Chronicle of a lie foretold: or, how I failed to stop Spain’s rightwing press from intervening in the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election

Originally published by openDemocracy.

I replied to individual tweets with my concerns. But I have 50 followers; they had hundreds of thousands. I was like a cartoon character plugging holes in my boat as the water rose around my ankles.

On the eve of Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela, a damning story appeared about the corrupt relationship between the left-wing candidate Nicolas Maduro and Latin American sporting icon Diego Maradona. The right-wing Spanish newspaper ABC ran the story, and it spread like wildfire across the internet, reaching millions in Venezuela during elections that Maduro won by less than 300,000 votes.  The only problem is that the story was a complete fabrication and ABC knew it.

It all started with a piece on the ABC news website (above) on Friday April 12, two days before Sunday’s election, claiming that Diego Maradona had been paid two million dollars to support Maduro during the final rallies of his campaign.  This went unnoticed at first, but on Saturday it began to gain traction.  Since I research and report on Venezuelan politics I happened to be on Twitter when the story really started to take off in the early evening, with Venezuela’s most popular newspaper Últimas Noticias tweeting it to 860,000 followers at 7:41pm.

It struck me as strange. Maradona is a leftist by conviction; he has a tattoo of Ché Guevara on his right shoulder; he hobnobs with Fidel Castro for fun; why would he need to be paid to support Maduro?  I also knew this story could do major damage.  Venezuelans are mobilophiles and on the day before a crucial election everybody would be rooted to Twitter, Facebook, and news websites.  The country’s most trusted newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, had already validated the story by republishing it and tweeting it to nearly one million people in a country with only 19 million registered voters.  And the story itself had mass appeal: corruption, politics, celebrity, and Latin American football, all rolled into one!

Tracing the story back, I found that ABC was citing The Guardian as its source, though it provided no link to their original report.  Googling the Guardian piece brought up nothing, which seemed impossible if it really existed.  Searching by site and date to make sure, I found only two articles; neither contained this accusation.

At 8:35pm I cautiously started to question the accusation on Twitter.  I tweeted the Guardian in an effort to establish whether there ever had been any such story, and to warn them that their name was being abused by ABC.  I tweeted Ultimas Noticias telling them to double-check the story, hoping they could quickly correct their earlier tweet.  I even tweeted Maradona himself.  No response.

Taking a new tack, at 8:50pm I decided to seek clarification from ABC via the story’s own comments section.  I posted a question via Disqus (as used by The Independent) asking for the original source, and the comment went up on the site.  The next time I checked back it was gone.

Increasingly certain that the story was false, I tried to alert the Venezuelan government via the communications minister Ernesto Villegas, state TV channel Telesur, and government news agency AVN.  Even if they couldn’t halt the spread of the story, I figured, they could at least deny it.  No one responed.

In the meantime more major media had picked up the story.  Venezuela’s equivalent of the Financial Times, El Mundo, had tweeted it (175,000 followers), as had Latin American news network NTN24 (430,000) and prominent opposition supporter José Rafael Marquina (473,000), amongst many others.  The genie was out of the bottle.  At 10:16pm I tweeted to no one in particular:

“Watching unstoppable propagation of apparently false #Venezuela story about #Maduro paying $2m for Maradona support; alarming how easy it is”

The story was also flying high on Facebook, appearing at one point on the main page of salsa superstar Willie Colón (who has 500,000 likes).  And it had now reached the rest of Latin America through innumerable reproductions on innumerable websites; search for “Maduro Maradona” on Google Venezuela and you’ll see.  Even Clarín, the newspaper of record in Maradona’s own Argentina, had republished the story.  Worse, more and more respectable papers began to refer to each other’s versions of the ABC story instead of to the ABC story itself – “Clarín, ABC, El Mundo, and The Guardian confirm Maradona was paid $2m to support Maduro!” – insulating the vacuum at its core from public scrutiny.

