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mobile phones, Twitter, US foreign policy, and Venezuela

September 6, 2010

Last week, republished a (somewhat redundant) article from the Venezuelan News Agency (Agencia Venezolana de Noticias / AVN) that highlights some telecom related statistics. Venezuela’s version of the US FCC, the National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones / CONATEL) reports that Venezuela, with a population of roughly 27 million, has over 28 million active mobile phone lines and 9.7 million internet users. That represents over 43 percent year-on-year growth for internet users, and a 95 percent national adoption rate for mobile phone use (because some citizens register more than one line). Many observers have claimed that Chávez is actively looking to Cuba as a model for Venezuelan society. Considering the Cuban telecommunication situation I discussed in my previous post (no more than 1 million mobile lines and an equal number of land lines for a population of 11 million people in conjunction with largely inaccessible rates), that can hardly be the case. In fact, the government is actively promoting increased telecommunications adoption, having created 668 “Infocenters” where citizens can access the internet at little to no cost. When I was in Venezuela last year, the state-owned National Telephone Corporation of Venezuela (Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela / CANTV) was offering products and services on a very competitive basis. I found their service to be inexpensive, completely reliable, and – to my surprise – available inside the Caracas metro system. That perk is still unavailable to mobile users in the metro tunnels of New York and Chicago.

Another statistic quoted in the AVN article was from a Comscore report on Twitter use around the globe. Those who look at CONATEL’s numbers with skepticism should generally feel more comfortable with Comscore, which is one of the top commercial internet metrics suppliers (along with Nielsen) and whose numbers are widely cited by the biggest corporations, consulting firms, and journalists in the US online sector. According to Comscore, Twitter use more than tripled in Latin America between June 2009 and June 2010, the highest growth rate of any global region. Among the 41 individual countries tracked by Comscore, “Twitter penetration” [dirty!] is highest in Indonesia, Brazil, and – wait for it – Venezuela, with 19 percent of the population having visited Twitter’s site. Comscore notes that Twitter usage increased 4.8 percent in the months after Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, began tweeting in April.

As of this writing, Chávez has nearly 800,000 followers. By way of comparison, Barack Obama has almost 5.3 million. As a percentage of their countries’ populations, however, Chávez leads with 3 percent to Obama’s 1.8 percent. More interesting to me is that Obama is “following” 715,529 users, while Chávez is following only 7. This signals a very different strategy for the account. Chávez – or his ghost tweeters – also reply to his followers personally, sometimes seemingly following up on their requests for assistance:

@myshfer. Hello friend Joshy. Min[ister] Menendez will call you. We’ll help you. God bless your 2 babies!! (Hola amiga Joshy. El min. Menendez te llamara. Te ayudaremos. Dios bendiga a tus 2 bebes!!) (Aug. 13)

Obama’s tweets – the most recent, anyway – are little more than the impersonal and tasteless spittle of conservative statecraft:

We can’t afford to go backward to the failed policies of the past. We have to move forward. Commit to vote this November. (Sept. 3)

I’m on the record as skeptical of the mainstream (and especially the acritical) celebration of social networking technologies as necessarily pro-democratic, but if that is the logic that is going to be applied, then it should be applied consistently. So if the US State Department views social media as a catalyst for democracy in Iran, then it should also celebrate it as a catalyst for democracy in Venezuela. Have you seen any mainstream media analysis of the Comscore report? In July, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy piece on the increasingly integral role of social networking technologies within the State Department’s foreign policy and diplomatic strategy. Twitter was the featured corporation, but Venezuela wasn’t mentioned once.

POST SCRIPT: Back in April, Bruce Etling, at the Internet & Democracy blog, created two word clouds related to the Moscow subway bombings – one created from 1,000 random tweets with the #moscow hashtag, and one from 68 articles about the bombings in the Russian and US press. Have a look for yourself, but I agree that it’s “pretty striking to see how limiting Twitter can be when trying to tell a story.” Though unscientific, I submit this bit of evidence as further substantiation for my skepticism regarding social media.

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