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Mexico struggles to weed out fake news ahead of its biggest election ever

Illustration by William Joel

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“SCANDAL!!,” read the Facebook post of Mexican comedian and journalist Jorge Roberto Avilés on March 6th. “The government of Venezuela has confirmed on its television station (Venevision) what we all already knew: Nicolás Maduro is behind Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s campaign.”

Accompanying the post was a video that proved what opponents of López Obrador, a three-time Mexican presidential candidate, had long claimed: López Obrador was a crony of the Venezuelan Chavista regime, and his latest presidential campaign — which culminates with the upcoming July 1st presidential election — was propped up by a foreign regime. The video features the logos of Venezuela’s state-backed television station Venezolana de Televisión (VTV) and depicts a newscaster saying, “With the triumph of this Latin American leader on July 1, the Bolivarian Revolution will have a first-rate ally in the continent to confront international attacks.”

Venezuela has become an aphorism for the fears of many Mexican voters. Though López Obrador has consistently denied any formal ties to Venezuela, the video looked like proof of a connection. The clip spread fast — Avilés has 1.6 million followers on Facebook — and by March 12th, it had racked up more than 630,000 views.

The video looked like proof of a foreign connection

But something was off: the logos weren’t from VTV, and the videos’ timestamps read 7:58PM — a slot when VTV doesn’t broadcast news. For discerning observers, all the signs were there. The clip shared by Avilés wasn’t a VTV clip but instead a strange amalgamation of video, audio, and fabricated graphics from three separate sources. It was, in other words, a piece of fake news.

With Mexico’s election on the horizon, weeding out fake news in the country of 127 million has never been more pressing. Mexicans have long distrusted the press and for good reason. For decades, the national news media here consisted of two television networks and a handful of newspapers, all propped up financially by the controlling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Coverage of the government was favorable, and negative stories were buried.

“When the government wanted to announce something, it came out over Televisa,” says Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos and author of the recent book Fake News: Una nueva realidad. “It was very rare to find a version that contradicted the government line in these ‘official’ news outlets.”

Government publicity continues to be an important line item in media companies’ budgets. A report by the Mexican NGO Fundar, published in September 2017, found that the government spent $1.88 billion between January 2013 and June 2017 on media advertising, and many outlets still report the “official” version of events without further investigation. A Bloomberg investigation last fall revealed that politicians paid for packages of positive stories or to suppress negative reports. Fact-checking, says Illades, is just starting to permeate Mexican newsrooms. As a result, a 2018 poll suggested that more Mexicans trust the army and the Catholic Church than the media.

Social media and digital outlets have emerged as an important counterbalance to government-controlled media, but it also presents the risks of mass misinformation. Mexico is a hub in the Spanish-speaking world for bot farms. In the 2012 presidential campaign, now-imprisoned Colombian hacker Andrés Sepúlveda claims to have launched 30,000 Twitter bots in support of Peña Nieto’s campaign. Many Mexicans also get their news from messaging applications like WhatsApp, and news outlets are hard-pressed to catch up when chain messages spread inaccurate information almost instantaneously.

A 2018 poll suggested that more Mexicans trust the army and the Catholic Church than the media

July 1st will be the largest election in Mexican history. Voters will be deciding on the makeup of the Senate, state and local races, and voting for a president. In terms of managing the spread of fake news, Illades says, “2018 is a trial by fire.”

When the video of Maduro endorsing López Obrador went viral, Verificado 18, a new Mexican fact-checking initiative, was just setting up its office in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. Verificado 18 is the brainchild of Tania Montalvo, the editor of the fact-checking unit at digital media outlet Animal Político. With funding from Google and Facebook, Verificado 18 has hired 12 journalists and data analysts to work full-time for the duration of the presidential campaign. They have a clear mission: “To confront two phenomenons: on the one hand, fake news, and on the other, [the candidates’] impossible promises and unsubstantiated critiques,” according to the website.

Verificado 18 partners with local papers across the country, ranging from El Diario de Yucatán in Southeastern Mexico to the national television and print behemoth Milenio. In the vein of ElectionLand in the States, the team fact-checks viral stories and the candidates’ claims in debates and speeches.

Verificado 18 has fact-checked stories ranging from Pope Francis speaking out against López Obrador (false) to candidate Ricardo Anaya speaking in favor of the border wall (false) to the first lady of Zacatecas praying for the country not to become a socialist dictatorship (true).

As the Maduro clip spread across Facebook, the Verificado 18 team reached out to video experts and Venezuelan television journalists to help analyze it.

