‘Fake news’ war stokes Venezuela’s deadly crisis

Caracas (AFP) – “President flees into exile… Opposition leader murdered… President appears dancing… Opposition leader says: ‘I’m alive!'”

Venezuela may be short of food, medicine and toiletries, but in the chaos of its violent political crisis it has plenty of fake — or questionable — news.

Hoarse from shouting or breathing tear gas in weeks of anti- and pro-government protests, Venezuelans are also dizzy from the buzz of rumors and counter-claims.

In the streets, looting and clashes between protesters and police have left 36 people dead since last month. Online, the first casualty has been the truth.

“The debate about fake news is worldwide, but at least in other countries there are credible news sources of reference,” says Andres Canizales, a media specialist at Andres Bello University in Caracas.

“In Venezuela we don’t have those anymore. Misinformation is fertile ground for fake news to proliferate.”

– Chronicle of a death denied –

With international pressure rising on President Nicolas Maduro as he resists opposition calls for elections, tension was heightened this week by online claims about jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio claimed he had “confirmed @leopoldolopez has been taken to a military hospital in #Venezuela in very serious condition.”

Maduro’s hardline number two, Diosdado Cabello, responded by releasing a “proof of life” video in which Lopez appeared saying that he was alive.

The online rumor apparently started with a tweet by Miami-based Venezuelan journalist Leopoldo Castillo.

His claim that Lopez was taken from jail to hospital “without signs of life” was retweeted tens of thousands of times.

Lopez’s condition has still not been fully clarified. His wife Lilian Tintori said the video was false and that she has not been allowed to see Lopez for over a month.

– ‘Digital militia’ –

In a country where the government controls a broad network of newspapers and broadcasters, social media and new-wave journalism…

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