I replied to individual tweets with my concerns.  But I have 50 followers; they had hundreds of thousands.  I was like a cartoon character plugging holes in my boat as the water rose around my ankles. My last card was to get western Venezuela supporters involved, so I fired off tweets to Owen JonesEva Golinger, and the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.  Nada.  Defeated, I quoted Winston Churchill and went to bed: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

On the morning of the election, I found that the lie had continued to prosper.  After making a few final attempts to let people know, I gave up.  At the time I, like everyone else, expected a Maduro landslide.  The Maradona story was irritating, but I didn’t expect it to be significant.  I was wrong.  In the end Maduro won by less than two percent, giving the opposition the chance to use concocted fraud allegations to undermine his legitimacy both at home and abroad.

The impact of this one fabricated story is impossible to gauge, but I saw with my own eyes that many thousands were receiving it, reading it, and sharing it.  Some will follow more than one of the Twitter accounts mentioned above and others will have been away from Twitter, but the numbers are still staggering.  And they exclude the unquantifiables: Facebook, internet searches, normal news browsing, word of mouth, and the Venezuelan’s weapon of choice Blackberry messenger.  The accusation will surely have galvanised opponents: “let’s get this crook out!”  And it could easily have swayed some of the hundreds of thousands who chose to stay at home this time, or the 700,000 who switched allegiances after voting for Chávez in December.  Control of the largest oil reserves in the world rests on this election; deliberate interference in it is no small matter.

So was this deliberate?  Where did the accusation come from in the first place?  And who’s to blame?  The short answer: ABC.

First, ABC is virulently right-wing and has perhaps the most violent record of attacking the Chávez government of any foreign media outlet; quite an accolade.  In recent months alone they have claimed that a comatose Chávez was to have his life-support turned off, that he was preparing “a network of armed commandos” for an opposition win, and that he was linked to drug-trafficking.  On April 19 ABC’s Caracas correspondent Ludmila Vinogradoff even tried to pass off photos of police repression in Egypt as evidence of a Maduro crackdown in Venezuela.  They have motive and a bad track record.

Second, ABC knew the story was false on the same day it was published, even promising to remove it at that point (12 April).  One conscientious Argentine tabloid, Perfil, had taken the two minutes required to shake the story’s foundations and immediately confirmed with ABC that no underlying Guardian article existed.  This was two days before the election, yet the story remained online throughout the build-up and on election day itself.  Then there was my own notification via the comments section, which was hastily erased.  Early on 17 April I even called the ABC Sports Desk myself to enquire about the story’s original source; they acknowledged that it was false and said that they would take it down.  As of 21 April, it remains online with 3600 Facebook shares plus 1700 tweets (and counting).  These figures include only the original article and not the hundreds of derivative versions all over the internet, many of which have impressive sharing stats of their own.

But where did the accusation come from in the first place?

Perfil were able to trace it back as far as the young Colombian football blogger and law student Salvatore Marcenaro.  In their version, he tweeted it to 90,000 followers on April 11 with no substantiation, the accusation then being broadcast further afield by a right-wing radio presenter in Argentina.  But Marcenaro struck me as an unlikely fantasist or slanderer. His tweet history reveals that he is partial to Chávez’s nemesis, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, but his real passion is clearly football.  For him Maradona was the draw, not Maduro.

Unlike Perfil, I managed to make contact with Marcenaro, who revealed that he first heard the accusation from Palermonline, the news blog of a well-heeled district of Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Palermonline had published the original story late on 10 April, the same day that Maradona arrived in Venezuela.  I wrote to the site’s editor, Pablo Rubin, seeking clarification, but received no reply.  Instead, the story was hurriedly removed (screengrab below).

Of course, neither Rubin nor ABC was alone in conspiring to inflate this empty story beyond all proportions, and this is the most depressing part of the whole affair. There was no reason to believe the story was grounded in fact; the sources turned out to be non-existent or weak, the premise illogical and the motives for spreading a false story at this time obvious. Yet regional media unquestioningly peddled it around the continent.  The Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, consumed it and regurgitated it with alacrity.  In Venezuelan politics the truth is too often immaterial; “give me a useful lie any day!”

Much as foreign commentators like to trumpet the role of social media in the Arab Spring, this account shows that they can be abused just as forcefully in states where spring is but a distant and unpleasant memory.  The same commentators can be trusted to blather on about “institutions” until the cows come home, but if no one respects the rules of this game or any other, then everybody loses.

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