Amid Chaos, Venezuelans Struggle To Find The Truth, Online As Venezuela grapples with a major political crisis, people there are struggling with misinformation online. WhatsApp, a popular messaging app, has been used to spread both rumors and news reports.

Amid Chaos, Venezuelans Struggle To Find The Truth, Online

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Venezuelan media is controlled by the government. Figuring out what is truth, rumor, propaganda has always been difficult. In recent days, though, it's been even more confusing. President Nicolas Maduro has refused to cede power to the opposition party. There have been widespread protests and looting. And the rumor mill continues to churn on social media. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Javier Rojo (ph) owns a pharmacy in the capital city of Caracas. This week, as chaos took over the country, he gave his workers the day off, went home and turned on the TV - only to find nothing was being reported.

JAVIER ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Rojo says right now people get their news on social media and WhatsApp. Professor Gregory Weeks teaches Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He says in Venezuela...

GREGORY WEEKS: Independent media has been gradually attacked and shut down over time so that, in general, social media becomes the means by which you learn what's going on on an ongoing basis.

GARSD: Back at his house, Rojo says he started getting messages on WhatsApp from one of his workers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Tanks are rolling into the park," she says. "They're launching tear gas." She's one of his employees. He trusts her. But then he started getting WhatsApp voice messages from people he doesn't even know.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: One guy, who says his aunt's husband is a military officer - and he swears Nicolas Maduro has resigned. Rojo is getting bombarded by fake news and wild rumors. And it's happening to a lot of people in the country. Professor Raisa Urribarri researches technology and politics at Universidad de Los Andes in Venezuela. She says it's hard to trace the origins of some messages. It can be panicked citizens or the opposition. The government has also gotten savvy at digital propaganda.

RAISA URRIBARRI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In the last few days, she says, there's been a wave of tweets in favor of the current regime - #ImWithMaduro - from many accounts she and her colleagues have traced back to Turkey, a country that has backed Maduro. It's not the first time social media has been caught up in international turmoil. Last year, the military in Myanmar used Facebook to spread rumors about the Rohingya Muslim minority, eventually leading to atrocities. In Brazil's last presidential elections, misinformation about candidates spread like wildfire on WhatsApp. Just this week, WhatsApp announced it will no longer allow users to forward messages to more than five people. But professor Urribarri says Venezuelans have lived with fake news for so long, they've become smart news consumers. She points me to this trusted WhatsApp group.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: The audio bulletin is so low production it almost sounds fake. But it's a public information broadcast created by a group of Venezuelan journalists. Every few hours, they release audio which gets shared countless times on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In this one broadcast, the announcer lists the neighborhoods and streets that have been experiencing violent clashes and looting. Follow us, he says. We are online. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

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