Rafael – not his real name – is a massive internet nerd. At 59 years old, he is active on all the main social media platforms, dabbles in cryptocurrencies and even calls himself an influencer.
But that is not all he does online.
Rafael is also part of a group of Venezuelans being paid by the state to tweet propaganda.
He spends at least 30 minutes a day posting pro-government content. “The aim is to amplify the information the government puts on Twitter,” he explains.
Every day, Venezuela’s ministry of communications tweets a “hashtag of the day”, which is repeated not only by elected officials’ accounts and state sympathisers but also by “digital troops” like Rafael, who are paid to share propaganda. “You have to space it out to avoid being blocked. I do about 100 in the morning and 100 more in the afternoon,” he says.
“The idea is to maintain a collective narrative. The fight against the enemy [the West] still exists,” explains Prof Félix Seijas from the Central University of Venezuela.
This narrative predates social media and is typical of the left-wing Chavismo ideology, which became popular under Hugo Chávez, the mentor and predecessor of current president, Nicolás Maduro.
In 2018, Rafael found a tweet with a hashtag that made no sense to him. “I asked the person [who had written the tweet] what it was about and he told me about the rewards.”
BBC Trending has seen a few private groups operating on Facebook and Telegram, with between 700 and 3,000 members, which share the latest hashtag to encourage each other to tweet.
Not all participants join groups like this, but Rafael plays an active part in one of them.
Despite frequently sharing content in support of the government, he does not support it, because of the arbitrary arrests, expropriations, insufficient wages and Mr Maduro’s “lack of charisma”.
He says he only tweets for the paid incentives, but complains that they are too low.
As a security guard for a private company, Rafael earns the equivalent of $80 (£65) a month. With the additional $10 he makes a month from tweeting, he can buy small amounts of flour, oil, rice, or even airtime for his mobile phone.
On the surface, the information he amplifies seems harmless but Venezuelan disinformation experts and political analysts see it as part of a wider strategy to suppress free speech.
Adrián González, founder of Cazadores de Fake News, a website debunking Venezuelan disinformation, says the government is using propaganda “to neutralise information they cannot control” in an attempt to influence public perception online.
One way it can do this is by drowning out the noise of its critics, particularly on Twitter.
Marivi Vazquez, from ProBox, an NGO combating online disinformation in Latin America, says the purpose of using “digital troops” like Rafael is to disrupt the “trending” algorithm by polluting it with pro-government messaging.
“This is very dangerous because when you see what is trending and you see that most of the hashtags are supposedly supporting the government, it’s hard to know what’s actually happening in the country.” (BBC)