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Mexico: Twitterbots Sabotage Anti-PRI Protest

Posted: May 22, 2012

Fake Twitter accounts, posting thousands of automated messages per day, have managed to dilute and “censure” information on an upcoming protest against Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, a web expert told Univision News.

Web marketing expert Alfonso Tames, says that this unethical strategy has also been used to jam information that favors political groups and activists who oppose the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Peña Nieto’s party.

How does it work?

According to Tames, hundreds of bots can be programmed to post messages with a hashtag surrounding an event that is undesirable for a government or political party. For example, the protest against Peña Nieto, which carries a hashtag of #marchaAntiEPN.

When a hashtag is repeated thousands of times by bots, Twitter identifies it as a spam item, and therefore prevents messages with that hashtag from reaching the site’s coveted “Trending Topics” list.

Since September of last year, Tames has been tracking fake Twitter accounts or bots, that support Mexican politicians of all parties.

He said that after activists created the #marchaAntiEPN hashtag on May 10, bots immediately began to post thousands of messages that indiscriminately repeated that hashtag.

The effect of these messages, according to Tames, is to dilute useful information on the march, and prevent it from reaching the trending topics list.

At Univision News, we checked out Tames’ allegations and found that on Wednesday afternoon, a group of about 30 bots was still bombarding Twitter with messages that only included the #MarchaAntiEPN hashtag.

In a 35 minute time period that went from 4:03pm to 4:38pm local time, we counted 360 messages like the ones below. Notice there is nothing personal about these messages; they only repeat the hashtag in robotic manner.

Of course, we checked out some of the accounts posting these fishy messages. And not surprisingly, we found accounts with only a handful of followers that have been repeating the same messages up to 50 times per hour.

In many cases, the same account was posting messages that could jam hashtags favorable to leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and also posting messages that could jam hashtags in support of conservative candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota. But none of the accounts we found in this batch acted against the interests of the PRI.

Some of these accounts took their profile pictures from people who seem to be unrelated to the account, in what could be a case of identity theft.

User @AlejandraAmoro1, for example, calls herself Alejandra on Twitter. But when we copied and pasted the URL from her profile picture and put it on Google, we found out that the picture was linked to the account of Facebook user Ashley Bogil.

Alfonso Tames, the web marketing expert, says that he doesn’t know who is programming these bots. For the moment we do not have solid evidence that shows that someone within the PRI has paid programmers to make these pro-Peña Nieto accounts.

However, it would not be surprising if this were the case, given the party’s history of paying for real life followers by giving people in poor areas of the country money and food to attend campaign rallies.

Regardless of who is doing this, Tames believes that the use of bots by the PRI or any other party, has grave implications for Mexican democracy.

“The message that they are giving us…is that if we don’t like something, if we catch some act of corruption that they don’t want to diffuse, they can take it down [on Twitter] like they are taking down the anti-EPN march,” Tames said.

This is not only a problem in Mexico. According to Professor Ethan Zuckerman, a social media expert at MIT, the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used bot-like strategies to jam information on protests against his regime.

“Supporters of the Syrian government were flooding hashtags used by anti-Assad rebels with meaningless info, like soccer scores from decades old matches,” Zuckerman explained in an email.

In the United States and other developed countries like Australia, there is already a booming industry of programmers that sell Twitter followers and bots. These companies help people, politicians, and companies to increase their number of followers and mentions on Twitter.

But Zuckerman and other social media experts have pointed out that there are no laws in Syria, the United States, Mexico or anywhere else in the world, that regulate the use of bots.

Currently, the only consequence faced by those who program and use bots is that Twitter can cancel their accounts because they violate the site’s terms of use.

This means that for the moment, activists and campaigns in Mexico and elsewhere, are exposed to bot attacks. Even Peña Nieto has been targeted by bots like this one, which posts numerous messages against the PRI candidate under a hashtag that is meant to support him.

How do we know this is a bot? Almost all of this account’s messages attack the PRI candidate, or support leftist candidate López Obrador. The account does not tweet about any other subject, like a regular human would. On top of that, its profile picture is not a photo of Carla Martinez, as the account claims, but was taken from Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin.

It seems that all parties in Mexico have benefited from the use of Twitterbots. But Tames, who has monitored this phenomenon since September 2011, says that the PRI is benefiting from this strategy the most. He argues that every day, hundreds of bots are posting thousands of messages that benefit the PRI on a systematic basis.

“The PRI has an impressive ability to herd and organize supporters,” Tames said, explaining that the party held onto power for seventy years by holding unequal and sometimes even fraudulent elections.

“There was a party dictatorship in Mexico, but there were always elections,” the web analyst concluded.

This article originally appeared on Univision News.

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