Patricia is 39 years old, lives in an inland city of Venezuela and is a single mother. She is also a “Tuitera de la Paltria”: she uses more than 15 Twitter accounts to spread “chavismo” propaganda, receiving payments through the Patria System
“I do this because I suffer from economic hardship, the truth is that I don’t have a stable job. It’s something complicated for me because it makes me somewhat nostalgic, but that’s how it is,” Patricia confessed to us via Telegram from her home in San Carlos in the state of Cojedes, Venezuela, while taking a break from an online job that guarantees her some of the resources with which she copes with her family crisis.
Patricia, a fictitious name to protect her identity, is one of several hundred Venezuelans who help position on Twitter the propaganda hashtags that the Venezuelan’s Department of People’s Power for Communication and Information (MIPPCI) promotes daily through its official account. These users make up a large network: the “Tuiteros de la Patria” (“Homeland Tweeters”), whose activity is the main reason why the hashtags are positioned at the top of the trends for Venezuela, sometimes exceeding one million tweets per day, in a country where most of the digital protest hashtags promoted by civil society do not usually exceed the 20 thousand tweets mark.
But neither the positioning nor the large number of tweets accumulated by Venezuelan propaganda hashtags on Twitter are signs that the topics promoted are popular or relevant for Venezuelans. What is happening is nothing more than a strategy of amplification of government propaganda in the digital environment: the government of Nicolás Maduro rewards the work of tweeters through the payment of “bonuses” -or “achievements”, as they are usually called-, which they receive in digital cash through the Patria System, a digital platform for the allocation of social benefits administered by the same government.
This shows the use of public resources to amplify digital propaganda in social networks, distributed in the form of social subsidies.
Another way to raise money in a country in crisis
Patricia does not realize that her job technically consists of amplifying pro-government digital propaganda on Twitter. Working as a Homeland Tweeter does not seem to be very different from other ways of obtaining money through the Internet that many Venezuelans resort to in order to increase their family income in a country whose minimum wage does not exceed US$7 a month at the official exchange rate.
“Here, I opened a Binance account and got tokens, but my games failed and I didn’t even make a profit to invest. I also played Ninja Fantasy, but it closed,” Patricia explains. “Here people use the internet and Twitter for that kind of work.”
Working as a Homeland Tweeter seems to bring her other advantages. She assures that it helps her to be a beneficiary of other subsidies delivered by the State through the same Patria System, such as the “Hogares de la Patria” (“Homes of the Homeland”) and “Economía Familiar” (“Home Economics”) bonuses, which she receives in addition to the achievements for her work sharing content on Twitter. “A friend explained to me that working as a Homeland Twitter makes it easier for one to receive other government bonuses, since only scanning the Homeland Card does not ensure it”. The Homeland Card is a personal document associated with the profile of Venezuelans registered in the Patria System.
It is an informal mechanism for exchanging work for benefits that is surrounded by opacity, with neither transparent rules nor much official information, because the resources are implicitly invested in digital propaganda.
“If Twitter was the one paying to disseminate information, it would be good,” Patricia explained.
When asked about the reason why she believes she receives payments for working in Twitter, doubts begin to arise due to the aforementioned opacity that surrounds the government’s digital propaganda operation.
She suggests a different – and distorted – version of the reasons why Nicolás Maduro’s government hands out bonuses to hundreds of Venezuelans who tweet government propaganda hashtags day after day: she believes it is a method to count the number of people who have not emigrated from Venezuela and who, not having left, still retain their right to access these government subsidies.
“I think we do this so the government knows how many people are left in the country. There are people who don’t get them because the government takes them out of the system when they migrate.”
Tweeting to survive
“My economic situation is terrible since I live in the capital of my state. I have a 12 year old daughter and because of my age I have been denied jobs. I have taken my resume to several governmental and private entities and I have not been able to get any job either.”
She started working as a Homeland Tweeter after a friend assured her that it was the best way to receive additional allowances. Other people around her have similar jobs on the internet and also tweet to receive “achievements” from the government.
“It was a neighbor who taught me how to tweet. He works only with social networks: Twitter, cryptos, Bitcoins. He has done very well, although he invests a lot,” he said. He clarifies that generally it is not enough to be a Homeland Tweeter and that it is not the only digital work of his friend: “Here in Venezuela you have to look for the money”.Patricia, Homeland Tweeter
But working as a Homeland Twitter is Patricia’s only source of income at present.
She assures us that she operates more than 15 Twitter accounts of family and friends that she has linked to their respective accounts in the Patria System and that she uses on a daily basis to work as a tweeter, although doing so has its disadvantages.
“It’s tiring, it’s exhausting”. Sometimes it bothers her that her family and friends don’t pay her or don’t transfer her the “achievements” they receive in their accounts in the Patria System thanks to Patricia’s Twitter work. “They play dumb, you know, like most Venezuelans.”
