Tracking Venezuela Misinformation: Russia-sponsored disinformation regularly promoted by Venezuelan media

NewsGuard has been monitoring the top disinformation-spreading websites in Venezuela and has identified the most prominent false narratives shared within the region.

By Chiara Vercellone | Last updated: Sept. 12, 2022

As part of a special project conducted in August 2022, NewsGuard set out to analyze the Venezuelan media landscape to chronicle the misinformation spreading in the nation. NewsGuard monitored 30 domains based in Venezuela that regularly spread Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and domestic political misinformation. The most prominent myths are described below.

NewsGuard’s team of analysts tracked Spanish-language disinformation gaining traction in Latin America and found that Venezuela has served as a conduit for Russia-sponsored disinformation into the region.  Indeed, NewsGuard found that Venezuelan news websites, along with numerous  other sites based in nearby countries, typically republish content by Spanish offshoots of Russian state media, such as RT Actualidad and Sputnik Mundo, within hours. 

Among the websites that spread false claims are news outlets owned by the Venezuelan state, independently owned sites that align with Nicolás Maduro’s regime, and widely read publications that oppose the  Maduro regime, NewsGuard found. 

NewsGuard conducted this project after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center. The GEC played no role in any part of NewsGuard’s editorial process, including the selection of myths and the choice of writers and editors assigned to the project.

Top identified myths identified by NewsGuard between February and August 2022

MYTH: The United States gave former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez cancer to assassinate him


In a press conference in August 2022, Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical, and biological defense department of the Russian Armed Forces, repeated a decades-old myth that the United States created a drug to give cancer to former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.

Chávez was diagnosed with an unspecified cancer in his pelvic area in late June 2011. He quickly received surgery to remove what he called a “baseball-sized” tumor, and received treatment over the next two years in Cuba to maintain his health. Chávez claimed, without providing evidence, that the United States was inducing cancer in Latin American leaders with newly-developed technology.

The United States has denied the allegations several times. In a 2011 press conference, then-spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State Victoria Nuland said the claim that the U.S. had created technology designed to give somebody cancer was “horrific and reprehensible.”  Two years later, in 2013, then-spokesperson for the State Department Patrick Ventrell said, “An assertion that the United States is somehow involved to cause President Chávez’s illness is absurd.” 

NewsGuard found no evidence supporting the existence of drugs or technology that can provoke cancer in a person, as Kirillov and Venezuelan media have claimed. Katherine Belov, who researches comparative genomics and contagious cancers at The University of Sydney, told Scientific American in 2013 that transmissible cancers have only been found in animals, not humans.

Belov said that transmissible cancers can be contagious because they thrive in genetically similar environments, such as “really inbred populations of animals.” Because humans are genetically distinct from one another, one’s immune system would identify and kill any cancerous cells that appeared in the body, making it highly unlikely that cancer could be injected or somehow introduced into a body and successfully grow, Belov said.

Kirillov, the head of radiation, chemical and biological defense for the Russian military, has also claimed that Claudia Díaz, Chávez’s nurse, was the one who administered the purported cancer-causing drug. He did not provide evidence supporting this claim.

However, Díaz was no longer Chávez’s nurse when his diagnosis was announced. Díaz was part of the Venezuelan military and became part of Chávez’s security team in 2001. Two years later, in 2003, Díaz joined Chávez’s medical team, where she stayed until May 2011, when Chávez put her in charge of the National Treasury Office until 2013, according to reports from the BBC and El Estímulo, a Venezuelan news website.

According to Reuters’ timeline of events, Chávez’s diagnosis was made public in a television address from Cuba in June 2011, over a month after Díaz left the presidential medical team.

MYTH: The United States announced a plan to oust Nicolás Maduro with military help from Colombia and Brazil


On Aug. 7, 2022, a video posted on YouTube and Facebook that gained thousands of views claimed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had announced a plan to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro (whom the U.S. does not recognize as the rightfully elected president of the country) with help from the Brazilian and Colombian governments.

The video does not provide any evidence for the claim. NewsGuard reviewed Blinken’s public remarks from August 2022 and found no such comments. Indeed, NewsGuard found no Blinken comments at all regarding Venezuela around that time.

Former Colombian President Iván Duque denied such claims in 2020, stating that the presence of American forces in the country was to “work with us on the fight against narcotrafficking,” according to América Económica, a news website based in Madrid, Spain, that is focused on Latin American news. The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Relations also denied the claims in October 2018, via Twitter.

