HAVANA, July 16 (Reuters) – False information quickly spread following unprecedented protests in Cuba last Sunday, including: Raul Castro fled to ally himself with Venezuela, protesters kidnapped a provincial leader of Communist Party and Caracas sent troops.
The Cuban government said they had been propagated by counterrevolutionaries, while critics of the government said they could have come from the authorities themselves. Neither has provided evidence for their claims and Reuters has been unable to determine the origins of the stories.
The Cuban government said the stories, which spread through social media and messaging apps, were part of a larger US-backed attempt by counterrevolutionaries to destabilize the country.
“What slander, what lies,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said Wednesday evening, exposing some of the fake news during a televised roundtable. “The way they use social media is poisonous and alienating.”
“It is an expression of media terrorism,” he said.
Critics of the government said authorities could spread the stories to cover up online misinformation and create confusion so that no one would trust future news of unrest.
“Often it is state security that launches these kinds of rumors only to say that they are campaigns led by foreigners to manipulate the Cubans so that people stop trusting the news. circulating outside of government control, “Mexico-based communications specialist Jose Raul Gallego wrote on Facebook.
The government and some of its most prominent critics have urged Cubans to be careful not to share unverified information. Some of these stories were amplified by Cubans abroad encouraging the protests.
The proliferation of fabricated or deceptive videos and content on social media has become a common feature of social protests around the world in recent years, notably in Chile, Bolivia, the United States and France.
Thousands of people took to the streets of towns around Cuba last Sunday to protest against power outages, a wave of COVID-19, widespread commodity shortages and the one-party system.
The protests, the largest in decades in Cuba – where public dissent is limited – fizzled out this week as security forces were deployed and government supporters rallied.
The first reports of Sunday’s protests were also quickly followed by internet outages and restrictions on social media and messaging platforms. Service was slowly returning to normal on Friday.
SOCIAL MEDIA – TOOL OR BURDEN?
The introduction of mobile internet just over two years ago and the subsequent rise of social media and independent media in Cuba have been a key driver of the protests.
These tools have given Cubans a platform to share and amplify their frustrations and have allowed the word to get out quickly when people are on the streets, analysts said. Many Cubans learned of Sunday’s protests through messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook.
But the Cuban government, which has long had a monopoly on mass media, has warned citizens against believing that information and images shared on social media may have been manipulated.
Messages shared thousands of times in recent days have been mistakenly labeled as Cuban protests. Some included photos showing large crowds during the May 1, 2018 march in Cuba or at a protest in Egypt in 2011.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez accused social media platforms of generally only launching investigations into suspected false information when it hurts the “powerful”.
“We know which monopolies operate in the digital space … how they operate, in which countries they have their headquarters … and how well politics are going,” he said on Tuesday at a point Press.
Twitter, which has not reported any coordinated attempt to influence events around the protests in Cuba with disinformation, said in a statement: “Investigations are ongoing. We will continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reinaldo Escobar, editor of the independent news site 14ymedio, said that regardless of who published the fake news and with what motivation, many Cubans now have the first-hand experience of participating in or observing genuine spontaneous protests.
“This massive exit from the closet of fear will have consequences,” he said.
Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional reports by Nelson Acosta, Aislinn Laing and Elizabeth Culliford; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien
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