The information war: Venezuelan edition.

I’ve pondered a great deal about the current flow of information, either fact or fiction for quite some time. Recently, this stream of consciousness was reawakened whilst replying to comments from an old friend. The subject matter was Venezuela and the continued trouble that is occurring over there. This recent issue is principally between the current leader President Maduro and the US who are desperate to supplant their own presidential pick. My friend lives in Venezuela and has clearly different opinions to me, which in a nutshell suggests; “Maduro is a butcher and should be removed”.

Am I supposed to except this opinion on face value, because, after all he is living in the country we are discussing? My sentiments on Venezuela, for clarity are this; the oligarchs in Venezuela with the help of the US have made life difficult for the government and ordinary people. The goal is to manufacture consent for an eventual leadership change. To help with this, there has been an extensive use of sanctions and an intricate promotion of propaganda from the mainly opposition owned media to encourage support. In Venezuela 70% of the TV and radio stations are privately owned, 5% are state owned and the rest are community owned and often pro-government. It’s also important to recognise that the main newspapers although currently with small readerships are private companies and are often critical of the government.

Is it right that because as I don’t live in Venezuela and my friend does, I should forgo all my previous research in favour of someone’s opinion who happens to be geographically closer? I guess the question is; does a person’s position have more validity and objectivity, purely because they have some direct involvement in a particular event? My short answer is no. I would argue that on the contrary, an individual is increasingly likely to be more partisan than someone looking in from the outside, with barely any other motivation other than to unearth the truth.

In contrast, my friend’s opinions will be based, on his social status, his family’s social standing, political allegiances and any historical factors. Furthermore, they will be shaped by the environment he lives in, his work, any direct impact from the current government, what media he consumes and importantly how any potential changes may benefit him in the future, to name just a few factors. Incidentally, would I pick a friend in the UK and decide their views are representative of Brexit solely because they lived there? Probably not.

This highlights a huge problem in the age of constant but inconsistent information. How do you uncover the truth? How do we know that what we hear from allegedly morally upstanding sources is the truth? Finally, what is the truth? We are bombarded with information, much of it purporting to be truth, when in essence, a lot of it consists of masses of opinion wrapped around a slither of fact based evidence. This deluge of ‘alternative facts’ isn’t just confined to the internet either; mainstream or so called ‘old media’ is just as guilty.

Take the US for example; if you regularly watched the conservative Fox News channel, you would in all likelihood possess a completely different outlook than if you tuned in to the MSNBC with Rachel Maddow. The same could be said if we compare a Telegraph (right wing) reader with a Guardian (left wing) reader in the UK. You could argue that these people have probably already chosen their political allegiances and this would be largely true. But these media choices reinforce our partisan behaviour and this does not end with TV and newspapers.

MSNBC - Election Coverage - Season 2016
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow

The internet is a minefield if you are trying to obtain facts and it’s all too easy to fall in to the trap of reinforcing what we already believe. This is made considerably worse by algorithms used on many sites. All these mechanisms manage to achieve, is to strengthen any preconceived ideas, which is terrible if you are searching for objectivity. Many of us spend the majority of our time reading what we want to see, watching what we expect and only going on websites that align with our views. I regularly witness individuals dismissing a news piece regardless of the quality of the journalism and the content, purely because it is not a media outlet that they use or indeed trust. By doing this, all we are achieving is further entrenching ourselves within our moral tribes.

So what do we do now? Firstly, it’s OK to acknowledge our biases, we all have them. I am happy to admit I am unashamedly on the left, however, there are some issues that are considered on the left that I don’t subscribe to. Next, read and watch stuff from a range of different perspectives, even if all this does is help you understand your enemy better, it still temporarily transports you out of your echo chamber, while offering an alternative viewpoint. When searching for the truth, it’s helpful to look at an article or website as if you were doing a scientific literature review, check; who wrote it, what’s the motivation, when was it written, is it still relevant, is it an opinion, news or research piece and is there any useful references going back to the original source.

Admittedly, this can be time consuming and a part of me feels we shouldn’t have to do this, but in the age of fake news everything requires scrutiny on both sides of the political aisle. From Breitbart and the National Review to Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, plus anything in between, all of it requires careful consideration. Mainstream news tends to be slightly more subtle with their biases, such as the BBC in UK. Even so, at this point, many I’m sure will be screaming that the BBC is aligned to the right, while conservatives will contest there is a definite left tilt to the national broadcaster.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand particularly with the national newspaper the Herald, the bias is primarily down to the individual journalist. One area that most mainstream media providers are relatively agreed upon is the support of a capitalist, or more accurately neoliberal political system. You would have to travel to the margins of journalism to find a media outlet outside of the capitalist scope, such as the Morning Star in the UK.

