By Maria Isabel Di Franco Quinonez, Digital Investigations Lab Manager, Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley
Venezuelans took to the streets in 2017, some wearing helmets and holding shields to brace for the severe response from the Maduro regime against their calls for greater democracy. Citizens captured the brutality on their cell phones and posted on social media, enabling the world to watch protestors felled by tear gas, water cannons, and bullets.
A year and a half after the protests in Venezuela, a video (see VID 01) depicting protesters being blasted to the ground by high pressure water cannons was circulated on Twitter by @RightWingLawMan. Disturbingly, this tweet wasn’t lamenting the violence in Venezuela, but rather fueling hatred against Central American migrants: “I like watching them get slammed into the ground,” tweeted @LindyWithAWhy, in response to the video. “START SHOOTING,” added @NMLarry1.
The gross misrepresentation of events exemplified in this tweet came to my attention during my involvement in a research project between the CITRIS Policy Lab and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley which analyzed thousands of tweets from the top 10 most influential bot and non-bot accounts spreading anti-migrant propaganda on Twitter leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. A team of students spent 6 weeks analyzing and deconstructing examples of harassment and hate speech from these tweets.
In this case, @RightWingLawMan used this video to mislead his audience and stoke hateful sentiments targeting the migrant caravan traveling to the U.S. border through Mexico. His tweet sought to justify the violence against the protesters in the video, citing federal law and the role of the President as “commander-in-chief” and characterized the caravan as “massive” and an “invasion” to invoke violent military force against civilians. Upon analyzing this tweet, I provide evidence of a galling contradiction embedded in the American right-wing whose members condemn repressive governments such as Maduro’s as well as the people fleeing these hostile environments.