NewsGuard did not find any evidence or reports about a deployment of U.S. troops to the Colombian or Brazilian border, as the video claimed. It is true, however, that American and Colombian troops have worked together on military exercises for years.

U.S. Marines and Colombian troops carry out military exercises on a yearly basis, according to the U.S. Marine Corps. For one week in July 2021, U.S. and Colombian army paratroopers executed airborne training exercises and evacuation procedures at Tolemaida Air Base in Colombia, according to an August 2021 military press release.However, these operations had nothing to do with Venezuela. As news coverage and government statements indicated, they were focused on fighting narcotrafficking in Colombia  — not on carrying out a plan to enter Venezuela and oust Maduro.

MYTH: The United States and Venezuela agreed to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Caracas


On Aug. 13, 2022, Venezuelan political analyst Tomás Socías López told Globo Visión, a Venezuelan television news network available throughout Latin America, that U.S. President Joe Biden and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro were “understanding each other” and would resume diplomatic relations, which would include reopening the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.

The American embassy in Caracas closed in March 2019 due to the “deteriorating situation in Venezuela as well as the conclusion that the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted at the time.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas remains closed, without any known plans for its reopening. U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story confirmed on Twitter that no agreement was reached to reopen the embassy in June 2022, when a similar claim had gained traction among social media users and news websites.

“Yes, we would love to be back in Venezuela, but for the moment there are no plans to return,” Story said in the June 29, 2022, tweet.

Staff from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, which is where Venezuelan-related affairs are processed, also confirmed on a July 7, 2022, Instagram video that the U.S. Embassy in Caracas remains inoperative. 

MYTH: John Bolton confirmed that the United States planned and carried out the 2019 attempted coup d’état in Venezuela


In July 2022, John Bolton, who served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, acknowledged the U.S. role in organizing a number of coups d’état around the world. While he did not elaborate on where these actions took place, several Venezuelan news outlets claimed that Bolton’s comments were confirmation that the United States was behind the 2019 attempt to overthrow Nicolás Maduro in 2019 and instill Juan Guaidó, a politician recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Bolton made similar comments on different news shows throughout July 2022. During his appearance on Colombian talk show W Radio, Bolton stressed that the effort was home-grown. “The Venezuelan opposition, really, was the leading actor right on through,” Bolton said. “The complaint about American behavior was not that we supported the opposition, but that we really did very little. It was organized, led and really implemented by the people of Venezuela, and I wish we had done more.”

Bolton went on to call the notion that the U.S. provided weapons and funding for the attempted coup a “good example of how people exaggerate what we’re talking about.” 

During an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper in July 2022, Bolton mentioned Venezuela in passing when referring to his 2020 book, “The Room Where It Happened.” Bolton said he would not “get into the specifics” of where the coups led by the U.S. had taken place, but referring to Venezuela, he said the United States did not have “all that much to do with it.”

NewsGuard’s review of the book found that Bolton never stated that the U.S. planned and carried out the coup attempt.

Commenting on Guaidó’s self-designation as president of Venezuela in January 2019, Bolton wrote, “We played no role encouraging or assisting the Opposition. They saw this moment as possibly their last chance.” He also wrote that the United States “began devising steps to take immediately against Maduro’s regime, and also Cuba, its protector and likely controller, and Nicaragua.” The options listed that would, according to Bolton, “crash Maduro’s regime,” included oil sanctions and designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism. He did not mention a U.S. military role.

Bolton later addressed the reasons the coup failed, writing: “At the end of that last day in April 2019, two decades of mutual mistrust; cowardice on the part of several regime leaders who had committed to act but who lost their nerve at the critical moment; some tactical mistakes by the inexperienced Opposition; the absence of any US advisors on the ground who might, and I underline ‘might,’ have helped make a difference. …”

MYTH: The United States is recruiting and training ISIS mercenaries to fight in with Ukrainian forces


In May 2022, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) issued a statement claiming that the U.S. was recruiting members of international terrorist organizations, including ISIS, to fight in Ukraine. SVR’s claim was repeated by pro-Kremlin Venezuelan news outlets and Spanish-speaking Russian media.

None of the outlets provided any evidence for the claim, which the U.S. Department of Defense has denied. “This report is completely false,” the Pentagon said in an unsigned statement issued to NewsGuard.

Martha Crensaw, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, told NewsGuard in a May 2022 email, “I have seen no evidence or even reputable claim that the U.S. is recruiting members of international terrorist organizations to fight in Ukraine.”

