Mexico: articles about bots & trolls

Erin Gallagher
Jan 1, 2017 · 15 min read

The word “peñabot” originated during the 2012 Mexican presidential campaign, in reference to political operatives working in social media to boost Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign. The label has since become a sort of nebulous term to describe any suspected astroturf or fakery in social media. The tactics employed by Mexican bots and trolls have also evolved over time, shifting from easy-to-detect spam attacks against hashtags to sophisticated campaigns carried out against Mexican civil society.

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Below is a list of news articles and videos about peñabots and trolls in Mexico. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’ll continue updating as I find more content. I made separate blog posts for news reports about bots & trolls around the world and academic journals and papers.

Most of the articles below are linked in Spanish with a brief translation by me. I’ve also saved a large quantity of screenshots (mostly from Mexico) and uploaded them to Flickr.

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Bots” de EPN adquieren fama internacional: Univisión descubre más cuentas falsas para manipular redes

EPN’s bots acquire international fame: Univisión discovers more false accounts to manipulate networks

“Univision has identified at least 260 Twitter accounts that post prefabricated messages in favor of presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto,” says the international news outlet in an article published two days ago by Manuel Rueda.

He adds: “On Tuesday, a YouTube video appeared in which a PRI campaign operative tells a room full of young people what to tweet during the Mexican presidential debate, minutes before the event ended.

Above video was recorded during a 2012 presidential debate where a man gives instructions to a room full of young people on computers saying “there are currently 2 hashtags against (EPN) that need to be turned around immediately”

(this was one of the first examples of what became known as peñabots — people paid to support EPN on twitter)

Univisión investigation of fake accounts tweeting #EsMomentoDeMexico after video was leaked of people being given instructions and told to tweet this hashtag
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Detectan uso de bots para apoyar el ‘sí a la reforma energética’ en Twitter

Use of bots detected to support ‘Yes to the Energy Reform’ on Twitter
Tweets from the accounts of President Enrique Peña Nieto and Interior Minister, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, among other federal and state officials were retweeted by bots -automated accounts- until they became a trending topic which gave the impression that the ‘yes in favor of energy reform’ was the prevailing opinion on the social network.

In an interview with MVS News, Carlos Páez said that through the Twitter accounts of Peña Nieto, Osorio Chong, as well as the government of Quintana Roo and its governor, Roberto Borge, tweeted messages with hashtag #ReformaEnergética that were retweeted “in an abnormal manner” by bots.

A review with specialized tools to measure Twitter revealed that since last September bots have been used to multiply opinions in favor of #ReformaEnergética and to cancel out the “negative” or critical conversation about this subject.

This, said Páez, generated a “tumor” in the original conversation.

“The tumor formed between those four main accounts … We recorded between 10 and 12 tweets sent by @BetoBorge, which had between five and six thousand retweets in less than 90 seconds … that is impossible organically,” he said.

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Video denouncing bots that spammed #EPNvsInternet — hashtag used to protest the Telecommunications Bill proposed by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.

This is how the Peñabots work. They converted hashtag #EPNvsInternet into spam.

El cinturón de bots que trató de contener la critica de Sopitas al segundo Informe de EPN

The belt of bots that tried to contain Sopitas’s the criticism of EPN’s second Report

The website published an article pointing out information that was missing from the government’s 2nd report, it was tweeted with the hashtag #EPNDimeLaVerdad (EPN tell me the truth) which didn’t take long to begin trending, and quickly became a worldwide trending topic. An army of bots flooded the hashtag with spammy tweets causing the trend to drop from the trends bar.

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Network graph: LoQueSigue
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Sample of the spam bots that flooded the hashtag criticizing the government report. Screenshot: LoQueSigue

After the attack on #EPNdimeLaVerdad, more bots working with a network of tweeters known to position trends, started tweeting a new hashtag: #MasMentirosoQueSopitas (more lies than Sopitas — a smear against the news website Sopitas) which was maintained as a trending topic nationally in Mexico for several hours.

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List of these ^ bots is still available online via this excel google doc

Mexico: #1DMX Protests End in Police Brutality (by me)

#RompeElMiedo started trending shortly before the police repression and advised protesters of police locations in areas around Ángel de la Independencia so that they could exit the protest area safely without being arbitrarily detained or arrested. Protesters also used this hashtag to alert human rights defenders of arrests and injuries. Shortly after the tag started trending, bots began flooding the trend with tweets, effectively neutralizing the hashtag.

