who are most likely fake or programmed to amplify a certain kind of content.
A further examination of users and the content established that the messages published were short, used specific keywords, simple images, and replicated multimedia content from other accounts.
The users’ goal was to make the hashtag grow quickly and become a trend on Twitter. In many cases, the content of the messages made no sense or had no direct link with the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui.
The user who contributed the most tweets to the aforementioned hashtag was @Solosoymaria3 with a total of 439 tweets. This user had 70 bot points which means that there is a high probability that this is a fake account or used as an automated message replicator.
Coincidences between Luis Parra and Chavism
The analysis provided by Probox also found 61 coincidences between the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui and the pro-government hashtags used during February. This means that 53% of users who generated interaction with the hashtag related to Congressman Parra also used hashtags in favor of Chavism.
The same pattern occurred in March 2020. 18% of users who used the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui also used the hashtag #PatriaRebelde [#RebelHomeland]. 16% used #JuventudRebeldeYChavista. [#RebelAndChavistaYouth].
14% of these users also participated with the pro-government hashtag #EscudoBolivarianoIII2020 [#BolivarianShielIII2020] and barely 1% wrote using #ChavezEsMasQueAmorFrenesi. [#ChavezIsMoreThanLoveFrenzy].
A similar trend was spotted on March 6th, when 24% of users who tweeted in favor of Luis Parra also tweeted with the hashtag #GuaidoEngripado which offered discrediting content against Juan Guaidó, interim president and head of the National Assembly.
The user @10701Felicidad who has 80 bot points interacted with the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui as well as pro-government trends and #GuaidoEngripado. This user published 43 tweets with the hashtag in support of Luis Parra.
Meanwhile, the user @locoyabandonado had the highest number of appearances in the hashtag #LuisParraEnAnzoategui which he mixed with other pro-government trending hashtags.
This user always writes more elaborate messages but always uses the hashtags employed by pro-government groups. He critiques anti-government positions and contributes to the trend’s activities. Probox determined that this account has the typical characteristics of troll behavior.
Another example occurred on March 9th, 2020 when opposition groups to the Maduro administration published tweets under the hashtag #10MVzlaALaCalle [#M10VzlaToTheStreets], as part of a protest rally summoned via social media to take place on March 10th. 24% of the users who participated with the Parra hashtag also used this hashtag employing derogatory and anti-opposition language in their tweets.
The user @locoyabandonado also participated in this trend.
Luis Parra’s Tweeting Contradictions
Before his Twitter account @LuisEParra78 was closed on April 10th, 2020, Congressman Luis Parra had 12,500 followers. His current Twitter bio states that he is convinced that Venezuela needs renovation and change but also agrees with Chavism that the sanctions imposed by the United States against the Maduro administration need to be lifted.
However, in 2017 he published a tweet in which he assured that the sanctions were not against Venezuela “but against individuals who violate Human Rights and are immerse in corruption and drug trafficking”. He later deleted this tweet.
Likewise, early last year, he expressed his support to interim president Juan Guaidó. In March 2019 he wrote on Twitter that he would continue to work to achieve the “end of the usurpation, a transitional government and free elections”:
In June 2019 he informed his followers about President Guaidó’s intended visit to Yaracuy and invited all residents to join him.
In December his discourse on social media changed, coinciding with the investigation Armando.info published which related him to Alex Saab and Carlos Lizcano.
On December 4th, 2019 Mr. Parra tweeted that several congressmen were upset due to Juan Guaidó’s “lack of political coherence” and “lack of accountability”.
However, he kept his discourse against Nicolás Maduro, assuring that they would continue in the struggle to “take the Maduro regime from power”. This changed on March 28th, 2020 when he announced an open investigation on an alleged coup d’état and terrorist activities denounced by Nicolás Maduro and his Minister of Communications, Jorge Rodriguez.
A day later, he published a video imploring the Executive Power –thus recognizing Nicolás Maduro as president- to implement a social assistance plan during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Although he did not get an answer to his proposal, Mr. Parra attended the Council of State convened by Nicolás Maduro on March 31st, 2020 where he insisted on the need to lift sanctions believing them to be harmful to Venezuelans, more so in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have always stated our marked disagreements with the Executive Power, but this does not mean that we can put a halt to them in times like these”.
At this Council of State, Mr. Parra was treated as president of the National Assembly by all of those present as well as the pro-government media.
ProBox is a digital tracking observatory that focuses on socio-political Twitter trends in Venezuela. For two years they have analyzed content on topics that become trending topics in this country.
Using their technological measuring tool, they monitor conversations in this social network to gain an understating of the main actors and differentiate real content from content created by computer programs that seek to increase disinformation on Twitter.