In fact, news reports, U.S. defense officials, and analysts have said that it is the Kremlin, not the U.S., that is recruiting Syrian and other foreign fighters to participate in the war against Ukraine.

On April 18, 2022, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Russia “claimed they were going to get 16,000 (foreign fighters out of Syria). We don’t have a number to tell you that they got that many, but we know that they have actively tried to recruit foreign fighters out of Syria.”

That same day, The Associated Press reported that approximately 700 members from the Syrian Army’s 25th Special Missions Forces Division had recently left Syria to fight along Russian forces. The news outlet reported that former rebels and experienced fighters who previously fought for ISIS were among the several hundred fighters who signed up to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

MYTH: Nazism is prominent in Ukrainian politics and the military


Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that one of the goals of the invasion, which he calls “special military operation,” was to “denazify” Ukraine. Since then, the claim that Nazism is rampant in Ukrainian politics has gained steam on several Venezuelan news outlets.

A May 2022 article by Últimas Noticias quotes Puting as saying that, “No other country glorifies Nazis at the state level. And in no civilized country are the authorities encouraged to celebrate protests with torchlights and Neo-Nazi symbols. It doesn’t happen anywhere. Unfortunately, this is happening in Ukraine.”

While far-right groups do exist in Ukraine, and have posed a “threat to the democratic development of Ukraine,” according to a 2018 Freedom House report, the extremist movement has poor political representation in the country and no plausible path to power. Indeed, in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the most well-known far-right nationalist party Svoboda received 4.7 percent of the vote. In the 2019 presidential election, the Svoboda candidate, Ruslan Koshulynskyy, won just 1.6 percent of the vote, and in the parliamentary elections, Svoboda won 2.2 percent of the vote.

Only about 2 percent of Ukraine’s population are part of the nationalist movement, according to Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, whose research is focused on Russia and Ukraine. For comparison, Lautman told NPR in March 2022 that the United States most likely has a higher percentage of white supremacist and Nazi groups than Ukraine.

There were some Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazi regime during World War II, according to Jeffrey Veidlinger, a professor of history and judaic studies at the University of Michigan. However, this historical fact is not representative of the country’s current political ideology, Veidlinger said.

“This is why Putin can use that term, because it has resonance and people are familiar with this history of Ukraine having sympathies with the Nazis, but this was 80 years ago, and isn’t reflective of the current Ukrainian Government,” Veidlinger told Time Magazine in March 2022. “It’s a meaningless term when Putin uses it. He’s not afraid of Nazis in Ukraine. He’s afraid of democracy in Ukraine.”

MYTH: The United States confirmed that it has bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine


A June 2022 fact sheet by the U.S. Department of Defense prompted numerous Venezuelan news outlets to claim that the document confirmed the existence of U.S.-run bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine.

In fact, the Pentagon’s June 9, 2022, fact sheet provides information about a well-known program — the Biological Threat Reduction Program — launched in 1991 and dedicated to securing Soviet biological weapons and the facilities throughout Eastern Europe that housed them. The project has since evolved to focus on disease surveillance and public health, similar to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do in the United States.

The Defense Department document states, “The United States has also worked collaboratively to improve Ukraine’s biological safety, security, and disease surveillance for both human and animal health, providing support to 46 peaceful Ukrainian laboratories, health facilities, and disease diagnostic sites over the last two decades.” The program, which is operated in partnership with the World Health Organization, among other international organizations, has resulted in a more effective detection and surveillance of diseases, according to the Pentagon document.

The United Nations investigated Russian claims that Ukraine was operating biological weapons laboratories and concluded in March 2022 and May 2022 that it found no evidence of bioweapons development programs in Ukraine. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said in a May 2020 press release that “there are no foreign biological laboratories in Ukraine.”

An April 2020 statement posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine stated that joint U.S.-Ukrainian projects were carried out in Ukrainian laboratories, declaring that “the U.S. Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program works with the Ukrainian Government to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities.”

Some of the pathogens researched in Ukrainian laboratories have included American Swine Fever and Bacillus Anthracis, the bacteria that causes Anthrax, in animals, according to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine website and documents from a 2017 conference during which Ukrainian researchers involved with the U.S. Threat Reduction Agency (which oversees the Biological Threat Reduction Program) explained their findings.

American and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly affirmed that the United States does not finance these laboratories. The Security Service of Ukraine’s May 2020 press release stated that “cooperation between Ukraine and the United States in the direction of combating biological terrorism takes place exclusively within the framework of Ukrainian legislation and in the interests of Ukraine. … We emphasize that these laboratories are financed from the state budget, subordinated to the Ministry of Health and the State Service of Ukraine for Food Safety and Consumer Protection.”