So this brings me full circle, back to my discussion regarding Venezuela. Am I misguided about Maduro? Well, I propose it would be much easier for me to be indoctrinated by the ‘opposition’ than Maduro, purely by listening to the constant mainstream media. After all, most western media outlets promote a poor picture of Maduro and this includes New Zealand. Furthermore, the UK, Canada, Australia and Israel are all backing the US in their attempt to oust the democratically elected President.

In contrast, it is a reasonably arduous task to find a media outlet who is willing to even be neutral on this matter, let alone have any sympathies towards Maduro. Pleasingly the previously mentioned Morning Star appears prepared to report the news as they see it. Plus there are specialist sites such as venezuelanalysis.com which states that they are a left leaning and independent site. It’s worth noting that this is a counter narrative site, openly endorsed by academics such as Noam Chomsky and journalists including BAFTA award winning John Pilger.

A combination of reading non mainstream sites, as well as knowing a reasonable amount about the US in a historical sense and their quest for world dominance, provides me with something to offset the endless anti-Maduro rhetoric. A quick glance at the history between the two countries will tell you that this isn’t something that has occurred overnight. Interference in Venezuelan affairs began in the 19th century, however, in the 20th century most of the meddling was unsurprisingly due to oil. In 1958 while other nations in the region were succumbing to US backed dictatorships, Venezuela escaped.

These military and security personal of the US backed regimes, were often trained by the US Army School of the Americas. This department specialised in training kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression. US backed death squads authored torture manuals, while they murdered, tortured and terrorised innocent people from Central America to Argentina. In contrast Venezuela were left relatively in peace for decades. Throughout these times, however, the US never gave up on the idea of Venezuelan interference, which would increase in intensity following the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez salutes

During the Chavez period, the Bolivarian revolution reduced poverty and illiteracy, while increasing the health of millions of Venezuelan’s. Despite this, George W Bush backed a failed coup against Chavez in 2002, famously calling him “the devil”. In 2015 Obama declared Venezuela as an “extraordinary threat to national security”. Although, considering the nation had never started a war in it’s history, this assertion was nothing short of ludicrous. It’s worth pointing out that the US has; intervened, attacked, invaded or occupied Latin American or Caribbean countries more than 50 times. To add to the absurdity, while Obama spoke, the US military were regularly bombing seven countries.

In 2017, Donald Trump announced sanctions against Nicolás Maduro, while labelling him a dictator. Despite this, Trump continued to support the brutal Saudi Arabian regime, plus backing dictators in Bahrain, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, South Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to name a few. Now, President Trump is under the guidance of neoconservative John Bolton (who has never seen a war he didn’t like), he has thus declared his support for the puppet president Juan Guaido. This is just one of the most recent examples of the US crushing any nation that has the audacity to steer away from the corporate/Washington power base. Nobody is suggesting Maduro’s leadership is perfect. But to call him a dictator, therefore, worthy of regime change, while openly supporting US friendly tyrants, is the type of hypocrisy and baseless rhetoric we have all become accustomed to.

It may well be difficult to obtain good information in the ironically named ‘age of information’. But one thing we can draw upon as guidance is history. When we trace the history US foreign policy it shows us that since WWII the US has intervened in the leaderships of more countries than any other nation by far. It generally has two reasons to enact change; one is ideological, what Noam Chomsky in his book “What Uncle Sam Really Wants”, calls “the threat of a good example“. The second motivation is for resources (in this case oil), sadly for Venezuela, they tick both boxes.

I have no reason to believe that this modus operandi of the US government has suddenly deviated from the last 70 years of foreign policy. So although it is reasonable to be questioning of Maduro and his leadership, I cannot see how a coup will benefit the vast majority of Venezuelan’s. Maduro’s led PSUV party, supports much of the poorer people in the country and not the oligarch led opposition. That is primarily why he is in this current dilemma. I’ll let John Pilger explain my grounds for scepticism towards the sincerity of the US and hope for the sake of the people a coup is avoided.

 

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