Rise of the Peñabots

Shortly after the start of his campaign during the 2012 Mexican presidential election, then-candidate Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) rose to Twitter dominance almost overnight. To some savvy internet sleuths, this seemed a bit suspicious. Sure enough, people quickly discovered the presence of a large army of Twitter accounts dedicated to producing a continuous stream of praise for EPN. These accounts came to be known as the first Peñabots. Since then, the term Peñabot has evolved to have a variety of meanings. They are either automated software that requires no human intervention, low-wage workers paid by the government to operate multiple social media accounts (think Chinese 50 Cent Party), or even genuine supporters who are criticized for their mindless support of Peña Nieto (think Limbots or Obamabots). These first two applications of the term “bot” present a lot of ethical questions over the use of bots by the government.

Since the first discovery of Peñabots, the government has deployed their bot army several times. Often they did so to create the false impression that Peña Nieto enjoyed much more support than he actually had, such as the aforementioned case that led to the discovery of the bots. Another tactic the government employs to create fake support is to automatically retweet government officials. In 2013, there were reports that bots had been retweeting Peña Nieto’s tweets on energy reform. A common practice among multiple government officials has been to pad the their follower count by buying fake Twitter followers.

The government’s tactics got more questionable once they began using bots to drown out oppositional tweets. Near the end of the election, a video surfaced showing a room full of people with computers being directed to tweet in coordination with the explicit goal to drown out an anti-EPN hashtag. This was the first of several attempts by the government to crowd out an anti-government hashtags. In response to the video, a marketing coordinator for the EPN campaign admitted to employing over 20,000 people to launch coordinated attacks against offending hashtags. A similar attack happened in the state of Tabasco where, after a brief period in the trending topic list, the hashtag #MarchaAntiEPN (March Against EPN) was bumped off and replaced with #TodoTabascoConEPN (All of Tabasco With EPN).

The use of bots did not end after Peña Nieto was elected president. It seems that nowadays bots are used to drown out any sort of negative attention on Twitter. In the summer of 2015, a scandal broke out involving EPN’s niece. Reports claimed she had been hired for a managerial position at PEMEX despite lacking any experience for the role. Regardless of the veracity of the claims, #SobrinaEPN (EPN niece) quickly trended. But the bots sprung into action, and the hashtag was soon eliminated from the trending topic list by a deluge of junk tweets.

Source: Aristegui Noticias

Sometimes the reason a trending topic gets knocked off the list is not so clear. Such was the case in November 2014 in which #YaMeCanse (I’m tired), the hashtag used to protest the disappearance of 43 students in September of that year, was knocked off the list after trending for a month. Immediately there were cries of censorship and accusations of Peñabots stifling free speech. However, the reason #YaMeCanse de-trended may be more complex than the bot explanation. A similar situation occurred in the US when Twitter was accused of censorship after #OWS stopped trending. This brought to light the complexity of the Twitter algorithm, which searches for “burstiness,” or spikes, of terms in the stream of tweets. After trending for a month, it’s very possible that even though the volume of #YaMeCanse tweets was high, it was not “bursty” enough for the algorithm to pick it up. It may be that those who decided #YaMeCanse should no longer trend were not the Mexican government, but Twitter itself through the use of its algorithms.

While you could make the case that some of the above examples could be classified as legitimate campaign tactics, those tactics, which purposefully drown out the opposition, can be considered morally ambiguous. But where do you draw the line?

Is paying 20,000 people to drown out the opposition any different than using a bot?

Does Twitter’s lax policy on bots make their use fair game? After all, activists also use bots. But what are the resources of an activist compared to those of the state? And unlike the government bots’ attempts to muffle speech, usually an activist’s purpose is either to spread a political message or to cast light on previously unknown information.

Perhaps the activists’ immediate reaction to blame Peñabots for taking down #YaMeCanse is a kind of reverse boy who cried wolf: bot attacks have become so common that any suspicious pro-government message is expected to originate from a bot. Even genuine EPN sympathizers are now called Peñabots. It is slightly ironic that in an attempt to pass fake support off as real, the government’s use of bots has now rendered any real support fake.

There are many of us who support Peña bip bip brrrt.

Points/talking bots: “Rise of the Peñabots” is an output of a weeklong workshop at Data & Society that was led by “Provocateur-in-Residence” Sam Woolley and brought together a group of experts to get a better grip on the questions that bots raise. More posts from workshop participants talking bots:

This article was originally posted on the Data & Society collection on Medium, Points.

Luis Daniel works on news automation at Bloomberg LP. He was previously a research fellow at The GovLab and a Solomon Fellow at NYC Digital. He’s originally from Monterrey, Mexico.