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Sinister Twitter Bots Attempt to Drown Out Mexican Protesters

Since last September, the rate of large scale protesting against violence and corruption in Mexico has risen steeply. In part it was a reaction to 43 students going missing while on the way to a protest in Iguala (likely now dead), and the massive disparity between the government's official statement and what the investigative reports turned up. That's just a small part of it though, as the Mexican populous have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of action against gang violence and human rights violations.

The government haven't responded well to any of the protests, and it's become the main platform for the rise of an unsettling new tactic - hashtag poisoning. The ongoing Mexican protests have relied heavily on social media organisation, particularly on Twitter, via a series of pertinent hashtags. The main, most well known one is #YaMeCanse (which translates to 'I am Tired'), but recently if you searched the hashtag, you would find it flooded with either empty or meaningless tweets from Mexican bot accounts.

They're doing it so that any important information about upcoming protests will get buried, or so that any reports about past protests broken up by the police won't get shared around. The above video shows the bots flooding the I am Tired hashtag in real time. It's been going on in various forms since 2012, during the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which earned them the nickname 'Peñabots'. Since then they've been a staple of Mexican twitter activity, engulfing any anti-governmental material with white noise until it's completely buried. In some cases that even involved tripping Twitter's spam filters and getting the entire topic blacklisted and dropped from the trending list.

Supposedly there are more than 75,000 active Peñabots at the moment, and they've been implemented against everything from large scale protest organisation to text and photographic material about smaller scale ones that the police intervened with. A teacher's association rally in Acapulco back in February quickly descended into violence after the police arrived, with many people left severely injured, but just as the #Acapulco hashtag (complete with images of the worst injuries and violent altercations) was starting to trend, two utterly meaningless spam hashtags suddenly appeared and knocked it back down.

More worryingly, shortly before a rally was due to start during last year's 1 D MX protests, a twitter user posted a map of a section of Mexico city with red lines indicating an unsafe perimeter, so that people who went could get out safely. It was marked with the hashtag #RompeElMiedo ('Break the Fear'), which had been used by numerous journalists and activists to pass important information back and forth. Once the Peñabots got ahold of it, the original tweet was buried, and a large contingent of protesters were caught and beaten. That might well have ended up happening anyway, but the intent of the spamming is still excruciatingly clear.

This information has surfaced as the result of research by German writer Erin Gallagher, who brought together information about bot activity ranging from the above to targeted abuse of specific journalists. It's not exclusive to Mexico, similar things have happened in Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East. There's no direct confirmation about who is actually running the Mexican bots, but the way their activity is targeted speaks volumes.

For all the good that social media has done in favour of grass-roots activism, things like this demonstrate just easily and brutally it can be counteracted. The trouble with somewhere like Mexico is that even if the culprits can be found and made an example of, there will never been any kind of case for prevention or legal action, it will just carry on happening. The antidote is, in fact, more Twitter activity, the more that the actual activists using the platform interact and connect, the more pull they'll have against bots, since Twitter doesn't even really want them there at all.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Sinister Twitter Bots Attempt to Drown Out Mexican Protesters Reviewed by Callum Davies on Wednesday, August 26, 2015 Rating: 5
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