For nearly two years, starting in 2021, María Virginia Montiel struggled with the country’s legal system. The Venezuelan publicist had accused influential radio broadcaster Lenin Rojas of rape. As the case dragged on, Montiel claimed she dealt with canceled court summons, misplaced forensic files, and other irregularities. She alleged the legal process was tainted by Rojas and his team, who she claimed had connections within the local government. Neither Rojas nor his legal team replied to questions from Rest of World by the time of publication.

On March 1, Montiel decided to take to social media to denounce the abuse she had suffered. In an almost-7 minute video, she alleged that Rojas, a man 15 years her senior who had a professional relationship with her family, had abused her when she was 18. Another woman, Lucía Di Vita, had already gone viral in 2021 after she posted her own allegations of abuse from Rojas. The now 20-year-old tagged Attorney General Tarek William Saab, the head of the country’s largest national police agency, and influencer Irrael Gómez in her post, since the cases Gómez shares on his platforms are usually picked up by the authorities.

After Montiel released a longer video on social media just days later, the authorities jumped into action. As the post went viral, Saab accused Rojas on Twitter of “lascivious acts and harassment.” Following public pressure, on March 24, Rojas was detained and put under house arrest for his own safety. By May 5, Montiel’s post had over 26,000 likes.

Montiel is among the lucky beneficiaries of a strange form of seeking justice that is gaining popularity in Venezuela, where access to formal legal channels has become increasingly limited.

In recent years, several victims of crimes — from scams and kidnapping to animal cruelty and gender-based violence — have received justice after their posts on social media platforms went viral, thanks to influencers-turned-social justice warriors.

The trend has spawned an entire category of such influencers. Some of them focus on specific issues — such as Gerybeth Silva who has 13,000 followers on Instagram and posts about pet-related crimes. Others, like marketing guru Gómez (2.6 million followers on Instagram) and lawyer Alexa Gómez (350,000 followers combined across her two Twitter accounts), seek out high-profile cases. Using their online clout, they help people spread the word about their campaigns to attract the attention of the authorities. Rest of World spoke to several influencers, the beneficiaries of their services, and legal experts to understand how social media has become essential to accessing the Venezuelan legal system — even if this access does not actually ensure justice.

“Social media provides something to the victims that the system can’t: being heard and seen.”

“Civil society has stopped believing in Venezuela’s criminal justice system,” Alfredo M. Félix, a lawyer for human rights NGO Defiende Venezuela, told Rest of World. “Social media provides something to the victims that the system can’t: being heard and seen.” Since viral posts catch officials’ attention and lead to action, a growing number of Venezuelans have taken to using social media to kickstart their cases, he said. 

Venezuela was ranked last among 140 countries in the World Justice Project’s 2022 list of how close a country sticks to the rule of law. Lawsuits are hard to present to authorities in the country; more often than not, they’re dismissed. The International Criminal Court and a fact-finding mission from the United Nations have investigated President Nicolás Maduro’s government for potential human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

The trend of social media influencer-fueled justice has lately become so effective that it has become more or less systematized. It usually starts with people uploading a video or text about their case on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, sometimes even showing the paperwork they’ve filed in the court. They tag the attorney general, other relevant authorities, and social media influencers. They then ask other users on the platform to share the post, and continue to tag authorities and influencers. Gómez, who helped spread the word about Montiel’s alleged harassment, is the most popular influencer in this space, because of his reach and heavy involvement in the cases he decides to take on. 

“Influencers and social media personalities play an important role [for transparency] since traditional media in Venezuela is totally censored,” Valentina Aguana, a technologist for digital rights platform VE Sin Filtro, told Rest of World. Influencers help a specific case get the right people’s attention. A case of gender-based violence is more likely to be supported by anonymous account La Divina Diva, whereas the cause of anti-corruption is often taken up by renowned journalists like Román Camacho or Vladimir Villegas.

Both Aguana and Félix believe the influencers’ interest in playing the role of justice broker goes beyond altruism — their fame as problem solvers adds to their followings. Aguana noted that journalist-influencer Villegas is the brother of both a member of the National Assembly as well as the Venezuelan minister of culture, while Irrael Gómez’s sister held a high position in the attorney general’s office at one point in  2018.

La Divina Diva told Rest of World that influencers get involved because they “just want to do [their] part and contribute to a complex situation.” Alexa Gómez said that although people can’t see some of the negative consequences they face when getting involved in these cases — like doxxing, which she said happened to her in 2012 — there has been a positive impact on her life, too. “[My life] changed for the good since I became a bridge between problems and solutions,” she said. “I have been contacted by government offices to offer help, and social media has turned into a big tool to fill in the lack of regular channels.”

But though this system has gained in popularity, it often goes only as far as raising awareness, according to Félix — actually getting justice can be a different battle altogether. 

He said law enforcement officials deal with victims in an irresponsible manner, since “expectations are not properly managed, and [a viral case] can turn into a media show.” This can lead to revictimization of those seeking justice, often through online harassment when their names and cases are showcased around the country.

In 2021, when the #MeToo movement was at its peak on Venezuelan social media, the then 22-year-old Andrea González Cariello publicly posted allegations of being abused by well-known actor and theater director Juan Carlos Ogando when she was a teenager. Ogando had been her acting coach and a longtime family friend. González recounted how he had kissed and touched her without her consent. 

After her video went viral, she said she got a call from Carolys Pérez, the minister for women and gender equality at the time. Pérez assured González she would personally handle her case. Rest of World reached out to Pérez but received no reply at the time of publication.

But González told Rest of World she is still waiting, as she isn’t aware of any progress being made on her case. Meanwhile, since her name was publicized by authorities after her post went viral, she was subjected to a barrage of online harassment. Félix lamented that, even when authorities do react to such cases, victims still need to go through the “corrupt and partial Venezuelan justice system.”

González is not dissatisfied, though. She told Rest of World that while no real justice has been served through the penal system, the denunciations on social media have at least ensured real consequences for her abuser in public life. 

“People know what he did to us and don’t want to be involved with him,” she said. González has since helped 15 women file their own abuse cases, and also accompanied many more in their online journey to seek justice on social media.