Almost every country uses digital surveillance to some extent, whether it is for crime prevention and security, healthcare, or identity verification. But in some countries that have regimes with authoritarian tendencies, the line between surveillance for legitimate purposes and the encroachment of digital authoritarianism can often become blurred. When we think about digital authoritarianism, one of the first countries that immediately captures our attention is Venezuela.
Venezuela has been dealing with a concerning trend of democratic backsliding since the late 90s driven by the rise of Chavismo — a populist political ideology associated with former president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. Upon coming into office in 1999, Chávez’s gradual takeover of state institutions and weakening of “horizontal” accountability systems made it harder for the opposition to fight against the regime, thus consolidating his power.  An example Mainwaring gives is how Chávez weakened the autonomy of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), the court in charge of managing national elections. Consequently, his command over the CNE allowed him to commit election fraud. Mainwaring also points out that Chávez was passionately supported by a significant percentage of the Venezuelan population. The economic improvements that impoverished Venezuelans have received since 2003, his vibrant populist rhetoric, his aggressiveness, his humble background, and his participation in the popular fronts all made him more attractive to the public, and he gained solid loyalty.  This political backing helped him to hold onto power for an extended time period. Political scientists frequently characterize Hugo Chávez’s second time in government, which ran from 2006 to 2013, as an example of electoral or competitive authoritarianism. But after 2014, as Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, started to tighten his grip on the nation’s power structures, it became apparent that authoritarianism was shifting to a more closed form.
Different ways of digital repression
Traditional closed dictatorships, such as Cuba, Turkmenistan, China, or Myanmar took measures to limit the widespread internet usage, restricting the internet connection of the public. However, in the 21st century, modern autocratic regimes have adopted more nuanced strategies to exert political control over the internet without resorting to complete shutdowns. This contemporary neo-authoritarian model focuses on the restriction of activities or content that might facilitate the expansion of online protests or the mobilization of citizens for collective action. Since 2017, an increasing number of digital media sites have been censored in Venezuela, with the government nearly completely blocking Wikipedia in January 2019.  Internet freedom restrictions particularly come in handy in electoral authoritarian regimes during election periods. They prevent citizens from accessing authentic information on websites that expose electoral fraud, hindering a potential mobilization against the regime. Based on a report from VE sin Filtro, throughout the November 2021 regional elections in Venezuela, at least 56 website domains connected to 49 distinct websites—mostly news media websites—were blocked. At least five Internet service providers (ISPs) imposed restrictions on a big portion of these domains; more than half of them were blocked by all ISPs. 
Venezuelans, during their daily lives, often self-censor in their online activities as well. This phenomenon has become more noticeable, as noted in the Freedom on the Net Venezuela Country Report for 2022, particularly in light of growing government crackdowns on average internet users who have left remarks on social media or messaging apps like WhatsApp. These days, a lot of users express concern about participating in online or group chat conversations regarding political or social issues for fear of being exposed by people who are working with the government. 
Restricting content or persecuting people for expressing their political opinions is not the only method of digital repression the Venezuelan government uses. There are also numerous attempts to manipulate public opinion through social media, particularly by using bots, promoting hashtags, and coordinating online campaigns to spread misinformation and government propaganda. 
But for as long as there has been repression, there has also been resistance. So how do Venezuelans fight against the government’s restrictions on their Internet freedom?
They have several ways of finding loopholes and alternative ways to continue the flow of authentic information. Usually, journalists and civil society organizations take the lead. According to an APC (Association for Progressive Communications) article , one of the most important examples is Venezuela Inteligente’s project, Conexión Segura. Conexión Segura produces YouTube content that features amusing and informative videos that cover the essentials of digital security, including how to use VPNs, encrypted messaging apps, and secure passwords. Thousands of people have seen the videos, and many of them have left comments appreciating the crew for the advice. It’s not just about tech-savvy tips — the videos also stress how important privacy is as a basic human right. They draw attention to typical security dangers, such as privacy issues caused by abusive relationships or employers, that extend beyond those experienced by journalists and human rights campaigners. The videos maintain a subtle appearance, making them less exposed to direct government interference. However, this doesn’t mean they’re off the radar; they continue to be closely watched, constantly under the scrutiny of the government.
The same article talks about El Bus TV, another unique initiative staffed by a dedicated group of journalists. This team takes news dissemination to a whole new level by bringing it directly to the people. They hit the streets and hop onto buses, gathering news from their own sources and various media outlets. Then, as the bus travels throughout the city, they relay this information directly to commuters.
Additionally, news organizations and activists write in-depth articles online instructing viewers on how to utilize VPNs to get around web page blockades.
