For two months during Venezuela’s civil crisis, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has spotlighted the country’s plight using the biggest platform available to him: his Twitter account.
Through it, Rubio promotes reports of protests against disputed president Nicolás Maduro (“an illegitimate tyrant,” he tweeted). In English and Spanish, Rubio posts minute-by-minute updates of tensions on the ground, often sharing local videos of violent skirmishes with his 3.8 million followers.
“Time running out for certain (Venezuela) leaders to make their choice,” Rubio recently wrote. “It will soon be too late.”
To some, Rubio’s Twitter campaign has helped keep American attention on a humanitarian emergency in an often overlooked part of the world. Others have accused the Florida Republican of stoking civil conflict there.
It’s a debate that couldn’t have existed in a pre-social media world, but the emergence of Twitter has allowed a single U.S. politician to directly campaign for foreign policy action on a worldwide pulpit previously reserved only for a president.
“I can’t think of an example of a sitting senator effectively bypassing the White House on a key foreign policy issue and drumming up support via social media. It is the first time it’s happened on this scale,” said Chris Meserole, an expert on foreign policy and emerging technology at the Brookings Institution. “To some extent, he’s giving (President Donald) Trump a taste of his own medicine and following that playbook to put an issue on the map in a way he controls. And he’s been savvy in doing so.”
Venezuela so far has been an exception to Trump’s predisposition to authoritarian regimes. His administration has spearheaded an international coalition of Western and Latin America countries to pressure Maduro through sanctions and calls for a transition in power.
Many credit Rubio for this. A frontpage New York Times story dubbed him “Ouster in Chief” and claimed that he’s filling a vacuum while the president is preoccupied with Asia and the Middle East.
Coming from a state with the country’s largest Venezuelan-American population, Rubio has tweeted alarms about Venezuela since 2014. His influence has come through more traditional methods, too — floor speeches, Sunday political talk shows and legislation. This week, he’s leading a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Venezuela.
But it’s clear there is a Twitter audience hungry for Rubio’s Venezuela diplomacy. His posts on Venezuela are often shared by thousands, while tweets about China or Florida politics or Hurricane Michael get far less circulation.
And Rubio has responded to this appetite. He has mentioned Venezuela in tweets more than 380 times this year. The word “Florida?” Seventeen times. Maduro has 230 mentions in Rubio’s timeline since Jan.1. Trump? Just 20.
Rubio’s use of social media to reach millions could become a blueprint for future Senators to influence foreign conflicts. While Congress and even individual lawmakers have always had a role in shaping United States policy abroad, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allow American politicians to directly broadcast and mobilize a world audience.
As Rubio has demonstrated, these social apps aren’t just for speaking to constituents. Rubio’s tweets have penetrated a country where Internet access is blocked and the news is controlled by state-owned media. Many of his posts, particularly those in Spanish, are shared widely by Venezuelans and in Latin American countries.
Some of Rubio’s critics warn that he’s sowing confusion and inciting violence. As a humanitarian aid package headed from Colombia to Venezuela, Rubio tweeted an unverified report that Maduro allies fired into Colombia. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that Rubio was “ramping up the crisis” with his tweets.
“Maduro is evil, and the U.S. should pursue a strategy to undermine him and prompt new elections,” Murphy tweeted. “But it’s quite a different thing for the U.S. to incite a civil war with no real plan for how it ends.”
The next day, Rubio cryptically posted a picture of a bloody Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader captured and killed by his own people. The insinuation was Maduro would suffer the same fate if he didn’t turn over power to Juan Guaidó, elected interim president by the National Assembly in December, and it immediately drew international condemnation.
Rubio has also antagonized countries and regimes sympathetic to Maduro, like Russia and Cuba, as well as the United Nations and some of his Democratic critics.
Guaido’s coalition has the backing of large swaths of Venezuelans, many of which have suffered from food shortages, hyper inflation and humanitarian atrocities under Maduro. Dozens of countries, including the United States, have recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.
But Erica Chenoweth, an international relations professor focused on political violence at Harvard University, cautioned that even the perception of foreign intervention can cause popular unarmed movements to lose support, particularly in Latin America, where there’s a sordid, bloody history of U.S. entanglements.
“The thing that makes it especially problematic is the person tweeting and the country he represents won’t pay any price at all for the fallout,” Chenoweth said. “Encouraging a group of people to take more risky actions, it looks like conspiracy to the regime they’re targeting.”
Rubio has persistently rejected similar arguments. Dany Bahar, an economist who specializes in Venezuela, said Maduro would spread that propaganda independent of Rubio’s tweets.
While his tweets may be correctly perceived as provocative, they “in no way eclipse the situation of Maduro’s thugs burning humanitarian assistance,” said former Venezuela embassador Patrick Duddy.
Regardless, it’s a concern few could imagine 20 years ago, before a lawmaker in D.C. or Florida could instantly broadcast a message of peace or violence to recipients thousands of miles away. It’s a reality future administrations and diplomats will have to closely monitor.
“I’m not worried Rubio is going to start World War III,” Meserole said, “but it starts a template and a precedent that could be dangerous if it becomes a playbook for other senators to disrupt the president on foreign policy.”