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Screenshot: @3r1nG
Video denouncing Peñabots attacking #DestitucionyJuicioEPN2

Demonstration of attack against #YaMeCanse and #USTired2 by Alberto Escorcia

Thousands of bots attacked #USTired2 which ended up affecting #YaMeCanse

Is The Ayotzinapa Hashtag #YaMeCanse Hacked?

Mexicans outraged over the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students at the hands of police coined one of the biggest hashtags of 2014. #YaMeCanse — “I’m tired” — has been tweeted over 8 million times in 3 months, and has mobilized mass protests. But digital activists say spam bots have attacked the hashtag, causing it to disappear from Twitter’s trending list. We asked Twitter for comment and they said simply, “We do not manipulate trends.” So what’s going on?
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Mexican Twitter Bots: Cyber Attacks on Free Speech & Organizing (by me)

Attacks by bots on the hashtag #YaMeCanse were confirmed beginning of December. Mexican tweeps have been altering the hashtag #YaMeCanse to avoid the twitter bots. At the time of publishing this article, they are currently trending #YaMeCanse18. 1 number is added every day or so to keep the tag trending while avoiding the bots.

Animated visualization using Flocker by of bots attacking hashtag #YaMeCanse in real time. The bots shut down the hashtag in under 15 seconds, effectively neutralizing the trend.

El ejército de bots que pueden estar boicoteando a Carmen Aristegui — Alberto Escorcia

The army of bots that may be boycotting Carmen Aristegui

After analyzing 350,000 tweets mentioning Aristegui Noticias’s twitter handle or links from their website, LoQueSigue found more than 70% of the tweets emitted relating to Carmen Aristegui originate from bots and SPAM messages like #Pinochtegui. The belt seen in the graph corresponds to the thousands of accounts that do not interact with other accounts or generate conversation.

This attack happened not long after Forbes published a report naming Carmen Aristegui one of the most influential journalists on Twitter in 2015.

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Army of bots that may be boycotting Artistegui. Many of these bots do not interact with other accounts; because they are automated they generate this peculiar belt formation. At the center the tweets corresponding to the conversations of real people either quoting, mentioning and retweeting @AristeguiOnline or sharing content from

User denouncing peñabots working to take down a hashtag and promote other hashtags; peñabots against Carmen Aristegui:

Peñabots inflating the HT #LoHariaDeNuevo to lower the first place trend #MexicoWantsAristeguiBack supporting Carmen Aristegui

Peñabots removing hashtag #MexicoWantsAristeguiBack:

Peñabots overthrowing hashtag #MexicoWantsAristeguiBack and inflating other hashtags

#YaSeQueNoAplauden desaparece tras ataque de Peñabots by Alberto Escorcia

Same as #UsTired2, #YaMeCanse and other hashtags, #YaSeQueNoAplauden disappeared after an infection of thousands of SPAM messages generated by bots.

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Screenshot: LoQueSigue
Peñabots neutralize Carmen Aristegui #EndefensadeAristegui3 #EndefensadeAristegui4 — throughout Monday, March 16 the hashtag # EnDefensadeAristegui2 was the most tweeted on the internet, but suddenly the trend began to change. The trend #EnDiadePuente appeared with messages about the holiday, and soon replaced the Aristegui hashtag.

#EndefensadeAristegui was attacked and users made several iterations of this hashtag to keep it trending (i.e. #EndefensadeAristegui3 #EndefensadeAristegui4)

Denuncia Lydia Cacho nueva campaña de ataques del gobernador Borge by Sergio Caballero

Lydia Cacho denounces new campaign of attacks by Governor Borge

After publishing an article in which she blamed the PRI governor Roberto Borge Angulo for the unjust detention of Mayan activist and journalist Pedro Canché, journalist Lydia Cacho reported that she was the victim of a new defamation campaign using social networks, in which she is accused of having received money from politicians.

In her Twitter account, the journalist denounced that the Borge government intends to discredit her using ‘trolls’.

Tracking the Mexican Botnet: Connecting the Twitterbots (by me)

Mexican twitterbots have been spamming hashtags, creating fake trends and smearing protesters.

Attack against #EPNNotWelcome:

Attack against #EPNNotWelcome — hashtag protesting Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington DC

Are they censoring tweets about the eviction in Acapulco?

