Over the past six weeks, Marco Rubio has used his Twitter account to post minute-by-minute updates and lengthy threads on Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, making him a must-follow for anyone keeping up to date with the latest news.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Rubio writes his own posts.
Though Rubio continues to earn widespread praise from Venezuelans, Republicans and most Democrats for keeping Venezuela’s plight in the news, his Twitter account amplified three inaccurate reports in recent days, giving fodder to those on the left who want to negotiate with Nicolás Maduro instead of getting rid of him.
The first instance: widespread reports shared by Rubio, White House officials and other prominent lawmakers that Maduro’s security forces set fire to humanitarian aid at the Venezuela-Colombia border on Feb. 23. Video evidence analyzed by The New York Times showed that a Molotov cocktail thrown by an anti-Maduro protester was the likely culprit.
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The second instance was a tweet by Rubio highlighting widespread blackouts in Venezuela over the weekend. He tweeted: “Today another transformer explosion at the German Dam in Bolivar State caused another massive blackout. The result? Critically ill patients have died, the Caracas metro remains out of service & few if any flights have arrived at or departed from Caracas in over 20 hours.”
There is no German Dam in Venezuela. German Dam is a reporter who was writing about the ongoing blackouts. Rubio deleted the tweet after it was online for 24 hours and later said the message was a mistake. “I meant to type ‘Today another transformer explosion in Bolivar State caused another massive blackout according to German Dam,’ ” he tweeted.
The third instance was Rubio’s retweeting of a report from Venezuela-based news outlet VPItv, which he translated into English on Sunday. “Report that at least 80 neonatal patients have died at University Hospital in Maracaibo, Zulia, since the blackout began on Thursday in Venezuela. Unimaginable tragedy. Heartbreaking.” Wall Street Journal correspondent Juan Forero said the report was inaccurate. “Actually, sources at the hospital said no neonatal deaths recorded as of this afternoon,” Forero tweeted in response.
The Miami Herald reported Tuesday that 21 people died in hospitals without backup generators during the ongoing blackout, though the number was shared by Venezuelan opposition deputy José Manuel Olivares and could not be independently confirmed.
Rubio said Tuesday he has no plans to change his social media presence.
“Independent journalists in Venezuela are doing a great job under tremendous circumstances,” Rubio said. “A very prominent one [Luis Carlos Diaz] was just arrested today by the special police. To the extent we can give them voice by tweeting out their reports, I’m going to do that as often as I can to be supportive of their work.”
Rubio, who has just over 3.8 million followers on Twitter, has a larger reach than many media outlets, and President Donald Trump said he listens to Rubio on Venezuela. The senator also frequently tweets updates during major events with specific facts, figures and details like a journalist, an approach that many Venezuelans appreciate.
But amplifying reports that turn out to be inaccurate fuels domestic critics, mostly on the far left, who say that the decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the country’s leader over Maduro is the first step in a U.S.-backed coup.
“Trump and [Venezuela Special Envoy] Elliott Abrams cannot be trusted to tell the truth about what’s happening in Venezuela,” Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted in response to video evidence of the aid being burned by anti-Maduro protesters. “We must continue to question the narratives they provide and promote dialogue instead of intervention.”
New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also has almost as many Twitter followers as Rubio, tweeted Omar’s message and praised her questioning of U.S. policy in Venezuela.
“I don’t take those criticisms seriously,” Rubio said. “All the people that have been involved in this issue and who have taken the time to be informed about it and have followed its trajectory, none of them share that view.”
But some of Rubio’s Democratic colleagues in South Florida who agree with him on Venezuela policy said they do not share messages with specific facts and figures on social media.
“It’s difficult with precise numbers, that’s why you’ll never see me talk about numbers,” said Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala. “I talk about the tragedy, because one death is too much for me. My position is it’s a tragedy. ... It’s a distraction to try to pin down the numbers.”
Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said she holds off on posting about the latest updates in Venezuela to her social media accounts until multiple sources confirm specific information.
“We cannot get distracted by these inaccuracies and these mistakes from the fact that we have a regime that’s killing its own people, starving its own people, the loss of power has caused deaths in the country,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “At the same time, people need to be careful to make statements and have the right information before making those statements. I do agree that we have to be well-informed and it’s why many times I actually hold off and wait to get all the information.”
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican Sen. Rick Scott and Democrats Shalala, Mucarsel-Powell and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz frequently post anti-Maduro messages on social media. But their content, usually crafted by staffers, is mostly devoid of new up-to-the-minute information. They also collectively lack the international following that Rubio has as an anti-Maduro voice, a status that led hundreds of Venezuelans to pack a recent Senate hearing chaired by Rubio with Abrams in attendance to give him a standing ovation.
But even skeptics of the White House-led effort to back Guaidó said the inaccurate information shared by Rubio and other supporters of ousting Maduro pales in comparison to the violence and repression Maduro inflicts on his own people.
“It looks like the administration got the story wrong, but that doesn’t mean Maduro does not bear most of the responsibility for what happened on the border,” said Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who previously said the decision to recognize Guaidó was not backed by a realistic implementation plan.
“It’s one incident. The administration got it wrong, but it doesn’t compromise the fact that Maduro bears responsibility for this aid not coming into the country, not the protesters. I don’t lose sleep over it.”
Rubio said news organizations should correct news reports that turn out to be inaccurate, though journalists inside the country are doing the best they can and a fact or figure that turns out to be incorrect is insignificant in comparison to Maduro’s destructive behavior and lies.
“I wasn’t there, I was reporting what was on the ground,” Rubio said. “You should look into Maduro’s reports that the U.S. sent hovercrafts to carry out an electromagnetic attack.