Courtesy of Atlantic Council/ DFRLab.
Nicolás Maduro and his Vice President Delcy Rodríguez promoted the hashtag #LasSancionesSonUnCrimen (“Sanctions are a crime”) on March 6, 2020, when it also reached the trending topics of the country on Twitter. The hashtag was part of a broader campaign launched by the regime that same day to protest U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela.
On February 13, 2020, the Venezuelan Chancellery presented a referral against U.S. sanctions to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Maduro claimed the sanctions were an “obsessive and criminal abuse of the U.S. government against the Venezuelan people.”
The United States, which is an unratified signatory of the ICC and therefore not bound by its rulings, did not comment on Venezuela’s request. On March 6, during a press conference to launch the campaign, Rodríguez said that the ICC had started reviewing the referral. This has not been confirmed by the ICC, which usually does not rule on inter-state disputes. The first tweets using #LasSancionesSonUnCrimen appeared while the vice president was speaking on television.
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Maduro used the hashtag to accuse the White House of “having a terrorist plan [the sanctions] to destabilize Venezuela.” He also promoted a booklet that, according to him, explains the “consequences of the imperial aggression against Venezuela.” The booklet claims that sanctions resulted in a lack of access to food, medicine, and other basic goods, causing “immense damage to the Venezuelan people.”
The hashtag trended between March 6 and March 8 and was used on 108,412 tweets by 9,899 accounts. One of the first accounts promoting the hashtag was the regime’s Ministry of Communications, which later deleted the tweet. The Ministry’s account promoted #LasSancionesSonUnCrimen as the “hashtag of the day” and asked followers to share it. This account promotes hashtags every day to reach the country’s trending topics, and there is an indication that some accounts receive money to amplify these hashtags.
The DFRLab found signs of traffic manipulation in the amplification of the hashtag. According to a DFRLab query using Brandwatch, 93 percent of mentions (101,204 uses) of the hashtag were retweets, and 7 percent (7,208 tweets) were original posts or replies. On average, each account tweeted the hashtag 11 times – this number has historically been below two in organic campaigns previously analyzed by the DFRLab. Moreover, 78 percent of all mentions to the hashtag came from the most active 10 percent (990) of accounts, which suggested that a small group of accounts was tweeting the hashtag repeatedly to make it a trend.
#AlertaVenezuela is leading the way in identifying, exposing, and explaining disinformation within the context of one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest crises in recent history, where the fight for control of the information space will continue to pose a challenge for the region.