This is the final installment in a series of four pieces dedicated to providing perspective on the context surrounding the recent elections in Mexico. The winner – by a very large margin – was the populist Andrés M. López.
We previously posted about the history of the incipient Mexican democracy, as well as a very short description of the candidates at the time that they registered to run for office. We also discussed some issues that would be faced by the future president. We now address the issue from the perspective of freedom of expression, the questionable use of social networks, and so-called fake news.
Elections fuel emotions in countries all over the world, and naturally, Mexico is no exception to the rule. On social media networks, the presidential election process has left a string of controversies in its wake. Journalist Ricardo Alemán, who was fired from media like Televisa (the dominant Mexican television company) and Milenio (a newspaper with national circulation) for using an expression on Twitter that disgusted the followers of elected president Andrés M. López Obrador, is one glaring example of this. Alemán had shared a tweet that allegedly incited violence against presidential candidate, but said little after that it was actually a warning. The tweet has been deleted since and Alemán issued a public apology.
Controversies in both mainstream and social media
The dismissal of Ricardo Alemán in May 2018 was widely discussed by local opinion leaders, including columnists Gabriel Guerra and Julio Hernández of “Astillero,” and reported by international media outlets.
Televisa despide a un periodista por “incitar a la violencia” contra candidato presidencial. La cadena mexicana cesó a Ricardo Alemán, que aduce haber sido malinterpretado, por un tuit que parecía incitar al asesinato del candidato López Obrador, que lidera los sondeos para las presidenciales del 1 de julio.
Televisa dismisses journalist for “inciting violence” against presidential candidate. The Mexican channel dismissed Ricardo Alemán, who claims to have been misunderstood, for a tweet that appeared to call for the murder of candidate López Obrador, who leads the polls for the presidential elections on July 1.
In Mexico, a country where constant threats to freedom of expression prompted special coverage by Global Voices, it is not uncommon for journalists to be dismissed from their workplaces for making comments that make powerful people uncomfortable. A notable example is the case of Carmen Aristegui, who was fired for publicly questioning the alleged alcoholism of the president during Felipe Calderón's administration.
Social media sites like Twitter were also fertile ground for the proliferation of bots during this election cycle, and the portal ADNpolítico reported on various mentions of the candidate López Obrador by accounts originating in Russia. The bots in question were sharing messages in favor of this candidate and against the others. Moreover, there were reports of cyber attacks against a debate webpage run by opposing party PAN (National Action Party) in which Juan Manuel López Obrador was accused of corruption. The local news source El Diario de Yucatán reported in the same vein:
Según Manuel Cossío, cuya empresa Radar Digital realiza análisis de redes sociales para políticos y empresarios, el candidato por Morena, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, es el más mencionado por los bots rusos.
According to Manuel Cossío, whose company Radio Digital does social media analyses for politicians and businesses, the Morena party candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was the most mentioned by Russian bots.
But the use of bots wasn't exclusive to the winning candidate. According to data published by El Economista, other candidates used fake accounts on social networks during their respective campaigns:
Un ejército de bots domina el discurso público en México. Estos programas automatizados que ayudan a amplificar o a silenciar mensajes en redes sociales como Twitter se han convertido en la plaga que infesta buena parte de la comunicación digital de todos los candidatos a la Presidencia de la República.
An army of bots dominates public discourse in Mexico. These automated programs that help amplify or silence messages on social networks like Twitter have become a widespread infestation in the digital communication of all the Mexican presidential candidates.
A collective effort to combat misinformation
A notable player in the election was VerificadoMx, an initiative created after the earthquake on September 19, 2017. VerificadoMx seeks to combat the spread of fake news and verify data put out by politicians. NGOs (including Article 19), traditional media sources (like El Universal), and think tanks (SocialTIC and Cencos) joined forces to implement these projects. This link shows various examples of the fake news that were refuted as part of these efforts. Sopitas, a portal that also participated in VerificadoMx, compiled a collection of what it considered the most ridiculous fake news pieces from the elections.
The appearance of tools like VerificadoMx came at a good time, as the Mexican electoral authorities had announced the signing of an agreement with Facebook in February aimed at avoiding the proliferation of so-called fake news. This is something that concerned many who believed it would open up different avenues for censorship. However, when the actual agreement was revealed, it was found to be ambiguous and did not bind Facebook to take any action against users.
In statements collected by the portal Expansión, the work done by VerificadoMx will end in July 2018, but it should be seen as the beginning of an enormous task:
Más allá de ser un movimiento que pueda parecer activismo, VerificadoMX es periodismo y más bien lo que dejará de tarea a los medios existentes es una parte fundamental que se ha perdido en el sector: la verificación de datos.
Beyond being a movement that may seem like activism, VerificadoMX is journalism, and, furthermore, the work it leaves to existing media is a fundamental element that has been lost in the sector: the verification of data.
This concludes the Global Voices series dedicated to providing a general panorama of the Mexican presidential race. On December 1, 2018, Andrés M. López will take office and, in the coming months, we will learn more about his landslide victory and hear from Mexicans who say they are eager for reconciliation after the hectic electoral campaigns.