If you have not heard about the “Mexican Spring” and the role that social media and Twitter bots are having in this movement, please keep reading.
A few weeks ago, people in Mexico used to say that Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), would win the presidential elections without a doubt, “Unless something huge would happen.” And suddenly, something enormous exploded.
The trigger took place on May 11th, when Enrique Peña Nieto attended the Universidad Iberoamericana, a private university located in one of the most exclusive areas of Mexico City. The students shouted at the PRI candidate, calling him “Coward!” and “Assassin!”, because of the brutal repression that Peña Nieto ordered against the farmers and florists in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, when he was the governor of Estado de México, the state bordering Mexico City.
It’s important to mention that the PRI is a Mexican political party that held power in Mexico for more than 70 years (until 2000). For the last 12 years, another party has been in the power (the right-wing PAN).
The PRI responded by accusing the Universidad Iberoamericana of being manipulated by a group of provocateurs and infiltrators and said that the number of students protesting was irrelevant. Televisa, the most important TV network in Mexico and other print media only gave a partial version of events favorable to the PRI candidate.
Afterwards, students started a mobilization on social networks: they replied with a video in which 131 of them showed their university ID card and denied the disqualifications made by the PRI. The video went viral and attracted the sympathy of many young people who created the website #yosoy132 (I’m –the student- 132).
On the May 18th, a lot of students joined a protest against Televisa demanding freedom of speech and reliable information. In order to promote and organise the protest, the students created the hashtag La #MarchaYosoy132, which has been a worldwide Trending Topic for 14 days.
Then, on May 19th, thousands of people marched in Mexico City – and other important cities in Mexico – against the PRI candidate as he represents a corrupt group including the inequitable media which have been accused to promote and protect Peña Nieto.
People created the hashtag #MarchaAntiEPN (which means March against Enrique Peña Nieto). However, after few hours, this hashtag couldn’t be seen as Trending Topic anymore.
Why? Well, a new form of attack is being used that could well define the phrase “If you can’t fight against the enemy, join him, and sabotage him.”
How does it work? Hundreds of bots can be programmed to post messages with a hashtag (such as #MarchaAntiEPN) surrounding an event that is unwanted by a political party or government.
So after activists created the #MarchaAntiEPN hashtag, Twitter bots immediately began to post thousands of messages that repeated the hashtag in robotic manner (there was nothing personal about these messages). Twitter identified the hashtag as spam because it was repeated thousands of times by bots and removed from the site’s “Trending Topics” list.
After this boycott, people organizing the #MarchaAntiEPN, adopted the hashtag created the day before, La # MarchaYosoy132 in order to manage the protest and share information about it. The protest was a success as we can see on this video recorded in Mexico City:
In many cases, the Twitter bots have posted messages that could jam hashtags favourable to leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador or hashtags in support of conservative candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota.
The PRI has an impressive ability to guide and organize supporters in social media but it is not very good at managing social media crisis as I wrote in December 2011. Unfortunately for the PRI, a video was posted on YouTube a few weeks ago, showing the way the party coordinates a group of “trolls” to promote the hashtag #EsMomentoDeMéxico (It’s Mexico’s moment) during the first presidential debate which took place on May 6th.
The left wing party in Mexico (PRD), is much better positioned on the Internet as they have not trusted the traditional media, as a result, they have been using social networks for longer.
It seems that all parties in Mexico have benefited from the use of Twitter bots, but the PRI is benefiting from this strategy the most: Hundreds of bots are sabotaging the hashtags against Peña Nieto or posting thousands of messages that benefit the PRI on a daily basis.
Bots are used worldwide. In the United States and other developed countries there is already a successful industry of programmers that sell bots and Twitter followers. They help individuals, politicians, and companies to increase their number of followers and visibility on Twitter (the fact that some Italian companies have fake followers made it to the front page of major newspaper in Italy just a few days ago).
But the use of bots means serious damage to any democracy. We can see how social media has become the battlefield of a new war for freedom of speech. For example, if we – users – find any act of corruption that someone doesn’t want it to be spread; it is easy to boycott the Trending Topic using bots.
Such strategies have been used in authoritarian regimes like Syria where President Bashar al-Assad blocked any information protesting against the regime. Twitter spam bots, are also used to drown out dissenting voices of Tibetan protesters, and a similar approach was supposedly used last year when Russians were protesting Kremlin policies.
American politicians have taken advantage of the use of bots as well. For example, Newt Gingrich, candidate to the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination, has bought most of his Twitter followers. An analysis of Gingrich’s account showed that:
- Only 8% of his followers were real
- 76% of Gingrich’s followers had posted no information about themselves in the bio section of their profile
- The majority of Gingrich’s followers were either business accounts, private accounts, anonymous accounts that had only a user ID and no other visible connection to the internet
Why are politicians using bots? The use of fake accounts on Twitter or Facebook rarely work to attract voters, and may even cause some critics. But, on the other hand, one of the main objectives of the “bots” is to influence the political perception of social network users, and eventually the perception of the traditional media as well.
Politicians can project an image of strength if thousands of people are following them. Bots are an easy way to create an illusion that they have more followers than they actually do and they could make a company or an individual look more popular. Spam bots are getting more sophisticated; many of them have fake profile pictures, fake bios and generate fake tweets. However, spam bots have many disadvantages: they don’t RT or follow links we tweet out, they don’t share useful information, they don’t engage like the rest of us, and sometimes they make us click on scams.
For the moment, activists and campaigns in Mexico and elsewhere are exposed to bot attacks since there are no laws regulating the use of them. In any case, the only consequence is that Twitter can cancel their accounts for violating terms of service.
What is Twitter doing about it? Last April, Twitter’s war against spam started as the company announced on its blog an extensive spam-bot takedown, filing lawsuits against “five of the most aggressive tool providers and spammers”. We’ll see if these actions work.
Going back to Mexico’s case, the protests have been called the “Mexican Spring,” making reference to the uprisings that began in North Africa at the end of 2010. Students are proving that no one wins an election until the day of the election itself (Media in Mexico have insisted for months that Peña Nieto would win easily). 24 million young people under 29 years old are part of the electorate: would this change the election results? Recent polls have shown an important decrease of Peña Nieto in the preferences.
As millions of people only get information from Television and local newspapers, students are taking images and phrases from Social Media to some public places in order to let poorer and older people know what’s happening in social networks.
So actions started on social media have a huge impact on real life.
Thanks to the Movement #YoSoy132 the two major television networks in the country (Televisa and TV Azteca), will broadcast the second debate of the candidates (something that the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute wasn’t able to achieve for the first debate, as I mentioned in my last article).
Currently, the movement #YoSoy132 is asking for a third debate and is organizing groups of observers during the voting to ensure fair and democratic elections. #Yosoy132 is also asking for support of the international press and organisations around the world.
#YoSoy132 is not the Arab Spring because it’s happening within a more democratic framework: no one is trying to cause the downfall of a government.
But journalists see some similarities to the protestors in the Middle East, the 15M movement in Spain, or the Occupy movement in the US. People are fighting for more equality and want to ensure politicians govern for everyone, not just for themselves.
The protesters think the movement should go beyond elections as #YoSoy132 is not only a student movement, today is a protest of all Mexicans.
Including me, even if I live thousands miles away. And this is all thanks to social media.