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How Mexican Twitter Bots Shut Down Dissent

Peñabots, hashtag poisoning, and fake trends have stifled communication in Mexico.

Video of Peñabots attacking the #SobrinaEPN hashtag

More than 75,000 automated Twitter accounts are being used in Mexico to combat protests and attack critics of the government, according to research presented by writer Erin Gallagher at the Chaos Communication Camp in Zehdenick, Germany earlier this month.

The automated accounts, known as Peñabots, first appeared in 2012 during the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peñabot activity during the election limited itself to spreading political propaganda in support of Peña's campaign, but, as Gallagher explained in her talk, "Mexican Botnet Dirty Wars," social media manipulation has since taken a darker turn.

Last December, towards the end of the massive but peaceful 1DMX protest in Mexico City in response to the murder of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, an anonymous Twitter user tweeted this map with the hashtag #RompeElMiedo (#BreakTheFear):

"The zone in red, full of cops. Avoid the zone."

"This was a warning to tell protesters to avoid that red zone and safely exit the protest area," Gallagher said.

#RompeElMiedo is used by a network of journalists, activists and human rights defenders to document human rights abuses in Mexico during protests, she told the audience. Bots entered the hashtag 20-30 minutes later and filled the hashtag with spam. Gallagher called this tactic hashtag spamming, or hashtag poisoning.

"Arbitrary arrests began shortly thereafter," Gallagher said. "Activists were beaten. Protesters were beaten... In the end, the 1DMX protests ended in brutal police repression."

"It's possible that these folks would still have been beaten regardless of whether they received the notifications or not," Gallagher said, "but clearly this was putting them in real danger by not being able to access this hashtag."

Peñabots are also used to hack Twitter's trending topics in the country.

On February 25, 2015, a peaceful protest in Acapulco by the Mexican teachers' union CETEG ended in police attacking the protestors.

"In a country where teachers are treated like scum and criminals with respect, something is not right."

"The police beat the crap out of everyone," Gallagher said. "The injuries were brutal and the pictures went viral."

In response, she said, Peñabots pushed two fake trends. Hashtags #SoyAmanteDe (#ImALoverOf) and #DondeFirmoPara (#WhereDoISignFor) flooded Twitter, pushing the #Acapulco hashtag down to the tenth slot and eventually out of the trending bar.

Inorganic traffic of a fake trend. Image: Revolution News

Gallagher's research suggests that, on average, Peñabots promote 2-3 of these fake trends every day.

A similar tactic was used earlier this year in reaction to hashtag #SobrinaEPN (#NieceEPN). President Peña's niece landed a well-paid job with Pemex, Mexico's state-owned oil company. Many Mexicans considered this nepotism, and said so on Twitter.

Peñabots filled the hashtag with spam, which, Gallagher said, "is a censor in itself, as it drowns out the real conversation with spammy repeater tweets."

More worrying, however, she said, is that "they are also gaming the Twitter algorithm by gaming the novelty index. This triggers some sort of spam mechanism, causing the hashtag to be kicked out of the trending bar."

According to Gallagher's research, Peñabots also target individual journalists and activists for smear campaigns, death threats, and other forms of harassment.

The problem, she said, is that "social media is the new public square. Mexicans are relying on these networks to get their news out to the world and to communicate with each other... When these networks are manipulated, it is extremely damaging to Mexican society and free speech."

"This is information warfare," she added. "In Mexico, a hashtag is not just a hashtag, it's a way to make the invisible visible."

Twitter did not respond to our request for comment.