As the Venezuelan government and opposition clash on the streets of Caracas another battle is underway: an information war fought over social media and TV networks.
Since early Tuesday, when opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced the final phase of an operation to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the government has been shutting down Venezuelans’ access to social media platforms and news organizations.
Access was lifted again minutes before Maduro made a televised speech, according to internet monitoring organization Netblocks.
Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared himself interim president in January and is recognized by many countries, has used Twitter regularly to make announcements about his attempt to unseat Maduro. On Wednesday, the opposition leader tweeted a list of meeting points where supporters should gather for what is expected to be a second day protests.
Maduro’s government has selectively blocked certain websites and social media platforms in the past, and Tuesday’s blockages were consistent with previous disruption during public appearances by Guaidó, Netblocks said.
Less common was the move against broadcast networks. In 2017, the Venezuelan government ordered cable providers to take CNN en Español off the air after CNN aired an investigation into the alleged fraudulent issuing of Venezuelan passports and visas.
Tuesday’s crackdown went much further. News organizations including the BBC and CNN had their websites blocked and channels taken off air as they aired images of protestors.
CNN’s main channel was still inaccessible on Wednesday morning local time. CNN’s Spanish language site, which was intermittently blocked on Tuesday, experienced a spike in visitors from Venezuela, according to a CNN spokesperson.
Most media organizations in Venezuela that are still operating are either state-run or under immense pressure by the government.
However, it is still possible to access other sources of news, either by using VPNs or seeking out sites that have escaped the censors’ attention.
Experts say limiting access is part of a tried and tested information war that’s been playing out in Venezuela for years.
Dr. Gabriel Leon, a senior lecturer of political economy at King’s College who has lived in Venezuela, told CNN that the government is most concerned about controlling the flow of information to poorer Venezuelans, considered a major part of Maduro’s base.
The socialist government is less concerned about what richer Venezuelans are watching and reading because they’re unlikely to be Maduro supporters in the first place, Leon said.
“They’re worried about people in the slums who are very fed up with the government now but haven’t mobilized yet because at that point they can’t really do anything because first there’s too many of them, and second that’s the constituency where a lot of the soldiers defending Maduro are coming from,” Leon said.
By not blocking social media or news sites permanently, Leon said Maduro can claim he’s not acting like a repressive dictatorship and rather present the restrictions as a way of keeping people safe.
“It allows the claim … that they’re not actually dictators because most of the time people have freedom, just not at the crucial points of time when those freedoms might turn against them,” he added.
Perhaps most importantly for Maduro’s core support are the radio stations and tabloid press, which Leon said have been effectively under government control for years.
“I think [that] has been much more effective than the internet blockages,” Leon said.