Federal police evicted a CETEG protest in Acapulco on February 25 and a deluge of images & videos showing protesters beaten by police went viral. Various trending topics driven by bots displaced the #Acapulco trend on the trends bar

Network graphs of a bot generated trend vs. organic hashtag in Flocker:

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Bot generated trend #SoyAmanteDe
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Humans tweeting #Acapulco, denouncing police brutality

El día que los bots silenciaron las protestas contra EPN en Londres by LoQueSigue

The same modus operandi was repeated: launching thousands and thousands of tweets full of spam that when combined with the real messages took away relevance, causing it to fall out of the Twitter trend rankings, graphically forming a belt of bots like cyber-riot police:

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Network graph: LoQueSigue

Twitterbots remove ‘trending topic’ about Mexican first lady Angélica Rivera shopping in Beverly Hills:

Dozens of false Twitter accounts (bots) were activated to attack the trending topic “Beverly Hills”, which became the most talked about topic after a video was broadcast in which Angélica Rivera and her daughters went shopping in Beverly Hills.

Amenazas de muerte en la red contra investigadora y activista mexicana Rossana Reguillo by Patricia Carolina Saucedo Añez

Professor and researcher in communications and Mexican social anthropology, Dra. Rossana Reguillo Cruz, known in the international academic world for her studies on youth and the emergence of youth culture in Latin America, has been committed to the victims of Ayotzinapa and their families from the outset. Her social and political commitment, although not always visible in the academic world, has earned a number of death threats on Twitter.

Bot Campaign of Death Threats Against Blogger Rossana Reguillo (by me)

In February 2015 Rossana Reguillo, Mexican academic and blogger, internationally recognized for her work with social movements, received death threats on twitter. The threats continued for more than 2 months and extended beyond twitter to other social media platforms, personal emails and threats in person. Data mining tools show that the majority of accounts supporting the attacks against her were bots and trolls.

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The attack was mapped using Gephi — the network graph shows the attack in real time. This shows the accounts that participated in the online attack against Rossana Reguillo (the green dot is her, the target) and the lines between each node show the last 200 interactions at the time of the attack. Image: Jesús Robles Maloof and Rossana Reguillo

¿Cuánto poder tienen los Peñabots, los tuiteros que combaten la crítica en México? by Alberto Nájar

How much power do Peñabots have, the tweeters who fight criticism in Mexico?

Lydia Cacho says they have caused serious family problems to some victims of the attacks, which are often more serious when they target women.

They have also hurt movements protesting human rights violations, and in extreme cases there were death threats, as was the case with researcher Rossana Reguillo.

The situation can be aggravated because the web is a free space where it is very difficult to apply controls, something that is exploited in Mexico.

“Until about three years ago people and above all a good part of the politicians believed that the internet and social networks are like an alternate world,” says Cacho Ribeiro.

“But they realize now that the physical world is directly related to the cyber world, and politicians at all levels understand they should have specialized teams for social networks.”

#Peñabots suggest to disappear 43 more students:

In May 2015, users denounced a network of bots that started a hashtag suggesting to disappear 43 more students. In less than 40 minutes the negative hashtag registered in the trends bar for national Mexican trending topics.

El Verde Busca Trolls Con Firma Que Opera Para el Gobierno

The Greens (PVEM party) seek trolls with signature to operate for the government

The Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM) intends to prepare an army of trolls ahead of the elections on June 7. The political party is about to sign a contract with a company called Agavis Digital, which also has agreements with the federal government and was virtually unknown before 2012, the year in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won the presidency.

Agavis Digital SA de CV is the same company that in 2012 participated in the transition team of the then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, and that today has at least 40 contracts with different departments of the Mexican federal government.

Atacan con ‘bots’ a #SobrinaEPN en Twitter

Bots attack #SobrinaEPN on twitter

The hashtag #SobrinaEPN, about an article published by Aristegui Noticias, which revealed that a niece of President Peña Nieto was hired at Pemex despite her inexperience, moved into the trends bar as a trending topic and was then spammed by repeater tweets sent by bots. A user recorded their screen during the attack:

Mexican Botnet Dirty Wars — my talk from CCCamp15 — August 2015 about peñabots

Pro-government twitter bots try to hush Mexican activists by Klint Finley

Bots on Twitter appear to be intentionally drowning out the efforts of activists to use the social media site to organize.

