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Fake news cloud online waters during protests in Cuba

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A Cuban flag hangs over a street in downtown Havana, Cuba, July 15, 2021. REUTERS / Alexandre Meneghini / File Photo

Havana, July 16 (Reuters) – After unprecedented protests in Cuba last Sunday, false reports quickly spread, including: Raul Castro had fled to the ally Venezuela, demonstrators had kidnapped a provincial Communist Party leader and Caracas sent troops.

The Cuban government said they were spread by counter-revolutionaries, while critics of the government said they could have come from the authorities themselves. Neither provided evidence to support their claims and Reuters was unable to determine the origins of the stories.

The Cuban government said the stories that were spreading on social media and messaging apps were part of a wider US-backed attempt by counterrevolutionaries to destabilize the country.

“What slander, what lies,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said late Wednesday, revealing some of the fake news at a round table on television. “The way they use social media is toxic and alienating.”

“It’s an expression of media terrorism,” he said.

Government critics said the authorities could plant the misinformation stories in murky online waters and sow confusion so that no one would trust future riot news.

“Often it is State Security that spreads these types of rumors, only to then say that they are overseas-run campaigns to manipulate Cubans into making people stop relying on information that is beyond the control of the government circulate, “wrote Mexican communications specialist Jose Raul Gallego on Facebook.

Both the government and some of its most prominent critics urged Cubans to be careful not to divulge unchecked information. Some of the stories were reinforced by Cubans overseas who fueled the protests.

The proliferation of manufactured or misleading videos and content on social media has become a common feature of social protests around the world in recent years, including in Chile, Bolivia, the United States, and France.

Thousands took to the streets in cities around Cuba last Sunday to protest against power outages, a COVID-19 surge, widespread shortages of basic goods and the one-party system.

Those protests, the largest in Cuba in decades – where public disagreements are limited – have subsided this week as security forces have been deployed and government supporters have been mobilized.

Early reports of protests on Sunday were quickly followed by internet outages and restrictions on social media and messaging platforms. By Friday, the service slowly returned to normal.

SOCIAL MEDIA – TOOL OR STRAIN?

The introduction of mobile internet a little over two years ago, and the subsequent flourish of social media and independent news outlets in Cuba, were a key factor in the protests.

These tools have given Cubans a platform to share and amplify their frustrations, and have allowed the message to be spread quickly when people are on the streets, analysts say. Many Cubans found out about the protests on Sunday through messaging applications such as WhatsApp or Facebook.

But Cuba’s government, which has long had a monopoly on the mass media, warned citizens not to believe news and images that may have been tampered with on social media.

Posts shared a thousand times in the past few days were mistakenly labeled Cuban protests. Some contained photos showing large crowds during the May 1, 2018 march in Cuba or a 2011 protest in Egypt.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez accused social media platforms of only starting investigations into alleged fake news if they harm the “powerful”.

“It is known which monopolies operate in the digital space … how they work, in which countries they have their headquarters … and how much politics is made,” he said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Twitter, which did not report that coordinated attempts to use misinformation to influence events surrounding the Cuba protests, said in a statement: “The investigation is 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 many Cubans, regardless of who published the fake news and with what motivation, have now had the direct experience of participating in or watching real spontaneous demonstrations.

“This massive emergence from fear will have consequences,” he said.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional coverage from Nelson Acosta, Aislinn Laing, and Elizabeth Culliford; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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