CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's approval ratings may be languishing below 30 percent, but on Twitter he's as popular as Pope Francis - or so it would seem.
The socialist South American leader regularly sets social media afire with support, with heavily trending anti-U.S. campaigns such as #ObamaYankeeGoHome and #ObamaRepealTheExecutiveOrder, which denounced U.S. sanctions on members of Maduro's administration.
But a closer look suggests that the government is artificially inflating its social media influence and distorting its popularity. Independent analysts who ran tests at the request of The Associated Press found the government was benefiting from networks of fake accounts.
Automated accounts known as bots are a worldwide phenomenon that Twitter has struggled to stop. Programmers create them in batches, and Twitter has to eliminate them one by one. At one point, Maduro complained that Twitter had shut down more than 6,000 accounts that followed him. The company declined comment for this story.
Among the other powerbrokers who experts say routinely employ bot networks in violation of Twitter's policies are the leaders of Russia, Mexico and Turkey, as well as supporters of the Islamic State group.
Twitter has an obvious appeal to the government of Venezuela. The platform is a crucial space for the exchange of independent information and views in a country where news outlets critical of the government are disappearing under what press freedom groups call a concerted campaign of sanctions and intimidation.
The hyper-polarized oil nation is obsessed with the social network. Venezuela consistently ranks among the countries most active on Twitter and uses the platform to discuss political news more than any other Latin American nation, according to the Pew Research Center.
"Twitter is one of the scarce windows for dissident options,'' said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a University of Georgia media studies scholar who hails from Venezuela. "It's another sphere where the government trying to control the discourse. That's what the whole game with hashtags is about - giving you a false sense of a majority.''
In one way or another, the government appears to be succeeding.
While the opposition is polling twice as well as the ruling party, the top Twitter trending topic in Venezuela is usually a government message, with opponents coming in a distant second.
In 2011, Chavez drummed up support for his newly launched Twitter account by pledging to reward his 4 millionth follower with a house, ultimately won by a college student.
Today, the socialist party offers an app that allows people to automatically retweet every message posted by Maduro. He has become the third most-retweeted public figure in the world, behind Pope Francis and the King of Saudi Arabia, according to public relations firm Burston Marsteller.
Using a program written at the request of the Associated Press to test for bots, researchers at the Utah State University Data Science Lab found classic bot characteristics among hundreds of accounts that retweet government posts, including messages sent at impossibly fast typing speeds, repetitive content and tweets posted from different accounts within seconds of each other.
"We can conclude that there is a bot alliance,'' computer science professor Kyumin Lee said. "It's not that they just happened to repost the exact same content; this is not normal human behavior.''
Among users reposting Maduro's every message is a network of accounts named after each of Venezuela's states.
Suspicious accounts can also be found posting nonsense messages attached to government hashtags. Dozens of apparent bots continued to repeat the #ObamaYankeeGoHome slogan several times an hour into July, months after the campaign was over.
Ministry of Social Media officials declined to comment for this story. The government-aligned Marxist Tupamaro Revolutionary Movement says the state dominates Twitter because it has public backing.
"The opposition just tries to keep themselves from getting depressed by saying we're robots,'' spokesman Ares Di Fazio said.
Government critics also appear to benefit from social media manipulation. At least 7 percent of tweets by imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez are retweeted using automated platforms, according to Philip Howard, a University of Washington computer scientist.
Some of the government's dominance on the platform is the result of meticulous planning as opposed to outright manipulation.
For the past year, for example, the Communication Ministry has been sending out text messages telling a loyalist Twitter army what to post.
A hashtag of the day also goes out to state media workers and get promoted by institutional accounts including airports, state-run banks, ministries and even the National Aquatic Institute.
It's not clear who controls the Twitter bots, but many clues lead back to Aragua, a state west of Caracas run by rising stars in the ruling party.
The state's young governor, Tareck El Aissami, and health minister are retweeted and praised by a network of accounts whose owners are pictured as scantily dressed female avatars without bios - classic bot traits.
What looks like a related network of bots swarmed journalist Franz von Bergen last month after he published a story about government attempts to influence social media.
Accounts devoted mostly to promoting celebrities - and Aragua officials - sent him hundreds of identical messages.
Von Bergen, who writes for El Nacional, the last major Venezuelan daily critical of the government, said social media manipulation makes his job harder.
"They try to hide how things really are. You get to a point where you're not sure how much support they really have, and how much they're just gaming things,'' he said.