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Twitter 1 - Chavez 0: Social Networks Liberate The Public Debate

When Twitter made its debut in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez did his best to co-opt the social network and flood it with official statements. But now the social network is used by those undermining the twitterer-in-chief.

A faux twitter feed from Simon Bolivar for the bicentennial of Venezuelan independence.
A faux twitter feed from Simon Bolivar for the bicentennial of Venezuelan independence.
Marcelo Cantelmi


CARACAS - It's really quite simple: since the usual forums for public debate and controversy have been muffled by Chavez's regime, Venezuelans have returned to the oral tradition and to writing on the walls. The difference is that now the walls are electronic: Twitter has become these rebels' favorite tool.

This shows that people aren't willing to be gagged into submission. But it also shows how people will always strive to get past limitations. Venezuelans who don't follow the government's model are looking for ways to play hide-and-seek with the censure, in the same way that they try to break other government-imposed boundaries, like the limits on the purchase of dollars.

And it is the Internet that has naturally appeared as a bridge to steer clear of all these prohibitions. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how powerful the 140 characters in a tweet can be.

Miguel Henrique Otero Silva, the editor of El Nacional and a fan of Twitter, has gone as far as starting a foundation where techies show people how to use it as a true communication channel. Otero Silva is not neutral. His daily paper, and the group that it leads, it one of the largest publishing houses in the country, and was attacked by Chavez's regime in such a way that it had to lay off half of its employees.

Otero Silva has a telling story about Twitter and its power. "Last year, the secretary for the governor of Zulia, Pablo Pérez, called me asking for help," Silva recalled. It was in the early hours of July 5th, the day when all of the local government heads make their annual speech in the main square of the city. But since Pérez is from the opposition, the army occupied the city square with tanks to prevent him from speaking.

"When I hung up the phone, I took my cell phone and wrote a tweet, that said, simply, that the army was occupying the square in the capital of the state of Zulia, and asking for retweets. Of course, I have 300,000 followers," Silva continued.

"A little while later, another one of the governor's secretaries called and asked ‘what did you do?" I told him about the tweet, and that I had sent a team from the newspaper and also asked a TV channel to send some people to see what was going on. And she tells me, ‘no, you don't understand! The soldiers left a couple of minutes ago, and the tanks disappeared. The square is free now, that's why I'm asking, what did you do?"

Chavez tries to hack Twitter

Otero Silva, a good-natured, simple guy, realized that his tweet had been re-tweeted 800 times almost immediately. The issue had become so large, so quickly, that the government realized that it had to step back and be quiet.

When Twitter first became popular, the government tried to colonize it and launched throngs of supporters to overwhelm the site with official messages, but that only led to an increased interest in the system and ended up facilitating Twitter's growth into a channel for information exchange. The regime's efforts played into the opposition's hands, according to two different opposition politicians. Then the regime created a team of hackers, called the N-33, to hack the Twitter accounts of opposition politicians. But that turned into an enormous effort that had limited use other than just showing off the arbitrary power to do so.

This new channel is a way to combat fear, which is a major element of Venezuelan politics. Not long ago there was a lower-tech example of how fear might interfere with political debate. A poll done by an American researcher on who people were planning to vote for in the upcoming presidential elections showed Chavez winning easily. The politicians who had commissioned the survey were surprised, because they had very different numbers. So the researchers did the survey again, but the second time the respondents could answer anonymously. The second time, the results showed Chavez losing the election definitively.

Read the original story in Spanish

Photo - lubrio

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