However, not everyone can manage to successfully use VPNs, so another method that is being used by journalists is to use mirror
websites. Patricia Marcano, editorial coordinator at an independent online media outlet called Armando.info, says “Digital outlets exist, but the truth is that it is hard for people to read us. We have to develop a whole educational strategy so that people learn what a VPN is and how to activate it on their cell phones or their computers. At the same time, we have had to develop these mirror sites to distribute our links in social networks.”  A mirror site is essentially a duplicate of a website or a collection of files hosted on a different computer server, making the content accessible from multiple locations. While a mirror site possesses its distinct URL, its content remains identical to the primary website. These mirror sites serve as replicas of the original domains, particularly in the context of Venezuelan news organizations. They play a crucial role in enabling these organizations to disseminate their articles and links via social media, especially when government restrictions lead to the blocking of their primary domains.
It does not end here — independent Venezuelan journalists seem to be committed to finding alternative mediums to distribute information. One of the best examples is El Pitazo. Created in 2014, El Pitazo started as a YouTube channel but has progressively broadened its reach to
disseminate content through a radio program (both over the airways and digitally), SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and four newsletters, in addition to its website, which is constantly updated and visited by one million users per month.  In the same line, Servicio de Información Pública is another noteworthy platform. It was created by a group of reporters and scholars in the wake of the 2017 Venezuelan protests. It spreads audio news via SoundCloud and is also accessible via Telegram and WhatsApp.
Way to go
While we have witnessed some improvements and the emergence of alternative channels, Venezuela is still not free, with the government controlling almost every aspect of the Internet. Notably, the government has gone to great lengths to block various VPN services, including Psiphon and TunnelBear, after discovering their usage by the citizens. Sharing information through platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram carries inherent risks too, as government surveillance can easily lead to exposure and potential danger for users. Even alternative media outlets such as El Pitazo and Armando.info, as previously mentioned, find themselves continually overpowered in their efforts, particularly during critical moments like elections. According to the European Union Electoral Observation Mission, access to these websites was rendered nearly impossible in 16 out of Venezuela’s 23 states during election periods. 
In an alarming trend, even subtle forms of resistance, such as humor, have not been spared from government crackdowns. According to the 2022 FOTN report, humorists like Napoleon Rivero and Reuben Morales faced raids by Venezuelan authorities following the release of a YouTube parody video that criticized government policies. Similarly, Olga Mata de Gil found herself under arrest for a TikTok post that subtly poked fun at government officials, despite its indirect nature. She was accused of inciting hatred and subsequently found guilty.
One thing becomes quite clear as we come to the end of our exploration: the fight for internet freedom and access to information is far from over. In a country where government control looms large, the people are showing incredible resilience. They’re finding ingenious ways to bypass restrictions, sharing information through alternative means, and bravely challenging the status quo. While democratic backsliding is a concerning trend in many countries worldwide, resulting in a gradual erosion of various freedoms, including internet freedom, the resistance
displayed in Venezuela is nothing short of inspiring.
1 Penfold, Michael, and Javier Corrales. Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela. Washington:
Brookings Institution Press, 2011. muse.jhu.edu/book/29157. (pp. 14-46)
2 Mainwaring, Scott. “From Representative Democracy to Participatory Competitive Authoritarianism: Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan Politics:
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3 Andrés Azpúrua (Venezuela Inteligente/VEsinFiltro), Mariengracia Chirinos (IPYS Venezuela), Arturo Filastò (OONI), Maria Xynou (OONI),
Simone Basso (OONI), Kanishk Karan (Digital Forensic Research Lab) From the blocking of Wikipedia to Social Media: Venezuela’s Political
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4 “Elecciones bajo censura: sin acceso a los medios independientes en #internetVE [Elections under censorship: no access to independent media on internet VE],” Ve Sin Filtro, November 25, 2021, https://vesinfiltro.com/noticias/2021-bloqueos-elecciones/
5 Bautista de Alemán, P. (2021). Reflections on the anthropological damage in Venezuela.
6 “Venezuela: FREEDOM ON THE NET 2022 Country Report.” Freedom House. Accessed December 27, 2023.
7 Vidal, Laura. “Digital Repression and Resistance in Venezuela: A Silent Crisis within the Political Crisis.” Digital repression and resistance in
Venezuela: A silent crisis within the political crisis | Association for Progressive Communications, July 27, 2023.
8 Kahn, Gretel. “Forced out from Print and Airwaves, News Media in Venezuela Shift to Digital to Survive.” Reuters Institute for the Study of
Journalism, March 14, 2023. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/news/forced-out-print-and-airwaves-news-media-venezuela-shift-digital-survive.
9 Sembramedia. “El Pitazo.” Accessed December 27, 2023. https://directorio.sembramedia.org/el-pitazo/.
10 European Union Electoral Observation Mission: Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Regional and Municipal Elections – November 21, 2021,