Ayotzinapa protest. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The Protest Mexico's Pro-Government Twitter Bots Couldn't Silence

Attempts to silence Twitter protests over a mass kidnapping didn't work as well as in the past.

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Sep 30 2015, 7:29pm

Ayotzinapa protest. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

September 26 marked the one year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa kidnappings in which 43 students were taken by municipal police in Iguala, Mexico, never to be seen again.

To no one's surprise, the date was marked with a fresh onslaught of pro-government propaganda on Twitter.

The current administration under President Enrique Peña-Nieto allegedly uses more than 75,000 automated Twitter accounts, called "Peñabots," to silence or stymie critics of the Mexican government by diluting or creating trending topics, conducting smear campaigns, and even sending death threats to individuals.

A Peñabot attack is actually very simple: according to researchers, the automated accounts, many of which send out 20 or more tweets per second, spam a trending hashtag by "poisoning" it, which means tweeting the hashtag with nonsensical or empty content.

It seems as though the true connections between actual tweeters using that hashtag were stymied far less than in previous months

This tricks Twitter's algorithm into pulling the hashtag from its trending list, making it harder for protesters to communicate with each other and decreasing the likelihood of real tweets—made by real human connections—to be disseminated out into the world.

Because Twitter's novelty index takes the tweet rate of a specific hashtag into consideration, this form of attack has been particularly successful in shutting down modes of communication between protesters as they tweet in real-time.

This exact type of attack was used against the #YaMeCanse hashtag in December of 2014, after Jesus Karam, then Attorney General of Mexico, cut an official government press conference short with, "Enough, I'm tired," when pressed for details about his statements regarding the government's sham investigation into the missing Ayotzinapa students.

#YaMeCanse helped organize criticism of the Mexican government in the months immediately following the official, "historic truth" put out by the PGR. Some months later, when Carmen Aristegui, whose investigative team found evidence of Peña-Nieto allegedly receiving personal kickbacks from Grupo Higa which won a lucrative Mexican government contract, Aristegui was inexplicably fired from her station at MVS where she hosted a talk show. Shortly after the news of her firing reached Twitter, #EnDefensaDeAristegui or "In Defense of Aristegui" began trending.

Peñabot attacks on both of these hashtags led to subsequent versions of those same hashtags with numbers tagged to the end of them in order to beat the bots. The original hashtags eventually disappeared from trending lists altogether.

Other forms of attack include creating fake trending topics, oftentimes with the bots linking to pro-Mexican government propaganda.

The details of the Ayotzinapa kidnappings—outlined in an independent report commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights —differ greatly from the official Mexican government report provided by the PGR, Mexico's Attorney General's office. These discrepancies fueled public dissent on September 26 as people marched in Mexico City from Los Pinos—Mexico's White House—to the Zocolo in remembrance and support of justice for the students and their families.

The primary organizing hashtag of the day was #DiaDeLaIndignacion or "Day of Indignation." And while that hashtag was heavily spammed with pro-government propaganda, it seems as though the true connections between actual tweeters using that hashtag were stymied far less than in previous months.

As #DiaDeLaIndignacion trended in Mexico Saturday, Peñabots created the feel-good #HoyPintaPara, which translates to "Today is good for," to compete. That hashtag garnered only about a third as many tweets as #DiaDeLaIndignacion. Peñabots' simultaneous hijacking of the globally trending hashtag #BatmanDay also paled in comparison to the true connections made between Mexican protesters.

It's estimated that 96 percent of Mexicans between 20 and 30 years old use social networking as a form of communication with 57 percent of that same demographic owning smart phones. Twitter is a tool used by many protesters in Mexico to share real-time photos and other information concerning safety, marching routes, and human rights violations via trending hash tags during marches, which in turn, disseminate that information to the world. Peñabots were designed to crack-down on these networks of people, according to researchers.

Erin Gallagher, creator of the video "Mexican Botnet Dirty Wars," says the obfuscating nature of Mexican bureaucracy makes it tough to draw a direct line from the Peña-Nieto administration to the bots themselves. But evidence strongly suggests that the automated bots used to squash public criticism of Enrique Peña-Nieto ahead of Mexico's 2012 Presidential campaign are the same pro-government bots (or at least the same bots bought on contract) used to quell public outrage facing his administration, especially in the wake of the Ayotzinapa kidnappings.