Facebook has blocked Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s page for thirty days for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Without proof, Maduro claimed in a video that a particular “miracle” drug could cure the disease. Facebook has removed the images and the page is now read-only. On Sunday, Maduro lashed out and accused Facebook of digital totalitarianism.
Covid-19 Worsened Venezuela’s Crisis
It’s now over a year since Venezuela imposed lockdown orders because of Covid-19. The official number of cases stands at 152,508, with 1,511 deaths. However, out of all the Latin American countries, Venezuela conducts the least number of tests. The Venezuelan Government has monopolized Covid-19 diagnosis and also tightly controls access to samples for post-mortem analysis. Consequently, many patients die without a diagnosis.
The low numbers can also partially be explained by the isolation of Venezuela after years of political, economic and social crisis. Unfortunately, as a result, the country is ill-equipped to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. Venezuela has been grappling with shortages of fuel, food and basic necessities for almost a decade. Over half of the doctors and nurses have left Venezuela and the lack of medicine and PPE equipment is omnipresent. Over half of the hospitals even lack basic utilities to be able to run, like running water and electricity.
The Central University Hospital in Maracaibo, for example, used to be a Latin American success story. Founded in Venezuela’s booming sixties it was one of the country’s best medical centers. Today, the hospital has only a handful ICU beds available, often lacks water to flush toilets or clean, and has intermittent electricity. As early as in June last year, one of the doctors anonymously admitted that “the hospital has collapsed”.
“Miracle Cure Neutralizes Coronavirus”
Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan President has been denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis for years. In line with this, he has been downplaying the impact of the coronavirus crisis since the beginning. And has been spreading misinformation via various social media platforms. Maduro is a major user of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, among other social media channels, and often uses Facebook for live sessions.
At the very start of the pandemic, Maduro warned people that Covid-19 might be a biological weapon created against China and the rest of the world. Later, with no scientific evidence, he claimed that Venezuelan researchers had “obtained a medicine that cancels 100% of the coronavirus”. In January, Maduro described Carvativir, a solution derived from thyme to be taken orally, as a “miracle” medication.
In a video, President Maduro explains that Carvativir, which he calls the “miraculous droplets of José Gregorio Hernández”, neutralizes the coronavirus. “It is a totally innocuous medicine. It does not have any kind of side effects and has shown tremendous effectiveness.” According to the Venezuelan President, the treatment could help with both cure and prevention.
Facebook Suspends Nicolás Maduro’s Page
The administrators of Maduro’s Facebook page were notified of the policy violation before the page was made read-only. No new messages can be posted during the 30-day suspension period. His account on Instagram however, a platform also owned by Facebook Inc, is not affected. So, Maduro can still use other social media platforms to spread his messages.
This means that, in essence, the 30-day suspension of Maduro’s page does not make a lot of difference. Nonetheless, it sends another signal that heads of states aren’t above the platform’s misinformation policies. Some other world leaders, including former President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro, have also faced actions from social media platforms for false or misleading posts. Trump, for example, is permanently suspended from major social media platforms following the January 6 Capitol riots.
President Accuses Facebook of Digital Totalitarianism
In February, Maduro complained that Facebook censored his videos. In the past, he stated that social media companies have repeatedly treated him and his allies unfairly. Last year, Twitter had also censored some of Maduro’s tweets about the coronavirus, include a message promoting a “brew that could eliminate the infectious genes” of the coronavirus.
Following Facebook’s block, Maduro lashed out more directly. In a statement published on Sunday, Venezuela’s information ministry said that Facebook “in a kind of tyranny of the algorithm” was going after “content geared toward combating the pandemic that is of scientific interest”. “We are witnessing a digital totalitarianism, exercised by supranational companies who want to impose their law on the countries of the world,” the ministry said.
Hours later, Maduro tweeted that he will now simply use his wife’s Facebook page, named “ConCiliaFlores”, as well as his Instagram, YouTube and Twitter accounts, to share his daily virus briefing. “They will not shut us up! (¡No Nos Callarán!)”, he shouted.