Bienvenidos Bolivarian Big Brother

Jan 30, 2014 at 10:52 AM ET

When you’re a top Venezuelan official in charge of social media, and your Twitter account suddenly disappears only hours after you created it, you’re probably doing something wrong. That’s exactly what happened to Deputy Minister José Miguel España Figueroa last week, as his presence on the social media site was prematurely cut short. It’s unclear whether Twitter suspended his account or if it was simply deleted, but España hasn’t tweeted since. Nor has he given any explanation as to why he is no longer speaking to the world in 140 characters or less.

España is one of 107 new deputy ministers whose appointment Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced last week. He and his colleagues are meant to “monitor tendencies” on the Internet and social networks, as well as promote communication that favors the ideology of the government.

That’s the official message, at least. In practice, the new Venezuelan Vice-Ministry of Social Networks seems to be the government’s attempt to launch an assault on the Internet, the last place where its political opposition can freely be heard.

With violent crime and inflation rates stuck at sky-high levels, and with basic products still scarce, that opposition is mounting. Maduro became president last April in a closely contested flash election after the death of his predecessor, firebrand socialist Hugo Chávez. Almost immediately, the Venezuelan opposition held a series of mass protests against Maduro, and social media proved a powerful tool in both organizing people in the street and mobilizing public opinion against the new administration.

There was nothing newfangled about the opposition’s strategy; they chose the Internet out of necessity. Chávez, who gained power in 1999, had taken over traditional media and silenced dissent over the course of roughly a decade.

“Television and radio stations have been either bought out or co-opted, and by creating a large number of newspapers, the government has completely diluted any control the opposition had over Venezuela’s media,” says Christopher Sabatini, an analyst at the Council of the Americas, a U.S.-based think tank. “Through social media, the opposition can still criticize Maduro’s government and organize rallies. It’s a very powerful tool for them, and the government knows that.”

Which is why Maduro and company are getting more involved in the medium. According to Juan Cristobal Nagel, a Venezuelan economist and co-author of opposition blog Caracas Chronicles, the country’s social media ministry may herald a government-led form of digital guerrilla warfare. “I think the idea is for this to be an office in charge of compiling statistics, looking at social trends, and keeping a staff of Twitterbots and hackers willing to disrupt any inconvenient social networking activity,” Nagel says in an email.

Another possible role for the ministry: Adopt the Chinese model, combating critical voices online by creating fake websites and social media accounts to spread misinformation about government opponents. “It’s actually interesting that it took them so long to set this up,” says Sabatani. “The Internet is a very unruly place, easy to distort information.”

So far, however, the new ministry has been eerily silent. No policy measures have been announced, and España is apparently still absent from the very same social networks he is supposed to be monitoring.

“That’s why I’m not too alarmed by this yet,” Nagel says. “They certainly have hackers that can work with them on this, but it doesn’t seem as though this is where it’s headed. In the government’s ideal world, this could be a China-style bureaucracy that oversees the Internet. But considering the government’s incompetence, I think it’s headed to be more of a lame attempt at intimidating people on social networks.”