José Antonio Meade was applauded for over half a minute when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto introduced him as the candidate to succeed him at an event held inside the National Palace in November of last year.
But the applause on Twitter was fake. Hundreds of accounts almost simultaneously tweeted out @JoseAMEade until the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate’s name became a trending topic, according to Alberto Escorcia, a Mexican reporter who specializes in network analysis.
The digital space should be free, but it is not because each thing you say gets answered by three trolls
Rubén Darío Vázquez, UNAM
And he is not the only one, says Escorcia. The frontrunner in the Mexican presidential race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Together We'll Make History coalition, is also getting indirect support from fake Twitter accounts that follow one of his top aides, Ricardo Monreal.
For social media users in Mexico, it has become difficult to tell the difference between authentic and fake political discourse. Digital experts have detected that political parties are using bots (automated accounts) and trolls (humans who use fake accounts) at a rate unseen to date in the country.
They are primarily seeking the vote of young people, including 14 million new voters, in a country where Facebook and Twitter are particularly popular.
Fake news websites, paid influencers, identity theft and online harassment are common practices within Mexico’s political parties, according to young people who once worked as trolls, as well as analysts and political marketing entrepreneurs who were contacted by this newspaper.
While parties themselves deny it, data analysis says otherwise. According to the consulting firm Metrics México, over 18% of Twitter content in Mexico over the past few weeks was created by bots and influencers. “The influencers put out the topic, the bots fatten it up, and public opinion buys it,” sums up Metrics Mexico CEO Javier Murillo.
Facebook and Twitter have pledged to to fight the glitches in their systems, including the creation of fake accounts and use of bots. But critics say that these tech giants are not really interested in curbing the problem, because their share price depends on the global number of users.
Late last year, Twitter renewed its bot-detection app, and this has enabled the company to detect 523,000 daily attempts to automatically access the social network. Since June 2017 it has deactivated more than 220,000 accounts that did not follow the rules and were sending out over 2.2 billion “low-quality” tweets. In Mexico, Twitter works with the non-profit group Jóvenes en Movimiento to hold workshops on how to find information online.
Meanwhile, in early February Facebook signed a cooperation memorandum with Mexico’s National Electoral Institute to encourage citizen participation in the elections. The company wants to train government employees in how to use Facebook, and has pledged to develop material in partnership with civil groups to help users detect low-quality content on the web.
Europeans and Americans have recently become aware of the damage that can be inflicted by manipulation on Twitter and Facebook – especially following revelations about alleged Russian interference in the US elections and bad practices by political data firm Cambridge Analytica. But years before Russia founded the most famous troll farm in the world, the Internet Research Agency, dozens of them had already been operating in Mexico.
“People here see it as a normal thing, because in all their life they’ve never seen a clean Twitter environment,” says Andrea Noel, a reporter at The Daily Beast who has investigated fake information on social media.
An extensive report by the US-based Freedom House notes that online manipulation and disinformation campaigns have been “recurring” in Mexico since 2012, and that several studies have documented the use of bots “to manipulate the debates.”
As a result of this dirty war, Mexican networks have become fertile soil for ideologies and groups that prosper where truth has no value, experts warn. “Digital violence has been normalized,” laments Rubén Darío Vázquez, who teaches at Mexico’s UNAM university. “The digital space should be free, but it is not because each thing you say gets answered by three trolls.”
Trending topic wars
The online battlefield has become as important as the physical spaces of the political arena. Any trending topic is suspected of having been manipulated. In January 2017, anti-government protests over the price of gasoline were delegitimized when malicious actors encouraged vandalism through Twitter. The #SaqueaUnWalmart (or, Raid a Walmart) hashtag quickly grew to rival #gasolinazo (gas hike).
Mexico’s political trolls are often young college students who need the extra income. They earn about 12,000 pesos a month (€520), according to two former trolls who spoke to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity because they were forced to sign confidentiality clauses. Each troll was in charge of dozens of fake Twitter or Facebook accounts that used either fictitious or stolen identities. “They think you’re a real human being,” said one of them.
