Was Twitter Censored by the Venezuelan Government?

Or did a complicit media spread disinformation at Washington’s behest?

by , February 17, 2014

The media is our window on the world – but what if that window is dirtied and blurred? How can we really know what’s happening in, say, Venezuela, where an increasingly authoritarian government with Marxist inclinations is up against a rebellion by middle-and-working class folks – and the US government is further muddying the picture by rather openly aiding and directing the opposition?

It used to be that we couldn’t know the reality on the ground without a great deal of research combined with actually going there. These days, however, technology has conquered distance and displaced the gumshoe approach and the library stacks at least insofar as grasping events in their immediacy. We have the Internet, and specifically we have the Twitterverse, where one can reach out to people on the other side of the globe and get a response in mere seconds.

This immediacy is a check on governments everywhere: what they do in the dark, or what is observed through the blurred lens of biased observers, is now played out on the world stage. There is no hiding from the Internet – unless the "off" switch is pulled. State-owned communications networks can monitor and cut off the flow of information into and out of their domain – but even this is problematic. There are ways to get around it.

Technology has forced repressive states into a corner: if state officials refrain from pulling the "off" switch, then they risk the chance that events will spiral out of control – and they’ll find themselves living in exile, or perhaps in a high security prison. If they clamp down, they’ll be admitting – to the world and their own people – that all the rhetoric about "freedom" and "self-determination" they emit in to justify their rule is so much hogwash.

These rhetorical defenses are not just noise, although it certainly sounds that way. Elites require legitimacy, i.e. some form of consent by the governed. Even in societies where elections are either nonexistent or else quite limited in their impact on how – and by whom – the country is actually ruled.

The act of cutting off the Internet, or some aspect of it, is therefore a serious step for any government to take – and, yes, before you ask, there is an American "off switch." But before officials take that step they must consider the political implications and think about how to take such an enormous hit to their credibility. To some governments, such as the North Korean regime, that wouldn’t matter quite so much, since they have no credibility to begin with. To others – say, the US or some other Western country – such a decree would have enormous consequences, which is why it is almost (but not quite) inconceivable, at least in the present context.

To a nation such as Venezuela, however, which is on the cusp of authoritarian rule, turning off the Internet, or even messing with it around the margins, could throw the game to one side or the other. Which is why this Bloomberg story claiming the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro Moros did so, published on the eve of violent protests against the regime, is so important.

The piece reports not only claims from opposition activists that the government was censoring images of the protests – and rampant violence by the State – sent via Twitter, but also a statement from Twitter spokesman and Washington lobbyist Nu Wexler that definitively pins the blame on direct government censorship.

But how definitive was Wexler’s accusation? As it turns out, not very.

Wexler’s claim is undone by the product his own company– specifically this Twitter account, which clearly shows photos of police beatings and shootings by state actors, transmitted over a period of days. The protest images start here, on February 12, and continue uninterrupted until the present day.

I reached out to the journalist tweeting these images and asked about the censorship charge. The answer: "I haven’t had any problems to tweet photos today." Yes, but what about yesterday, and the day before, when the violence was at its height? The answer was pretty definitive: "OK but I insist: I haven’t had any problem to tweet photos."

"I insist" – but so does Twitter spokesman Wexler. So do the three reporters responsible for the Bloomberg piece. I contacted two out of three of those reporters, but they couldn’t be bothered to reply. I also contacted one of the editors of the story: no response.

So who’s right – and who’s lying wrong?

Back in the day, in the year 1 B.T. (Before Twitter), we would have no way of knowing. Today, however, we do know – because the evidence is right there in front of our eyes, courtesy of one Indira Guerrero, the director of Noticias Radio, an outlet that is not even part of the opposition – indeed, this account disdains it as a pro-government mouthpiece. On the other hand, this report of a speech given by militant anti-government Leopoldo Lopez – now wanted by the authorities for sedition – notes it was broadcast by Noticias, hardly what one would expect from a Chavista propaganda organ. In any case, here is a real reporter living in Caracas who witnessed the events she chronicles – and unwittingly undermined a key talking point of the regime’s international critics, the US government among them.

There was no censorship of Twitter, either of photos or text. Yet the Bloomberg story went out over the wires, was picked up by every major news outlet in the Western world, and soon achieved the status of the undisputed Conventional Wisdom. Those dirty rotten commies in Venezuela were not only clubbing and shooting their own citizens, but they also were hiding the evidence!

Except they weren’t hiding the evidence: it was and is there for all to see.

Washington’s war on the Chavistas is a matter of public record: the US government has been funding the opposition since the now departed Hugo Chavez came to power, and the heavy hand of the Bush administration was no doubt involved in a 2002 coup attempt – a brazenly stupid move that only served to cement Chavez’s rule.

