Earlier this month, a Caracas judge ruled that jailed opposition politician Leopoldo López must stand trial for allegedly issuing “subliminal messages.” Prosecutors say these served as an invitation to widespread violence, igniting Venezuela’s current wave of civic unrest.
López, who turned himself over to state security forces in February, maintains his innocence. But prosecutors say they have cracked the López code and can prove that the opposition leader’s calls for “peaceful protest” are, in fact, part of a broader and more sinister, US-backed plan to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist regime.
This is not the first time Venezuela has channeled semantic oracles to sniff out a coup. In May, Venezuela’s Ministry of People’s Power for Communication and Information denounced a related political complot that involved satellite broadcasting giant DirecTV. According to the ministry, a commercial promoting DirecTV’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup contains “subliminal messages” that give a telepathic two thumbs-up to Venezuela’s opposition protesters.
“A careful review of the [DirecTV] commercial,” says the Ministry, “reveals certain elements that are intended to discredit Venezuela and fuel the psychological war against it … with the objective of justifying foreign intervention.”
Given the magnitude of the López trial, expected to begin in August, the DirecTV controversy affords a timely invitation to review how the state builds a case of subliminal manipulation.
Of concern are the first five seconds of the 30-second DirecTV spot, which the ministry says includes three consecutive subliminal messages. Each of the messages is reviewed below, drawing on the Ministry’s written analysis, as well as a corollary video analysis, which aired on state television.
The DirecTV commercial opens with the image of a young man on his knees at the side of a road. He is wearing a flag as a cape and has his hands outstretched, ostensibly imploring a passing bus to take him to the World Cup.
The Ministry admits it cannot say for certain whether the flag tied around the man’s shoulders is Venezuelan – it could also be Colombian, or Ecuadorian. However, the message is clearly suggestive, according to the ministry, because opposition protesters in Venezuela have been known to wear Venezuelan flags in the same fashion. Moreover, they say, there is documented evidence of some Venezuelan protesters kneeling on the ground, striking poses similar to the young man in the commercial.
The video analysis of the DirecTV spot seeks to arrest any skepticism occasioned by the ambiguous provenance of the flag by comparing a still frame of the road alongside which the young man is kneeling to an image of Troncal 10, a highway that passes through Venezuela’s Gran Sabana.
The two images are, in fact, strikingly different. But this is not self-evident in the video, since the full images of the two highways appear side-by-side for less than a second.
The second subliminal message in the DirecTV spot, according to the ministry, derives from the image of a soccer fan who slips on a mask painted to resemble the flag of Chile.
This may not seem suspect since the flag is not Venezuelan — nor is it Colombian or Ecuadorian. However, the ministry points out that if you do a Google image search for “fans of Chile,” “Chilean fanatics,” or “mask of Chile,” the results do not turn up any masks painted to resemble a Chilean flag. Add to this the fact that some opposition protesters in Venezuela have been known to wear the now-familiar “Anonymous/Guy Fawkes” mask emblazoned with a Venezuelan flag and the secret message could not, according to the Ministry, be any clearer.
Never mind that the mask used in the DirecTV spot is clearly not the ‘Anonymous/Guy Fawkes’ mask, or that World Cup fever has Chileans of all ages painting flags on their faces to support the national team.
The third subliminal message planted by DirecTV, according to the ministry, involves a flag-wielding soccer fan running naked through a city street.
Once again, one cannot be certain if the featured flag is Venezuelan, Colombian, or Ecuadorian. But the fact that someone is dodging traffic in the buff, the ministry says, is an obvious reference to the recent campaign that invites Venezuelans to post naked photos of themselves on social media. The campaign was organized to show solidarity with student protesters who were stripped naked and beaten by pro-government paramilitary groups.
The ministry does not mention that streaking naked at mega-events has become something of a global tradition. Instead, it focuses on the purportedly political undertones of the scene, noting that the DirecTV streaker appears to be stopped by police who appear to be wearing a uniform that appears similar to that of Venezuelan police.
It is, apparently, an open-and-shut case.
Correlation Is Not Causation
Subliminal messaging is never self-evident. By definition, it occurs “below the threshold for conscious recognition” and therefore can be detected only by select individuals who, by training or fate, are immune to its power.
In bringing its case against DirecTV to the court of popular opinion, Venezuela’s Ministry of People’s Power for Communication and Information relies on abysmally loose conjecture from individuals who are not identified as holding credentials in semiotics or psychology. The video analysis of the DirecTV spot was narrated by Miguel Ángel Pérez Pirela, a philosophy major whose preeminent contribution to Venezuela’s semantic landscape seems to be his one-man campaign to re-label Venezuela’s opposition protesters as terrorists.
One would expect higher evidentiary standards for the López case. However, El Nacional reports that the two experts assigned to analyze López’s discourse (including three speeches and his Twitter feed) also seem to lack related expertise, although — like Pérez Pirela — they are known to be Chavista loyalists.
According to Venezuelan prosecutors, the subliminal messages allegedly issued by López “exerted a strong influence, not only on the manner of thinking but also on the potential actions” of protesters. Even if it is the case that subliminal messages were transmitted, however, correlation is not causation.
Countless studies have debunked the myth of subliminal manipulation; and most experts agree that if subliminal messaging works at all, it does so only in limited cases in which recipients are already predisposed to act in accordance with the message on offer, therein complicating any straightforward assessment of blame.
That Leopoldo López will go to trial in spite of this only serves to reinforce mounting international concerns that the Venezuelan legal system, in the words of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), is on the cusp of a dangerous “downward spiral.”
When the rule of law drops below the threshold for conscious recognition, it is subliminal — and the power of the oracles reigns supreme.