“The use of bots shows a lack of respect for all voters, it is a practice that makes no sense,” says Alejandra Lagunes, head of social media for the José Antonio Meade (PRI) campaign. “Technologies that artificially grow the online conversation are counter-productive.”
“We oppose any manipulation of information, in fact we oppose information monopolies, and to us, the space that has opened up on the online networks is a democratic space that needs to be preserved,” added Jesús Ramírez, social media coordinator for the Andrés Manuel López Obrador campaign. “We as a party neither hire or promote this type of communication.”
PAN officials were not available for comment.
Exports note that during the current presidential campaign in Mexico, manipulation techniques have evolved and bots and trolls are not the only available tools around. Some even feel that automated accounts “will be less important in 2018.”
On March 1, PRI deputies in Congress displayed a banner showing a cartoon depiction of National Action Party (PAN) candidate Ricardo Anaya and the hashtag #candiratón, a play on the word ratón (mouse), in a bid to make it a trending topic.
Sergio José Gutiérrez, of Espora, a political digital communication company, says that “parties have discovered more effective techniques such as generating fake news and advertising features in websites allegedly devoted to news, and which get sold to the highest bidder.”
This is not surprising, as false news spreads faster than the truth, according to an MIT study published in Science Magazine.
“Every week I find around five Facebook fanpages that disseminate these false stories and then disappear,” says Luis Roberto Castrillón, a freelance journalist who has been fighting disinformation for a couple of years. “Several of these pages directly put out false news, but there are many that aggregate content from other sources: they copy the news story and add deceptive headlines in order to attract visitors.”
Recent examples of fake news that quickly spread include alleged statements by former First Lady Margarita Zavala, who is running in this election as an independent. There was also a fake photograph of López Obrador’s son Ángel Manuel riding in a luxury sports car.
Experts say a new technique in this campaign entails sending out messages through WhatsApp or Snapchat, adds Oxford University researcher Yin Yin Lu. “Tactics like this one are much more sinister and manipulative because they are an invasion of your private life.”
And now there are fears that outside actors could make the situation in Mexico even worse. The Mexican market has also attracted companies such as Cambridge Analytica. In fact, this company has already secretly worked in Mexico according to the director general’s own statements, aired this week as part of an undercover sting by a British television news show.
Meanwhile, the US has warned that it sees “signs” of a Russian disinformation campaign in Mexico, although no conclusive evidence has emerged so far. The Mexican government has repeatedly said that it has detected no interference.
They think you’re a real human being
Mexicans were first aware of the use of social media as a campaigning tool in 2012. A video leaked to YouTube apparently shows the coordinator of a bot farm working for the PRI and telling trolls: “We need to start tweeting, all together, using the hashtag #EsMomentodeMéxico.”
Andrés Sepúlveda, a hacker who worked on that campaign, said in a 2016 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that he had a $600,000 budget to lead an army of 30,000 bots to work in favor of Peña Nieto.
The online propaganda sector has grown because parties are spending more funds on it. Experts expect parties to invest a large chunk of the 6.7 billion pesos ($360 million) assigned to them by the National Electoral Institute on online campaigning. With thousands of candidates competing for a seat in Congress, for governorships and for the presidency, digital companies have numerous opportunities to sign lucrative contracts.
“This is a big-money industry,” says the analyst Escorcia. And Victory Lab CEO Carlos Merlo, who runs one of these companies, says the competition keeps increasing. “If I don’t keep up, these 16- and 17-year-olds will take my business.”
The central role played by Twitter and Facebook in Mexican politics can be partly explained by the fact that Mexican society is young and social media are deeply implanted. Nearly six out of 10 Mexicans feel that the internet brings them closer to democratic processes, according to an August survey by the Internet.Mx Association.
Sergio Zaragoza, CEO of Botón Rojo, a Mexican digital consulting firm, believes that bots and trolls are “one more weapon in the electoral battle, and any campaign that fails to use them will lose out.”
His website offers “innovative campaigns aimed at growing the prestige and digital legacy of companies, individuals and public figures.” Zaragoza says that this happens in other countries, and that as long as Twitter and Facebook don’t do something about it, it will keep happening.
“Is it dangerous for democracy? Yes, but the digital war is won by appealing to emotions.”
English version by Susana Urra.