In Venezuela, Twitter spreads official line, rumors

Addressing Venezuelans on state television, Vice President Nicolas Maduro pressed his thumb in the air as if typing on a smartphone, mocking the opposition for "saying absurdities" on Twitter.

Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have frequently railed against rumors that have spread like wildfire on the micro-blogging website in recent days since President Hugo Chavez returned to Caracas last week.

"They tweet in real-time, commenting on everything we say," Maduro said, waving at the VTV television camera during the presentation of state-subsidized apartments on Thursday.

"I salute them so that they can tweet this salute, too. I respond to them because they go on Twitter saying absurdities," said Maduro, a rare Venezuelan official without a Twitter account.

Maduro derided the opposition, but the government has its own Twitter army spreading the official line, from hailing Chavez's surprise return to Caracas last week to giving updates about his health and rebuffing allegations.

Chavez himself apparently used Twitter last week to announce his return to Caracas, with three tweets appearing in his name in the dead of night after three months of silence on his account.

Moments later, the leftist leader's account broke the four-million-follower mark, making him the second most-followed leader in the world after US President Barack Obama.

"He's back! He's back! He's back! Chavez is back!" exclaimed Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on Twitter on February 18, the day Chavez was stealthily flown back after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba.

Chavez's son-in-law and science minister, Jorge Arreaza, tweeted that day that Chavez had checked into a military hospital.

Five days later, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello tweeted that the "comandante is working" and that the "bitter ones" were "inventing rumors."

Mariana Bacalao, a political communication specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, said the government uses Twitter to spread a message that is carefully crafted by at least three people: Maduro, Jaua and Cabello.

"They move one message as a bloc that they repeat everywhere, including Twitter," Bacalao told AFP. "There is no possibility to go outside the official line."

But lately the government's use of Twitter has been more reactive, she said, because the contradictory and sporadic official reports about Chavez's health have allowed rumors to run wild.

"The important thing is for them to correct their information policy to lower the level of rumors," Bacalao said.

"This is not just bad for the government, this is bad for everybody... Those with the power to change the situation are those who control the information."

Last week, the communications minister said Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection and that the trajectory was not favorable.

The next day, Maduro said Chavez had presided over a five-hour meeting from his military hospital room, communicating by writing since a tracheal tube hinders his speech.

But then Maduro, the president's chosen successor, said Thursday that Chavez, 58, was "battling for his health, for his life and we are accompanying him."

The opposition and ordinary people keep asking why the government has not shown images of Chavez since his return to Caracas.

Only one set of pictures was released on February 15, showing Chavez in his Havana hospital bed with his two daughters.

The government has said that the cancer was in the pelvic region, but has provided no further details on the type of cancer, its location or severity.

There have been several rumors of Chavez's death, the latest coming from Panama's former ambassador to the Organization of American States, Guillermo Cochez, whose allegations were dismissed as "lies" by state-run VTV.

On Tuesday, Maduro accused the opposition of using Twitter and Facebook for an "international campaign" to "attack the moral and the right to family life" of Chavez's relatives.

Last weekend, the government rejected allegations of discontent in the army and unusual activity in the capital's Tiuna Fort.

The defense ministry's Twitter account, citing Minister Diego Molero, stressed that the armed forces and the government were "united, more than ever" and urged the population to ignore "destabilizing rumors."

Despite the rampant rumors, 56.7 percent of Venezuelans believe Chavez will recover, according to the polling firm Datanalisis, which published its results on ... Twitter.