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Contributing Writer

How a Venezuelan disinformation campaign swayed voters in Colombia

News Analysis
Aug 11, 20225 mins
Critical InfrastructureSocial Engineering

A Black Hat presentation explains how Russia-aligned Venezuela influenced the presidential election in Colombia to its political benefit.

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Credit: malerapaso / Getty Images

Ever since the Kremlin’s troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, targeted the American electorate during the 2016 U.S. presidential election with social media disinformation campaigns, nation-states across the globe have jumped into their own weaponized information campaigns to influence elections.

In 2019, the U.S. State Department issued a report addressing the rise of state-sponsored disinformation that looked at not only Russian influence campaigns but also Chinese, Iranian and North Korean disinformation efforts. According to the report, a growing number of nation-states, in pursuing geopolitical ends, “are leveraging digital tools and social media networks to spread narratives, distortions, and falsehoods to shape public perceptions and undermine trust in the truth.”

These U.S. adversaries are not alone in pushing political disinformation efforts to exacerbate social conflicts and steer public sentiment toward desired national leaders. Sandra Quincoses, senior intelligence analyst at Nisos, shared her thoughts this week with Black Hat attendees on an investigation Nisos conducted involving a disinformation campaign that originated in Venezuela. That disinformation campaign was designed to drive voters toward Colombian presidential candidate and former M-19 revolutionary member Gustavo Petro, who ultimately became president of his country in August 2022.

Tracing the disinformation campaign’s origins

Quincoses’ team at Nisos traced the campaign’s origins. First, the campaign heavily relied on an influential Twitter account, @ChalecosAmarill, which advocated for presidential candidates with foreign policy positions favorable to U.S. adversaries, including Russia, Venezuela and Cuba. The account’s name comes from the “Yellow Vests” social protest movement that emerged in France in 2018 and spread to neighboring countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Nisos’s investigation discovered that this now-suspended Twitter account was affiliated with Twitter accounts @_Ralito and @RalitoDigital (both also now suspended), which Venezuelan national and left-wing supporter Rafael Nuñez ran. The Ralito accounts remain active on other social media platforms, and Nuñez serves as administrator of a still-operating Telegram channel found on @ChalecosAmarill’s Twitter bio, GlobalRevolutionORG.

Nunez also works for Comunicación Digital VE, a firm that offers pro-Venezuelan regime apps. (The Twitter account of Comunicación Digital VE, @ComuniDigitalVE, has also been suspended by Twitter.) The firm’s CEO has a Venezuelan government email address and previously served as social media director of Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information (MINCI). Nisos believes that Nuñez and his associates are responsible for the content found on @ChalecosAmarill’s Twitter account and known bot and sock puppet networks running various Colombia-focused digital campaigns in favor of Petro.

Fomenting anger the goal of disinformation

“It was a very well organized disinformation effort from the Venezuelan government, trying to influence Colombian elections,” Quincoses tells CSO. The disinformation campaign was active on the Twitter account from 2018 to 2022, so she and her team had a lot of material to work with in tracing its efforts.

“The Latin America region of the world is often overlooked in global news, so it was able to do what it wanted to do very effectively, which was turn most governments in Latin America more towards the left and closer to the political ideology in Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and China,” she says.

In one instance, in May 2021, anti-government protests over taxes in Colombia turned violent. Like many social media accounts established to foment divisions within a country, the @ChalecosAmarill account began reposting videos of the violent confrontations to deepen those divisions. “It was disturbing but very effective,” Quincoses says. But the account had no affiliation, and it wasn’t automatically clear to Colombian Twitter users they were being fed Venezuelan disinformation.

The account’s clever use of hashtags characteristic of Colombians further masked the account’s origins. Tweets promoting Petro received over 8,000 retweets from Colombia-based accounts. Still, because not all Twitter accounts carry geo-location information, the possible reach of those tweets was far higher, according to Quincoses.

Another indication of the account’s origins was its echoing of state media content from Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Iran, and other countries that are adversarial towards the United States. Like most effective propaganda, only a tiny portion of the content from the @ChalecosAmarill account was false. “I would say that maybe 2% of all its posts might have been false news,” says Quincoses.

The goal was not necessarily to mislead users but to make them angry. “When there were protests in Chile back in 2018 or 2019 in Ecuador, during this vulnerable time in society, it was putting out really sensitive content that would make people angry,” pushing them to elect leftist leaders in those countries.

Ideological ties with Russia

Venezuela’s goal in promoting Petro was an economic one, Quincoses says. “What benefit Venezuela would have had in this is that Colombia is the closest ally in South America to the United States. They see Petro, the opposition candidate who won, as their best option to soften U.S. sanctions that are really hurting their economy.”

In March 2022, Twitter suspended the @ChalecosAmarill account once it started posting about Ukraine and echoing Russia’s war coverage. A new one has cropped up with a different but similar-sounding screen name that steers clear of content that might get it too suspended from Twitter. However, that account links to a Telegram account that continues along the same disinformation path.

Although Nisos could not establish a direct connection between @ChalecosAmarill and Russia, Quincoses thinks there is an ideological connection between Venezuela and Russia. “Venezuela and Russia have media agreements with one another, and they basically echo each other because they cover a lot of news similarly,” she says.

It’s difficult to detect and even more challenging to fight nation-state-sponsored disinformation efforts. Quincoses says a vital step that organizations can take is to “pay more attention to the source of their information and spend more time attributing accounts that stand out because they can reveal motivation.” By tracking down the source of information, platforms like Twitter and Facebook can get ahead of the curve in snuffing out disinformation campaigns. “It’s important to pay attention to the content, but perhaps the priority should be placed on the source,” Quincoses says.

Contributing Writer

Cynthia Brumfield is a veteran communications and technology analyst who is currently focused on cybersecurity. She runs a cybersecurity news destination site,, consults with companies through her firm DCT-Associates, and is the author of the book published by Wiley, Cybersecurity Risk Management: Mastering the Fundamentals Using the NIST Cybersecurity Framework.

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