Mexican political parties are using deceptive tactics on social media to distort the political debate and gain voter support in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election, according to digital experts.
In a report published yesterday, the newspaper El País said the main target of parties’ online strategies are young people, including 14 million new voters who could sway the outcome of the July 1 election.
Experts have detected that parties are using bots — automated accounts — and trolls — people who use accounts that are often fake — to disseminate political propaganda. They are also paying third parties to generate and circulate politically expedient fake news.
The prevalence of such practices is at unprecedented levels, with Facebook and Twitter particularly susceptible to the phenomenon given their high levels of popularity.
When Twitter users watched a video of President Enrique Peña Nieto introducing José Antonio Meade as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate at an event in November last year, they heard applause that went on for over half a minute.
However, according to Mexican reporter Alberto Escorcia, the applause was fake.
Escorcia, who specializes in network analysis, told El País that simultaneously with the uploading of the video, hundreds of accounts tweeted the candidate’s Twitter handle until Meade became a trending topic on the social platform.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the frontrunner in opinion polls, also receives indirect support from fake Twitter accounts, the reporter said.
Young people who have worked as trolls along with political analysts and marketing entrepreneurs all confirmed to El País that fake news websites, paid influencers, identity theft and online harassment are all common practices within Mexico’s political parties.
Consulting firm Metrics México said that 18% of all Twitter content in Mexico over recent weeks was created either by bots or influencers.
“The influencers put out the topic, the bots fatten it up and public opinion buys it,” said company CEO Javier Murillo.
Experts say that parties will likely spend a large portion of the 6.7 billion pesos (US $361 million) allocated to them by the National Electoral Institute (INE) on online campaigning.
The CEO of digital consulting firm Botón Rojo, Sergio Zaragoza, said that bots and trolls are “one more weapon in the electoral battle, and any campaign that fails to use them will lose out.”
“Is it dangerous for democracy? Yes, but the digital war is won by appealing to emotions,” he added.
Trolls are often young college students, El País said, whom parties pay around 12,000 pesos (US $645) a month to manage dozens of fake Twitter or Facebook accounts set up using fictitious or stolen identities to promote a political party and discredit its opposition, often using highly unscrupulous methods.
Yet the parties themselves deny that they use bots and trolls even though there is evidence that the practice has been happening for several years.
“The use of bots shows a lack of respect for all voters, it is a practice that makes no sense,” said the head of social media for Meade’s campaign team, Alejandra Lagunes.
We oppose any manipulation of information . . . we as a party neither hire or promote this type of communication,” said Jesús Ramírez, López Obrador’s social media coordinator.
Officials from the National Action Party (PAN), part of the coalition backing Ricardo Anaya for president, were not available for comment, El País said.
Despite the denials, United States non-governmental organization Freedom House says that online manipulation and disinformation campaigns have been “recurring” in Mexico since 2012 and several studies have pointed to the use of bots to manipulate the political debate.
Photos that circulated on social media from an account likely managed by a troll and purporting to show López Obrador, his wife and his son in luxury vehicles provide one recent example of online information manipulation.
The photos were fake but nevertheless generated significant negative publicity for the leftist candidate who has strong support among voters of lower economic means.
Sergio José Gutiérrez, of political digital communication company Espora, said that in addition to manipulation through social media, parties have also “discovered more effective techniques such as generating fake news” and paying for positive editorial features that masquerade as news.
A report in the New York Times in December said the federal government made lucrative advertising deals with several media outlets on the proviso that it received favorable coverage and editorial influence.
In addition to home-grown trolls and bots, there is also evidence that foreigners have already sought to influence the Mexican political landscape and speculation that Russia is seeking to influence the electoral process.
Cambridge Analytica — the company that worked on United States President Donald Trump’s campaign and accessed the private data of around 50 million Facebook users in a massive data breach — has already worked in Mexico, according to statements by the company’s former CEO that were revealed in a secret recording.
The United States has also warned that it sees signs of Russian meddling in Mexico although the Mexican government has said repeatedly that it has not detected any interference.
Source: El País (en)