With social media, Venezuela exerts influence on Americans

Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is being grilled today about how the huge social media company will better prevent Russian influence and "fake news" from influencing U.S. elections.

But Russia isn't the only country that appears intent on influencing American voters through Facebook and other social media.

While Russia's government owns the popular channel "RT," geared toward reaching an American audience, Venezuela-based TeleSUR English operates in similar fashion and has nearly half a million followers.

And few know that it is funded by the leftist governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Uruguay.

TeleSUR English releases about seven videos a day, generally anti-capitalist or anti-Donald Trump propaganda.

“The storyline is always the same: The big bad United States is to blame for all our problems, and we must unite to fight the evil capitalists,” Fergus Hodgson, executive editor of Antigua Report, a Latin American business consulting agency, told FoxNews.com.

These videos are often shared among members of the American far left.

In one recent video -- it was viewed more than 1.2 million times and shared by more than 40,000 people -- the Venezuelan outlet declared that "philanthropy is a scam." It also accused billionaire Bill Gates and others of pouring money into Africa not to help the poor, but rather to "gain control" of smaller countries. It accused them of spreading capitalism -- "the cause of world problems."

In a sad twist, many Venezuelans are starving to death today because Venezuela refuses international aid.

Venezuela used to be the richest country in Latin America, and still has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, but socialist policies that seized control of most of the economy have led to extreme poverty. Hundreds of children have died of starvation, with thousands sent to hospitals for malnutrition -- government-run hospitals that often lack food and basic medical supplies, even soap.

The average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds  last year due to food shortages, surveys show, and more than a million refugees have already fled the country for neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

Though all that, Venezuela's government still finds the money to fund TeleSUR English videos to teach Americans about the evils of capitalism.

What’s in it for Venezuela? Hodgson says: “They really care about foreign public opinion. These regimes try to form international alliances. ... If there were to be blanket opposition to Cuba and Venezuela around the world, they'd have problems.”

Maintaining some international support is important for them partly because they need people to buy their oil, Hodgson said.

“They still want to keep access to sell oil to the US. ... There are ways that other countries could really hurt them,” he said.

The videos aim to convince people that the Western capitalist system isn’t so much better – just as Russian propaganda is intended to sow discord and discontent with American institutions.

Many TeleSUR videos aim to achieve these effects. One, titled "List of Countries Where Capitalism Has Failed," has more than half a million views.

One bizarre TeleSUR English video, with 28,000 views, claimed "Trump is Killing Our Brains With Nazi-era Chemicals" by not imposing a new regulation on pesticides.

Another TeleSUR English video, this one from July 2017, discussed "Myths on Venezuela's Food Crisis" and showed fully stocked shelves. It admitted that "while there are shortages, these are a product of an 'economic war' " with capitalist countries.

Despite Venezuela's desperate economic straits, TeleSUR's English-language video output is increasing. In the last seven days it released 53 videos. That compares with 34 during the same week last year.

Individuals from all over the world share TeleSUR English's content, including people and groups on the American left. For example, the "Bernie Sanders Brigade," with 67,000 followers, shared a TeleSUR report on South Africa's plan to seize land from white farmers without compensation that claimed "the measure is not going to destabilize the country." The top comments on the
shared post support the seizure.

TeleSUR English also has a YouTube presence and 83,000 subscribers, but YouTube now includes a disclaimer below every video that "TeleSUR is funded in whole or in part by several Latin American governments." Facebook does not include such a disclaimer.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News Tuesday.

Maxim Lott can be reached on Twitter at @maximlott.