Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Elections and social media in Mexico

Some people in Mexico are serious about exposing online political manipulation.

Mexico election: Concerns about election bots, trolls and fakes
Political parties in Mexico are using bots and fake accounts in an attempt to influence voter behaviour and in some cases spread false stories ahead of the country's presidential elections on 1 July, according to researchers, journalists and activists…

Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher with Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project, has been tracking automated accounts, or bots, which attempt to manipulate public opinion by boosting the popularity of social media posts.

But there are other tricks deployed in aid of politicians. "Troll farms"… are run by actual humans, each of which might control dozens or hundreds of accounts. And often accounts are semi-automated, pumping out messages with a mix of computer power and human know-how…

In a paper published in 2017, Bradshaw along with researcher Philip Howard, concluded that government-sponsored "spam-bots" were used in Mexico to "target journalists" and "spread misinformation".

"These bots are often used to flood social media networks with spam and fake news. They can also amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance," the researchers wrote…

The previous use of bots and the upcoming election has concentrated the attention of the public and activists on online trickery.

Alberto Escorcia, founder of the blog Lo Que Sigue ("What's Next"), says that although the use of bots for political purposes has been detected in Mexico since at least 2010, this type of activity has intensified in recent years…

Although the PRI has been the focus of much of the attention of the researchers, both Bradshaw and Escorcia agree that online tricks haven't been limited to one party. All the main political parties in the country are using bots in their current campaigns, they say.

However the main political parties, including the PRI, have consistently denied they are using bots…

The bots and trolls are spreading political messages, but there's a more fundamental concern - that they are seeding the web with false news stories.

As a response, more than sixty Mexican media outlets, universities and NGOs formed an anti-fake news initiative called Verificado 2018.

Verificado is encouraging people to send them stories on social media using the hashtag #QuieroQueVerifiquen, or "I want you to verify this." The organisation's researchers will then fact-check and publish their findings.

"In this election we are finding a lot of bots that are being used in order to promote or to attack other candidates," says Yuriria Avila, a Verificado 2018 fact-checker." "We're seeing bots are being used to promote hashtags that people wouldn't naturally use, and they become trending topics."

One piece of false news she detected in March was a report that said an opinion poll commissioned by The New York Times showed Meade - the PRI candidate - leading the presidential race with 42% of voters behind him.

The poll was fictional; most polls have instead consistently shown Meade trailing third in the race…

Avila says that a number of false stories are being shared through the messaging app Whatsapp, and because of the closed nature of that system, they have been among the most challenging things to track and debunk…

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