Jorge Ramís, the audience editor at Verificado 18, says that a few obvious errors tipped them off that the video was fake. “The logo was placed wrong, and in other technical aspects, it didn’t match up to what [VTV] broadcasts,” he says. Venezuelan journalists noted that the broadcast supposedly aired at 7:58PM, a time slot when VTV does not broadcast news. It appears that the video was fabricated by pasting an audio recording over video footage made in Mexico combined with lifted VTV logos.  

Verificado 18 revealed that the pro-López Obrador subtitles and images of the candidate had been pasted onto an unrelated broadcast

On March 12th, Verificado 18 published an explainer debunking the video. The explainer was then reprinted by numerous partner news outlets. Avilés removed the video, and a radio program that he appears on, La Maldita Hora, issued an apology, saying they “never intended to deliberately spread false information on our platforms.”

Keeping up with the steady flow of fake news is a constant challenge. In January, another viral video spread across Facebook, supposedly depicting a Russia Today (RT) TV broadcaster announcing that the Kremlin was also supporting López Obrador. Verificado 18 sought out a Russian translator and subsequently revealed that the pro-López Obrador subtitles and images of the candidate had been pasted onto an unrelated broadcast, which was, in fact, from the channel Rossiya 24.

Despite Verificado 18’s best efforts, digital rights activists warn that the threat of misinformation is only growing.

Alberto Escorcia has tracked Twitter trends in Mexico since 2010 on his website Lo Que Sigue, and he currently reports on bots for BuzzFeed México. He says that, like in the States, organized networks of paid social media users amplify fake stories.

“These networks are a tool to destabilize countries and to change elections,” he told The Verge over Skype. He’s lived outside Mexico for a year due to violent threats for his work.

Facebook and Twitter have taken more proactive steps to combat the spread of fake news since Trump’s election. But Escorcia says that their efforts fall short in developing countries. In his experience, the most robust troll and cyborg networks exist in Honduras and Mexico.

The rules from Twitter aren’t enough,” Escorcia says. “An attack must line up exactly with what the rules prohibit for them to take down the account.”

He explains how politicians enlist social media in disinformation campaigns: a politician goes to a middleman, who then contracts a public relations agency specialized in social network manipulation. The agencies offer different portfolios of social network profiles to promote messages in favor of the politician or ones critical of his opponents. Payments are made in cash.

“These interactions are semi-clandestine, so it’s hard to find a paper trail,” he says. The same structure has been documented in investigative reports by ADN Político and Univisión.

Escorcia says the groups are effective because they have an eager, low-wage labor pool. “The conditions in our country, or a country like Bangladesh or Vietnam, lead many jobless people to get involved in this business,” Escorcia explains.

Montalvo of Verificado 18 says that Facebook has been just as integral to the spread of fake news, with pages disguised as news outlets publishing a mix of true and false stories. One such page — Diario de Oaxaca — has over 450,000 followers. Even a fake story published on Diario de Oaxaca that is “downgraded” through Facebook’s Third Party Fact-Checking (of which Verificado 18 is a part) can reach thousands of people.

Then there’s WhatsApp, which allows users to create groups with hundreds of members. Chain messages about the election are circulating over WhatsApp groups, with no mechanism to trace the origin of the information.

The Center for International Media Assistance recently wrote that while Facebook and Twitter receive more attention,private, ‘dark social’ messengers [including Signal, Telegram, and Whatsapp] may be all the more to blame for the viral spread of disinformation, which is nearly impossible to track or counter once it is being circulated.”

“The conditions in our country, or a country like Bangladesh or Vietnam, lead many jobless people to get involved in this business.”

Verificado 18 has opened a WhatsApp account to receive reports of election-related chain messages, but it acknowledges that it’s the hardest platform to track.

Observers doubt that fake news will sway the election or upend López Obrador’s expected victory. López Obrador currently has a double-digit lead, and Mexico’s presidential election is determined by plurality. Nonetheless, fake news has amplified the polarization between López Obrador’s supporters and his detractors.

Escorcia worries that even if López Obrador wins by a significant percentage, orchestrated social media campaigns could provoke violence during the post-election period. He points to an incident in January 2017, during the “Gasolinazo,” when the government announced an increase in gas prices.

As people took to the streets in protest, bots pushed the hashtag #SaqueaUnWalmart (loot a Walmart), which became a Trending Topic in Mexico City on January 3rd. The hashtag then circulated over WhatsApp, setting off fears of widespread looting. Hundreds of businesses closed early, and people took shelter, but only a handful of stores were actually looted.

Escorcia considers this a “combined operation,” where a fabricated story online provokes reactions in the streets. He envisions a similar situation playing out if López Obrador is elected — bots and human actors inciting panic during the inauguration, for example.

“I think it’s going to get ugly on election day,” says Escorcia. “Bots aren’t just used for political propaganda; they can be used to repress and stop resistance.”