Twitter México Peñabots attack Normalistas — 26 Nov 2015

Peñabots smearing normalistas — 18 minute video showing derogatory tweets about the missing 43 normalistas using hashtag #AyotzinapaEsCagada (“Ayotzinapa is shit”)

“At 14 months since the forced disappearance of the 43 normalistas from the Ayotzinapa school, twitter trolls and peñabots, apologists for the crime against humanity, demean the tragedy and attempt to discredit the social movement that was created as a result of the events of September 26, 2014. The Mexican government using all its power in the media and social networks.”

The Script for the Fake Ayotzinapa Confrontation (by me)

Bots and/or trolls created #NarcosEnAyotzinapa (“Narcos in Ayotzinapa) — one of several attempts to link the Ayotzinapa students to organized crime.

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Bots impulsan la idea de que Los Rojos asesinaron a Gisela Mota ¿Operación de Graco Ramírez? by Alberto Escorcia

Bots promote the idea that Los Rojos killed Mayor Gisela Mota. An operation by Graco Ramírez?

In what can be described as an elaborate and sophisticated propaganda operation by Governor Morelos Graco Ramírez appeared on several media outlets with the largest audiences in the country, on the radio and TV, and was helped by thousands of bots on Twitter to promote the idea that the murder of Mayor Gisela Mora was an operation by Los Rojos.

¿Fue casual o coordinado el acoso y amenazas a Andrea Noel en Twitter? — Alberto Escorcia

Was there a coordinated attack against @metabolizedjunk on Twitter? Video analysis of 20,000 tweets mentioning the twitter handle of journalist Andrea Noel after she denounced an assault on Twitter.

Journalist Andrea Noel received massive quantities of rape and death threats on Twitter for denouncing an assault. Some of the accounts were the same accounts involved in other coordinated campaigns online threats.

¿Quién estuvo detrás del TT #MujerGolpeadaEsMujerFeliz? by Alberto Escorcia

Who was behind the trending topic #MujerGolpeadaEsMujerFeliz

Bots and/or trolls started hashtag #MujerGolpeadaEsMujerFeliz (“a beaten woman is a happy woman”) and got it to trend worldwide. This hashtag was started by what Mexican researchers call “networks of hate.” The network that is believed to have started this HT is known as “Legión Hulk.”

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Network graph: LoQueSigue

How to Hack an Election by Jordan Robertson, Michael Riley, and Andrew Willis

As for Sepúlveda, his insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. He knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard — or, as he puts it, “When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.”

The Systematic Nightmare of Denouncing Threats in Mexico — Alberto Escorcia

Statement from Alberto Escorcia denouncing death threats, harassment and attacks he received since 2011 while trying to report about bots and social media manipulation in Mexico and the obstacles he encountered when trying to report the threats.

Demonstration of the massive bot attack against @GIEIAYOTZINAPA — Alberto Escorcia

GIEI (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes) is a committee of lawyers, doctors that conducted parallel investigations into the Ayotzinapa attacks of September 26–27. The group of investigators was targeted by smears and bot campaigns, including during April 2016, the month they released their final report on the Ayotzinapa investigation.

Alberto Escorcia analyzed tweets mentioning the @GIEIAYOTZINAPA twitter handle and detected 48 accounts that were dedicated to spreading articles against the work of the investigators and attacking journalists and activists reporting on the case.

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Complete conversation and mentions to @GIEIAYOTZINAPA between April 1 and 4. Network graph: LoQueSigue
24 hours of bot attacks against @GIEIAYOTZINAPA, an attack that costs between $100,000–300,000 per hour

¿Existe un ataque deliberado a @EpigmenioIbarra en Twitter? — Alberto Escorcia

Is there a deliberate attack against @EpigmenioIbarra on twitter?

Journalist and producer, Epigmenio Ibarra is well known throughout Mexico. Since September 2014, every evening at 10pm local time, he leads a roll call on Twitter (#PaseDeLista1a43) for the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa and other victims of state violence in Mexico. He says “It’s an exercise of resistance, dignity and memory, the commitment to never be quiet.”

Epigmenio noticed the impressions of his tweets dropped drastically and said he believed his account was under attack. The team at LoQueSigue analyzed tweets mentioning his account over a 2 month period in 2016 and found suspicious activity, the green “tumor” in the top left quadrant, a typical indicator of twitter botnet activity.