However, she insists that what she earns working as a tweeter is enough to buy food, although she makes sacrifices.
“Personally, I live on $250. I am a person who does not drink, zero partying, zero unwanted expenses. It is difficult to calculate how much you can earn per month because sometimes the Patria System does not assign payments to some accounts, but working with all the accounts I have earned up to $80 per month. It’s really something, if you compare it to what state and government workers earn.”
No one is immune to disinformation
When we spoke with Patricia, her only daughter was about to have her birthday. She told us that at that time she didn’t even have enough money to buy the flour to bake her birthday cake. The conversation then turned back to the realm of disinformation, but with an unexpected twist.
“I am afraid for my daughter, children are being kidnapped here every week,” she said worried. “Someone took a child near my neighborhood and it is very unfortunate because he appeared without organs. It’s horrible.”
When asked for more information about what he had seen or heard, he commented that a police cousin had advised him to be careful with his daughter, forwarding him the macabre photo of a case that supposedly occurred in the El Infernito neighborhood of Barinas.
But it was a hoax. The photo had been taken in Nicaragua last February and went viral in Venezuela in the context of a wave of rumors about child abductions that, so far, has not been confirmed by Venezuelan authorities and has similarities with other waves of rumors on the same subject that Cazadores de Fake News documented in 2020 and 2021.
“That’s why I don’t believe in social media. I told my mom that we should not believe in those things, only in God. With these things the only thing they do is to terrorize people or sometimes destabilize people. I have seen crashes of motorcyclists who have died in front of me, but I don’t believe things like that until I see them with my own eyes”.
The stigma of being a tweeter
Many people thought for years that the Homeland Tweeters are automated accounts with software, bots that make government propaganda hashtags climb daily to the top of the country’s trends. The reality, however, is much harder to explain.
The Homeland Tweeters network is mostly made up of accounts operated by real people who are amplifying government propaganda on Twitter -some unknowingly- as part of a complex operation that violates its platform manipulation and spam policy. As such, it is an ephemeral job that depends on Twitter’s ability to sanction accounts that violate its own rules.
“(What) I don’t understand is why sometimes Twitter tends to block and suspend accounts. Excuse me, but I didn’t even know what a bot account is because my job is done by me. I have friends right here in my town who do it to help their families get subsidies.”
While it seems like a harmless way to get a little money from home, what the Homeland Tweeters do has been considered for several years by Twitter as an Information Operation clearly linked to the Venezuelan regime.
In December 2021, Twitter announced the closure of the “Patria App”, an app connected to the Patria System that allowed counting the tweets of the Homelant Tweeters. Cazadores de Fake News verified that, around that month, Twitter had also suspended more than 3,000 accounts from the network. Since the closure of the Patria App, tweeters have reported on multiple occasions that they have not been paid for the work they have done.
Working as a Homeland Tweeter can be a source of discrimination among acquaintances, but also of curiosity.
“Some people make fun of me because they say that what I do is bad or that I am stealing, but I know that I am not stealing or doing anything wrong. On the other hand, today a man asked me in the street how I can help him to receive the bonuses because he has not received them for more than two years. People think that I am working for the State, that I am an official instructor or something like that. I felt sorry and scared”.Patricia, Homelander Tweeter
Although the work she does helps to make government propaganda more visible on the Internet, Patricia assures us that she is not a follower of Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro. She started working as a tweeter on her own, without the intervention of the government party or any of its structures, and prefers to stay out of the political discussion in Venezuela.
“Here politics is not even worth talking about, it makes you want to cry. I know some Chavistas, but not Maduristas; there is a confusion with that because they say that Chávez was different. In any case, we live in a country in which the majority, due to the same economic situation and emotional decadence, depend on the State“.
Asked about the supposed economic improvement in the country, she assures that at least in her city it has improved, “although what sucks our blood is the devaluation, the parallel dollar and inflation”.
A final message
Patricia ended our initial conversation with a discreet greeting to her colleagues the Homeland Tweeters: “greetings to all of you, with a deep respect that should be given to any human being, I wish you all the best in terms of the work you have been doing from Twitter…”.
She preferred, however, to avoid commenting beyond what was related to her work as a tweeter. “For some people, listening to advice and messages means falling into controversy, despite this crisis. I don’t want to be the one to say anything.”
Days later we spoke again with our interviewee. She commented that she had not received payment to any of the accounts she had used during the previous week and that that same morning, a large number of Homeland Tweeters accounts, including three of her own, had been suspended by Twitter.
“This week I ran out of money waiting to collect the Twitter achievement. Today I went to wash and clean a house; I’ll have to wait until the end of the month to get paid.”
Cazadores de Fake News investiga a detalle cada caso, mediante la búsqueda y el hallazgo de evidencias forenses digitales en fuentes abiertas. En algunos casos, se usan datos no disponibles en fuentes abiertas con el objetivo de reorientar las investigaciones o recolectar más evidencias.