Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro falsely claimed on February 27 that COVID-19 might be a strain created for biological warfare against China as part of a Western plot to halt the country’s economic growth, but the resulting traffic online-focused more heavily on the dismal state of the country’s healthcare system.
By making these claims, Maduro politicized the current outbreak to push unfounded narratives against the United States and support one of his most strategic allies outside the region, China. While China has reiterated its support for Maduro, the United States and Latin American countries condemned a series of irregularities in the January 5 parliamentary vote for the presidency of the National Assembly, after the regime illegitimately installed candidate Luis Parra as leader of the legislative body. Prior to Maduro’s claims, pro-Kremlin actors had similarly blamed the United States for the coronavirus outbreak. The claims around COVID-19 being a biological weapon have been strongly condemned by scientists and experts studying the virus.
Although Maduro did not clarify who he believed to be behind the effort to undermine China, Diosdado Cabello, the regime’s number two, claimed the virus was a weapon of war from “the imperialists” — an expression used by the regime to refer to the United States. Maduro’s theory did not gain much traction on social media, but instead, Twitter accounts discussed if Venezuela’s health infrastructure could deal with the COVID-19.
On February 27, 2020, Maduro installed a presidential commission, led by his vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, with the charge of coordinating efforts to combat a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela. In his announcement of the commission, Maduro also called for an investigation to determine whether the virus was a biological weapon.
Calling the outbreak a threat to humanity unlike any plague in more than 7,000 years of civilization, Maduro said, “There are analyses in the world that show that the coronavirus can be a strain created for the biological war against China. There are already many elements that are seen in the global analysis, and you have to raise your voice, ring the bell and alert, in case the coronavirus is a weapon of war that is being used against China and the peoples of the world.”
At the time of publishing, according to public health data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, more than 116,000 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed globally, including in many Latin American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico. On March 9, Rodriguez reported that Venezuela is still coronavirus-free.
After Maduro claimed that COVID-19 might be a biological weapon, the official website for “Con el Mazo Dando,” the TV show hosted by Cabello, published an article repeating Maduro’s claims. According to a CrowdTangle search, @ConElMazoDando, the show’s associated and verified Twitter account, shared a link to the article 13 times, garnering a combined total of 414 interactions. On Facebook, however, the story had only been posted two times, which received a combined total of three reactions (smiles, hearts, etc.), indicating significantly lower engagement on that platform.
On March 2, @ConElMazoDando published a link to a second story, written by National Assembly congressperson Hugbel Roa, a member of Maduro’s political party. Basing his article on claims made by U.S.-based conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper, Roa alleged that the U.S. Department of Defense had developed HIV/AIDS in 1972 at Fort Detrick under the name “Project MK-NAOMI.” This baseless theory had its origins in a claim first posited by the Soviet Union during the Cold War in an effort known as Operation Infektion. Roa’s article concluded that biological warfare has been the main strategy used by the United States to achieve world domination and accrue wealth. On social media, Roa’s article garnered 328 interactions in total, and the @ConElMazoDando Twitter account was responsible for 18 of the 21 posts that included a link to the story.
Maduro’s theory also did not gain much traction on Twitter. Indeed, it appeared to have backfired, as Twitter accounts instead started to discuss whether Venezuela’s health system, battered by the country’s ongoing economic crisis, would be sufficiently capable of handling an outbreak of the disease, if it arrived. The responses highlighted, in particular, the lack of water and vital medical supplies in the country’s hospitals. Maduro has insisted, however, that the country’s “public health system” is prepared to deal with an outbreak.
According to a DFRLab search using the social media monitoring tool Brandwatch, between February 27 and March 9, the discussion related to hospitals and the healthcare system in Venezuela was more relevant than the debate about the conspiracy theory pushed by Maduro and his allies. Keywords and expressions such as “hospitals in Venezuela” and “Venezuela’s healthcare system,” for example, were used in social media posts more frequently than expressions such as “coronavirus is a weapon of war.”
On social media, Lechugino’s article reached significantly more engagement than those articles published by Con El Mazo Dando. It garnered 525 interactions on Facebook, including reactions, comments, and shares.
Although theories suggesting that COVID-19 is a biological weapon have been strongly condemned, outlets linked to Maduro regime, such as Con El Mazo Dando and Lechuginos, amplified the conspiracy theory, and added that the United States could be behind such weapon. It is not the first time that Maduro’s government pushed unfounded narratives against the United States. In 2013, Maduro called to investigate if the “historical enemies”, referring to the United States, were behind Hugo Chavez’s illness.
The Human Rights Watch published on April 4, 2019, the Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency report. The document describes the health crisis in Venezuela, including the impact of Venezuelans’ immigration searching for medicines, medical supplies, health providers, and basic health services. Although Venezuela is coronavirus-free according to Venezuelan health authorities, health concerns spread on Twitter, indicating that the current situation lead to question if Venezuela could be able to confront COVID-19.
Author: Esteban Ponce de León is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Colombia.