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2 months of twitter mentions of Mexican journalist and producer, @EpigmenioIbarra. Network graph: LoQueSigue

Bots que amenazan a @padresolalinde los mismos que atacan a @RicardoMonrealA — Alberto Escorcia

Bots that threaten @padresolalinde the same that attack @RicardoMonrealA

In a major 2 day operation, thousands of bots that previously attacked activists and journalists like Andrea Noel , John Ackerman, & SanJuana Martinez have launched death threats against Father Solalinde … while participating in dirty war campaign against the Monreal brothers.

In analyzing thousands of tweets we realized the same accounts threatening Father Solinda were also generating a dirty campaign using hashtags #YDondeEstaMonreal and #MientoComoMonreal.

These groups of spammers and bots are also known to promote government actions of Eruviel Avila and Enrique Peña Nieto as government reports Miguel Angel Mancera.

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Image: LoQueSigue

La jefa de los Peñabots by Sanjuana Martinez

“The boss of the Peñabots”

The pro-government bots have become so popular that they are already used by most of the state governors in Mexico. They are not controlled by the treasury, because they are supposed to exist officially, but their job is to manipulate public opinion. […] Facebook likes or the number of fake followers on Twitter and even, the memes or famous hashtags, have become a business and there are specialized agencies that provide these services to officials and politicians.

Acumula EPN 82 millones de críticas en redes sociales entre enero-septiembre — Daniel Pensamiento & Abel Espinosa

EPN accumulates 82 million critics in social media between January & September.

This report published September 13, 2016 measured negative vs positive comments about EPN on both Facebook and Twitter, and found the overwhelming sentiment in social media is negative towards EPN. The authors claim they found 640,321 fake accounts on Facebook and 1,216,093 fake accounts on Twitter, all considered to be Peñabots designed to favorably alter metrics of the Mexican president.

The bad news for EPN is that in most of the country, the real users of social media posting criticism of the Mexican administration tend to drown out the positive comments.

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Screenshot: Insurgente Press

Based on the above report, also in September 2016, Ernesto Villanueva, UNAM researcher and journalist published a 3 part investigation about peñabots, positing that the usage of peñabots to influence public opinion is in violation of the Mexican constitution.

1. “Peñabots”: ¿Cuántos son? ¿Cuál es su fundamento legal?

“Peñabots”: How many are they? What is their legal basis?
“The ‘Peñabots’ cost money. It is something that is not counted, but it counts a lot… The application of treasury resources in the creation and operation of “Peñabots” is unconstitutional and illegal” for the following reasons:

A) it misinforms society generating misperceptions in social networks and thereby violates Article 6 of the Constitution; B) The nature of the “PeñaBots” is incompatible with the provisions of article 134 of the Constitution that prohibits personal promotion, as happens with these accounts; C) Paradoxically, the greater the expense of the people’s resources, the more it is misinformed; And D) There is at the moment adequate technology to create technical expert reports proving the existence of “PeñaBots” that under no way can society continue to pay them.

2. “Peñabots”: los paga usted y yo

“Peñabots”: Paid for by you and me
On Facebook, EPN’s page broadcasts photos and videos and has an army of 640,321 Peñabots that do everything from generating false trends to erasing negative comments in an average response capacity of 1 minute.

3. “Peñabots”: temas controvertidos y perfiles

“Peñabots”: controversial subjects and profiles

“The main center of operations of administrators of the” Peñabots “is located in the industrial city of the city of Toluca, State of Mexico. — Ernesto Villanueva.

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#IGF2016 panel “When death threats go viral”

Tanya O´Carroll from Amnesty International denounces the existence of a market in misinformation selling botnets and disinfo campaigns that are used against Mexican media workers and human rights defenders.

Amnistía Internacional (AI) llama a investigar y poner fin a ataques de ‘ciberejércitos’ contra medios (Video)

“Amnesty International calls for investigating and ending cyber attacks against media”

Massive networks of bots threaten freedom of expression, said Tanya O’Carroll, the agency’s Adviser on Technology and Human Rights.

In an interview with Aristegue Noticias after participating in the Forum on Internet Governance 2016 in Zapopan, Jalisco, O’Carroll explained that there are “massive botnets on Twitter” that are not automated but are operated by people , from which these attacks originate.

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I have collected samples of screenshots from several countries, most are from Mexico, which I uploaded to flickr. I’ll continue to update this list as much as possible. If you have any articles about bots in Mexico that I’ve missed, please DM me (@3r1nG) and I’ll add them.

Countries where digital propaganda has been documented: Mexico, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Tibet, China, UK, USA, Australia, South Korea.

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