Governments want to control the flow the information, and the Venezuelan regime is hardly an exception to that inflexible rule. Maduro and his avowedly socialist party have moved to muzzle opposition media outlets, and mobilized mobs of their supporters in order to tamp down rising criticism of their haplessly incompetent rule. The country is a mess, with skyrocketing inflation, endemic shortages of basic necessities, and a crime rate shocking to our delicate Western sensibilities. Yet the Chavistas aren’t stupid: they know they’d face a backlash at home and abroad if they dared clamp down the way some of them would probably like to.

And they aren’t the only ones who want to control the flow of information about what is happening on the ground in Venezuela (and elsewhere). After all, Edward Snowden has shown the US government aspires to worldwide control of information flows: as Glenn Greenwald puts it, their goal is to eliminate the very concept of privacy. And not only that, but, as history shows, Washington is not above manipulating both the media and private companies in order to achieve its foreign policy goals – one of which is the overthrow of Chavista rule in Venezuela.

There is no evidence of direct collaboration between the journalistic and corporate entities that spread the narrative about the alleged "censorship" of Twitter. Yet such direct links are quite unnecessary: news media who want access to government officials and companies that want to avoid angering regulators don’t need to be told what to say.

This is how the media is controlled in a "democratic" society – and it’s only a difference in degree from what occurs on a daily basis in Venezuela, Russia, or some other non-Western country in America’s crosshairs. It usually isn’t as brazen as what goes on in, say, Zimbabwe or Belarus, but neither is it all that subtle – especially now that technology gives the detectives among us the tools to track down the truth behind the lies. And as the reactions of some Western governments to Snowden’s revelations have shown, the mandarins of the "liberal" democracies are capable of throwing subtlety entirely out the window when pressed.

What we have seen in the West is the veritable merger of the political class with the media elite until the two are virtually indistinguishable. Journalists working in the "mainstream" media are little more than servitors of the State, their role reduced to transcribing the pronouncements of government officials rather than embracing the traditionally adversarial role of the press in a free society.

This is why we started Antiwar.com in the first place: I vividly recall watching the loquacious and quite opinionated Christiane Amanpour nearly demanding US military intervention as she "reported" on the conflict in the Balkans. Ms. Amanpour, by the way, was (and still is) married to James Rubin, State Department spokesman at the time. Talk about the marriage of journalism and State! The two were a veritable interventionist tag-team – and CNN, you’ll recall, was the biggest (and I think the only) cable news organization.

It was left to the Internet’s nascent alternative media – mainly Antiwar.com – to bring the unvarnished truth about that nasty little war to the American people. And although the government largely got away with successfully manipulating the media – and the public – that time, the Internet was growing at such a pace that they soon lost control of the narrative. As the target shifted from the Balkans to the Middle East, Antiwar.com’s audience – and credibility – had grown sufficiently to pose a real challenge to the Established Wisdom.

Today, this website – with a worldwide audience growing by the day – continues to debunk the lies put out by our arrogant rulers, who still think they can pull the wool over the eyes of a supposedly gullible public. Except they increasingly can’t: when they lie, it doesn’t take all that much to expose them. Anyone with a computer and a detective’s sense of where the bodies are buried can unearth the truth about what is really going on – and why our government doesn’t want us to know about it.

This is why Antiwar.com is so vital to those of us who want to live in a more peaceful world.

You won’t read about the deception surrounding the alleged "censoring" of Twitter in what passes for the mainstream media: not only are they in league with the very people they’re supposed to be fact-checking but they’re also incredibly lazy. They just couldn’t be bothered to check Twitter to see if the claims of censorship were correct: not even Twitter’s spokesman in Washington took the trouble to use his own company’s new and improved search function to discover the reality hiding beneath the propaganda. Or maybe he knew better than to contradict the officials of a national security state who are doing everything they can to violate the privacy of Twitter’s many customers.

I don’t and can’t know what value you place on a service like this: what is the truth worth to you, anyway?

In my world, it’s priceless, but as any student of Austrian economics can tell you, value is subjective: like beauty, it exists in the eyes of the beholder. You might care more about the next episode of House of Cards than the continued existence of Antiwar.com, and make your spending choices accordingly. On the other hand, it could be that you recognize and care about the difference between fiction and reality, between entertainment and enlightenment, enough to contribute to our fundraising drive.

Because we desperately certainly need your tax-deductible contribution, especially now when the survival of independent journalism on the foreign policy front is so essential. As the US government moves to consolidate and extend its overseas empire, invoking the eternal "war on terrorism" to justify not only military intervention but also an all-pervasive surveillance system on the home front, the stakes have gone way up. The battle we’ve been fighting since 1998 – yes, we’ve been around that long – shows every sign of reaching a rather dramatic climax, as the American people wake up to the threat posed to peace and freedom emanating from their own government.

We can win this battle – but not without your help. Please help us end this fundraising drive successfully: make your donation today.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo