The political protests will be mediated (though maybe not televised)

Yes, I know, “the revolution will not be televised” is a cliche by now (though a great song). But one of the reasons it persists through time is because people involved in some form of social change feel it to be true that they don’t get enough media exposure due to perceived suppression from incumbent powers.

Venezuela has been involved, for a long time, in a polarization of political opinion that is best illustrated in its media. Looking at what happens in the country through media outlets sympathetic to either side results in a seriously disjointed view from two competing narratives.

There have been claims of government censorship for a while (most notably in the cases of RCTV and Globovision), while the government says it is more open than before it came into power. Newspapers claim they’ve not been given the conditions to buy paper to print on, the government says that is a lie.

The opposition says it has no representation in the media, because the government has suppressed it through abuse of power. The government says it has no representation in the media, because the opposition owns most of the media.

The Internet has muddied even more this division. Banned from cable and satellite television channels, like NTN24, become available through Youtube. Newspapers utilize their web presence to give expanded information. But perhaps the biggest development is amateur reporting. Here’s a few numbers:

* As of 2013, Internet penetration in the country was up to 42% with the number considerably higher in urban centers (where electoral patterns show the opposition tends to concentrate).
* According to Pew Research, Venezuela ranks as the third country in Latin America in smartphone ownership (31% of the population).
* In the same report it states 83% of Internet users use social media while 77% of cell phone owners take pictures/videos and 39% use it to get political news (highest in the poll).

Having the opposition have predominant access has meant that the government’s relationship with social media has had its ups and downs. In 2010, most feared Chavez would take the same route as Iran and pull the plug when he said “the Internet cannot be something open where anything is said and done”, however, in a shocking turnaround, he invited his supporters to counter the opposition bias and even joined Twitter himself, becoming the country’s most followed account and definitely left a legacy as the US’ biggest Internet troll.

His successor, Maduro, has had a worse relationship with social media. His Twitter account was hacked (as was the ruling party’s), he’s been accused of overextending government surveillance and recently there’s been claims by Twitter and Pastebin of blocking the services during this week’s protest. (Yesterday broadband outages were also alleged in Tachira, one of the protests’ hotspots).

With news of Twitter blocked, Canadian VPN TunnelBear offered their services free of charge to Venezuelans and, another VPN, HotSpot Shield, did the same. I also saw Tor’s Onion browser was being recommended across forums while Hola Unblocker became popular on Facebook.

Right now the importance of social media is that it is considered by the opposition to be the only way to spread information in the face of an alleged media blackout. Videos of massive protests as well as evidence of excess by the armed forces and attacks from government supporters are posted, the shared by citizens, government officials and journalists. For example, a reporter claimed on Twitter to be attacked by the police when covering a protest while a user was uploading a video of the incident to Instagram, which helped the news get published. (There are many reports of attacks on journalists)

Information, though mostly rumors, fly through Whatsapp, Blackberry Messenger and other instant messaging applications. Initially, the Zello walkie talkie app gained popularity, but during last night‘s National Guard repression campaign (during which a presidential speech using emergency broadcasts that overtake traditional media, which are common), Twitter was a buzz with reports of the app giving away location of people hiding in buildings as well as government supporters “intercepting” and recording alleged damming conversations.

An obvious drawback to this unfiltered reporting is that misinformation and conflicting reports are rife, as has happened in other protests (here’s Zeynep Tufekci on the subject). The government has used widely shared doctored photos as evidence to discredit information being shared on social media and state it is all part of a coordinated attack.

Generally, within minutes of an incident, opposition supporters have taken to Reddit to get some international attention, successfully making it to the front page with a couple of posts (about 4 times in the past week: here, here, here and here). But, as Gawker explains, it faces many hurdles in capturing that attention: mainly the horrible developments in Ukraine and the US’ troubled history with Latin America.

In the 16th day of protests between opposition and government forces, amidst tear-gas smoke and road blockades, few things are clear in Venezuela, except that whatever happens next they’re not waiting for it to be televised.

Update: While finishing this writing CNN, who had reported being victims of theft, have been threatened by Maduro of being removed from the country’s airwaves.

Update 2: Zello has denied, via Facebook, claims that the app can give GPS data on users and have tweeted getting reports of the app being blocked in Venezuela.


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