From #PeñaBots to Soap Operas, An Information Warfare in Mexican Politics
A few days ago, I re-posted a small article about Mexican populism and the foreseeing incursion of social media by politicians. The short piece discussed the role that tweets and Facebook posts among other social media platforms have on their perception of their population. Erin Gallagher asked me what was my opinion about the role of the government in social media. I have decided that I would answer her question as a blog entry that expands my current view on the topic.
Mexico, Everytime More Connected… To Television.
In the case of Mexico, as in many other countries, this is still an area that requires further study to identify how these platforms alter people’s perceptions of political leaders. Nevertheless, it is more and more evident that these governments are investing more and more in how they want to be perceived in under this media spectrum. But Mexico’s case is quite unique. Mexico has a very low level of Internet subscribers with a 10% of the population, compared to the UK (37.8%) or the USA (31.42%). [i] Nevertheless, that 10% of the Mexican internet subscribers represent 12’838,093 Mexican households. Enough people to make substantial changes to a political outcome. Therefore, politicians and political parties have acknowledged that the Web plays an important role when reaching the millions of Mexican homes but at the same time these are homes under the Web 2.0 umbrella. These homes can also broadcast their messages and backlash against the original message originally sent by the politician. Arguably, the Web can be used as another mass media channel or at least to extend the original media pathway of a marketing campaign. Lately, political campaigns have become marketing wars with their particular advertising outputs. This is the reason why we are witnessing huge coverage of characters such as Donald Trump that have a high top of mind awareness as referred in marketing terms. Nevertheless, these effects do not really convince the vast majority of people to vote, particularly the ones who are looking to exercise an educated vote, but it will still affect and influence voting in the general population. Mexico knows this and has invested heavily in marketing campaigns and embedding themselves in the media. [ii] For instance, Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaigns have cost over $413 million dollars.
This advertising investment took place in states that do not rank on the top states with Internet access [i]. This suggests that this push strategy ( yet another marketing term ) is made through traditional means such as television, print and radio. Moreover, this is supported by the investment distribution made to each one of their providers where the vast majority has been spent on Televisa, one of the main television networks in Mexico. [ii]
What we are witnessing now is a new investment on media manipulation through social media. The astroturfing of politicians is more and more evident. Memes, trending topics and internet shaming are some ways of society to backlash against political inconformity, and politicians have noticed this thus spreading a huge shift in the way they deal with their personas on social media networks. Astroturfing is now a central part of politicians on the Web. Due to the fact that other countries have may government and private agencies such as the NSA, CIA, Ofcom or GCHQ regulating their content and Mexico only has one private organisation regulating it (Carlos Slim / Telmex), Mexico had to invest in hiring what are now known as #PeñaBots. PeñaBots are individuals paid to push or promote Peña Nieto’s twits thus lowering the reach of a particular trending topic. What we are witnessing now is astroturfing as a marketing campaign for a political gain. For example, Merca2.0 published a list of the 20 most followed Mexican politicians in Facebook and Twitter. [i] Where on top place Enrique Peña Nieto place first place. Nevertheless, this does not mean that he is actually that relevant or popular. Once an analysis is performed on the amount of real followers, then it is evident the investment that has been made in producing fake followers. In order for an astroturfing strategy to take place it is necessary to portray popularity thus depicting popularity or a mass movement. Ironically Peña only has 45% of real followers. From the three main political parties of the last national election, he is the one with less credibility in this sense, followed by Josefina Vazquez Mota and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, both 48%.
This evidences the way in which Mexican politics work. The general mexican population lacks political education thus ignoring their local government. Arguably, Mexicans commonly complain about the main government without actually getting involved within their local community governmental bodies. This argument can illustrated with the lack of investment of fake followers in social media networks. All the main political parties scored positive in their percentage of real followers. This could suggest that it is not that important to invest on main organisations whilst investing on the individual main representative remains a priority.
Other countries such as the UK, or the USA, do not have the same result. Barack Obama, David Cameron and even Arnold Schwarzenegger score positive as well. As expected, on a lower level, local and less central Mexican representatives present higher scores similar to the ones from their parties. In here PRI lead the list, followed by PAN and PRD. Many of these representatives such as Manuel Velasco and Luis Vinegary have very low acceptance in the polls in areas with high levels of Internet access. Nevertheless, the investment is not there, arguably due to the same issue of the importance that the central leader has above local authorities.
A more clear example can be shown as well with the main political parties. Most of these accounts do not show a significant investment of fake followers. In this case MORENA is the account with the highest score. Similarly, the population focuses on what the main leaders are saying instead of the political house parties. This is also reflected in advertising, the investment is commonly reflected in individuals and not on the working groups. It is certainly cheaper invest US$9 for 3000 followers thus risking showing the lack of integrity and lowering reputation than engaging with the communities behind those twitter accounts.
The lack of engagement between social media users and politicians differ from different parts of the world. As said, the case in Mexico there is only a few areas that have fully engaged with Information Technologies. These states are in majority the ones that make Mexico the 4th fastest growing country in social media communities 5. Therefore, there is a large community ready to engage with information and criticise the current government. But what we have witnessed is a government not yet ready to engage with the social media communities. Instead PeñaBots have left traces of evidence of the difficult situation that social media communities create for the current government or politicians. For example the case of #YaMeCanse became a trending topic when Jesus Murillo Karam, the PRI principal attorney who handled the case of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico mentioned that he was too tired (“ya me canse”) to continue with the journalist’s questions. This became the trending topic where Mexicans were showing their inconformity with the government. A quick response was shown by the government where according to Alberto Escorcia, a social media specialist, PeñaBots were used to push other trending topics to displace the current #YaMeCanse 6. He used Gephi to visualise how #PeñaBots attacked the trending topic, here is the video of how it happened.
There is not much evidence of other countries performing similar actions from their main accounts, but many of them are investing heavily in the way they are portrayed online and the way their communities engage with them. In this case the main Mexican government has only a 57% of real users, meanwhile Russia only has 22%. This is an area that requires further research since there is many evidence that shows that digital communities are deeply connected to the real world. Finally, even though a hashtag can not fix the issues in their countries, it shows that there is people interested to do it and that puts a lot of pressure in a government that are not doing their job properly.
[i] OECD, Broadband Portal, http://www.oecd.org/sti/broadband/oecdbroadbandportal.htm, July 2015.