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Why Hugo Chavez finally gave in to the Twitter craze

Venezuela's loquacious leader has decided he can no longer cede the digital sphere his opponents.

A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez uses her mobile phone before a referendum, Feb. 13, 2009.(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — As an opening salvo it was pretty innocuous. But Hugo Chavez has taken Twitter by storm, clocking up nearly 95,000 followers in the 36 hours since he sent his first message.

Just weeks after declaring that sites such as Twitter channel “currents of conspiracy,” Chavez launched his own account on the digital telegram site that allows users to post messages with a 140-character limit.

“Hey how’s it going? I appeared as I said I would: at midnight. I’m going to Brazil. And very happy to work for Venezuela. We shall be victorious!!” says the English translation of Chavez's first post. He's currently following five accounts, including Fidel Castro, two government ministers, his party and Correo del Orinoco, Venezuela's first newspaper which he resuscitated last year.

Chavez is latching onto a craze for social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook that has exploded onto the Venezuelan consciousness, fueled by a boom in internet connectivity and one of the highest penetrations of smart phone usage in the world.

Some 86 percent of internet users have a Facebook account, according to Tendencias Digitales, a local firm that tracks internet behavior. In 2008, Facebook grew by 1,200 percent, encouraged by the fact that more than a million Venezuelans own a Blackberry, giving it a 7 percent share of the marketplace, two and a half times higher than the Latin American average.

Twitter has just 4 percent of the market but Tendencias Digitales’ Carlos Jimenez said its influence is far greater because its information is often cited and recycled by journalists in the traditional media.

Indeed, one Venezuelan Twitter account, by the opposition TV channel Globovision, is regularly listed as one of the 20 most influential Twitter accounts in the world, competing with heavyweights such as The New York Times and CNN.

Globovision, which has more than 200,000 followers, is influential not only because of its popularity but also because it engages in conversations with its followers, said Jonny Bentwood, creator of TweetLevel at global PR firm Edelman.

“The way that certain accounts become more influential is when they actually engage in conversations,” said Bentwood, whose program uses an algorithm and raw data provided by Twitter to measure accounts’ influence.

For more than a decade Chavez, an ex-soldier, has waged a battle with his opponents for control of the media. Since coming to power he has closed down one of the country’s most popular TV channels and 34 radio stations that he said were not complying with broadcasting laws.

More recently he has taken the “media war” quite literally by sending out school children as battalions of “communicational guerrillas” to spread the government’s message on the streets.