We can't seem to agree about whether social media fuels, merely facilitates, or actually hinders protest movements. But in Venezuela, where five people have now died in political unrest over soaring inflation, widespread crime, and chronic shortages, Twitter is undeniably serving as a parallel platform for protest. Its dueling hashtags echo the dueling demonstrations in the streets.
In a country with one of the highest Twitter adoption rates in the world, and at a time when independent Venezuelan news outlets have been muffled, the social network has become a critical forum for political activism.
For evidence, just compare the timeline of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez's handpicked successor, with that of opposition leader Leopoldo López, the primary organizer of the student-led protests. Maduro's Twitter feed is a frenetic mix of threats to his "fascist" rivals, exhortations to carry out Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, and retweets of messages from sympathizers (including, eerily, a series of tweets written by Chávez shortly before his death last year). López's is more spartan—informing supporters about the logistics for marches and urging them to fight non-violently for human rights.
In a dramatic showdown on Tuesday, López led a rally in Caracas before handing himself over to authorities to face terrorism charges. Mash up the two Twitter feeds in the days before the arrest, and you get the impression of two camps approaching one another for an epic clash—a kind of West Side Story rumble. I've included translations in bold above each tweet.
Maduro: "Leopoldo López, coward, fascist surrender because we are looking for you!"
López: "I tell you Maduro, you are a coward. You are going to break neither me nor my family. To my family: strength, I love them."
Te lo digo Maduro, eres un cobarde. Ni a mi familia ni a mi nos vas a doblegar. A mi famila: fuerza, los amo.— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 16, 2014
Maduro: "Tomorrow we will have a work day in the Federal Council of Government to implement the actions of the National Plan for Peace and Coexistence."
Mañana tenemos jornada de trabajo en el Consejo Federal de Gobierno para implementar las acciones del Plan Nacional de Paz y Convivencia..— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) February 18, 2014
López: "The government is increasing repression to sow fear. Tomorrow we leave peacefully at 10 AM. We'll see each other [at the starting point for the march] in Chacaito!"
El gobierno aumentando la represion busca sembrar miedo. Mañana salgamos pacificamente a las 10 am. Nos vemos en Chacaito!— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 18, 2014
Maduro: "All day I will be at work in Miraflores, the House of People's Power Governing and protecting the Peace from the attacks of Fascism."
Estaré todo el día en mi puesto de trabajo en Miraflores,la Casa del PoderPopular Gobernando y protegiendo la Paz de los ataques delFascismo— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) February 18, 2014
López: "Let's all go in white to the first point. Then I will walk alone. I will not put the life of any Venezuelan at risk. Venezuela Strong!"
Vayamos todo de blanco, hasta 1 punto. Luego yo caminare solo. No pondre en riesgo la vida de ningun venezolano. Fuerza Venezuela!!— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 17, 2014
That's when López was arrested.
López: "I'm disconnecting. Thank you Venezuela. The change is in each one of us. We will not give up. I will not do it!"
Me desconecto. Gracias Venezuela. El cambio esta en cada uno de nostros. No nos rindamos. Yo no lo hare!— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 18, 2014
There are many reasons why Twitter is so politicized in Venezuela. For starters, the social network is really popular in the country. In 2011, in fact, comScore reported that Venezuela had the fifth-highest Twitter penetration rate in the world—21 percent of Internet users in the country visited the microblogging site in the course of a month. (Measuring countries' Twitter use is as much art as science, but another recent study, employing a different methodology, ranked Venezuela fourth in the world in Twitter penetration.)
Social media in general has become a prominent forum for political debate in Venezuela, where 42 percent of the country is online and 31 percent own a smartphone (Facebook is far more popular than Twitter, and social media is particularly popular among young people, a key demographic for López). A recent Pew survey of 22 developing countries found that Venezuelans were most likely to say they'd learned that someone's political beliefs were different than they thought based on something the person posted on social media (49 percent of Venezuelan respondents said they shared views about politics on social media, compared to a median of 38 percent for the countries polled). Facebook and Twitter, in other words, have become battlegrounds for hearts and minds.
Twitter has become especially valuable as a platform for political expression as Maduro has cracked down on independent and opposition news outlets (a paper shortage in the country hasn't helped matters). Last week, the Venezuelan president blocked access to NTN24, a Colombia-based news channel, after it broadcast live coverage of the country's violent protests (as the pseudonymous Venezuelan blogger Daniel Duquenal puts it, all "airborne media" is censored in the country). Now, the government is moving to squash social media, even as it harnesses the same platforms to advance its own agenda. Twitter recently reported that Venezuelan authorities had blocked users' access to images from demonstrations, and protesters claim that police are confiscating their cell phones.
As López told Venezuelans in a video he recorded in the event of his arrest, "I invite you to become your own media outlet."
Or, as the opposition blogger Juan Nagel wrote on Wednesday:
No longer will we just settle on trusting that Globovisión will carry whatever little thing we do. We will now have to explore the use of other outlets – Twitter, Capriles.tv, Facebook, loudspeakers in the barrios, even blogs.
The new media landscape will force protestors to plan out a media strategy. That won’t be easy, but it will make the movement better. Sadly, it’s the deck we’ve been dealt, and the one we have to play with.
López's silenced feed is now the fastest-growing Twitter account in the country.