MYTH: The U.S. Agency for International Development helped the United States create COVID-19


Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical, and biological defense department of the Russian Armed Forces, said on Aug. 4, 2022, that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides economic and humanitarian aid to countries around the world, had artificially created COVID-19. 

While Kirillov did not provide any concrete evidence to support his claim, he mentioned USAID’s “Predict” project for “capturing bats, know-virus carriers, with the objective of studying new types of coronaviruses,” according to the reporting of Venezuelan media.

In fact, the Predict project was created in 2009 as part of the agency’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program to “strengthen global capacity for detection and discovery of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential,” according to USAID. Coronaviruses — which encompass all viruses from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) family — were one of the viruses the project studied, along with influenza viruses and the ebola virus.

Between 2009 and October 2019, when the program was largely shut down, Predict researchers detected around 1,000 viruses, Vox reported that month. Bats were the animal that carried the most viruses, according to a fact sheet about the project’s findings published in March 2020. Other animals studied included birds, rodents, and non-human primates.

Bats can carry several viruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In fact, Predict researchers found over 3,500 coronaviruses in bats during the 10-year program. However, SARS-CoV-2 was not one of them, according to the findings published online in March 2020.

MYTH: A volunteer in Bucha, Ukraine, confirmed that the massacre of civilians in that city was staged


In late July 2022, an ex-French military member named Adrien Bocquet was quoted in Russian state media outlet Sputnik, and its Spanish counterpart Sputnik Mundo, saying that he was in Bucha in April 2022 and saw that “the Ukrainian Armed Forces prepared a drill, staging a massacre of civilians that was later blamed on Russian forces.”

Bocquet went to Ukraine in April 2022 to work with the Sheptytsky Charitable Fund, a Ukrainian organization that provides medical care to people in need, according to accounts in the French press. The outlets published photographs of Bocquet wearing military medical gear in front of the organization’s ambulances. The organization’s director, Andriy Login, told independent fact-check organization StopFake in May 2022 that Bocquet worked with the organization on two days, April 4 and April 6, 2022. 

However, by the time Bocquet reportedly visited Bucha, photos and reports about the massacre had already been published for several days, as Ukrainian troops and the press entered Bucha on April 1, one day after Russian forces had left the city. The  Sputnik article stated: “In his words, he was in the place when the Ukrainian military prepared the staging and compiled testimonies that confirm it. Now he receives threats … daily.” 

However, on April 2, 2022, two days before Bocquet was apparently first in Bucha, the Agence-France Presse reported that its journalists saw at least 20 dead bodies on one street, including one man with his hands tied. The Associated Press reported seeing at least six “burned and blackened corpses” on a residential street. 

Moreover, some of the bodies found after the Russians left the city had been there for several weeks, according to satellite imagery analyzed by The New York Times. The imagery, provided to the newspaper by Colorado-based space technology company Maxar Technologies, showed bodies appearing on Yablonska Street between March 9 and March 11, when Russian forces still controlled the city. The bodies remained in the same position for over three weeks until they were found in April, The New York Times reported. 

Additionally, Bucha residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that civilians were killed by Russian forces in March 2022.

MYTH: Ukraine had an offensive plan to “‘clean out” the Russian-speaking population in Donbas

One week before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Eduard Basurin, the then-spokesman for the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said that the militia group had obtained a copy of an offensive plan by the Ukrainian government which, Basurin claimed, aimed to push the Russian-speaking population out of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk and regain control over the territory.

Basurin did not present any evidence backing his claim about the purported Ukrainian plan, nor did he release a copy of the plan that he said he had obtained.

Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba quickly denied the allegations. “We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations,” Kuleba said on Twitter on Feb. 18, 2022. “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”

Moreover, there were no press reports of military action or a mobilization of Ukrainian troops between Feb. 19 and Feb. 21, when the forces should have reached the Russian border, according to Basurin. Moreover, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe —  a civilian organization that has been present in Ukraine since 2014 observing and reporting on the situation on the ground — did not report any movements by the Ukrainian military or any unusual activity during the days following Basurin’s comments.

As a justification for a possible invasion, Russian leaders started making the claim that Ukraine was getting ready to invade Russia several months before the February 2022 incursion. The United States has called these claims “further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict,” according to an unnamed State Department official who spoke with NPR in February 2022.