Discrepancies in local election lead to bot-like accounts on both sides
On July 1, 2018, Mexico held the largest election in its democratic history with positions open at the local and state levels. Outside of Mexico City, citizens of Puebla went to the polls to vote in the presidential and gubernatorial elections. A narrow race between the leading candidates in addition to irregularities on the day of the election fueled post-electoral bots in Puebla.
According to the Electoral Institute of the State of Puebla, there was a technical tie between the leading two candidates: Martha Erika Alonso and Miguel Barbosa. Alonso was the candidate for the Por Puebla al Frente, a coalition that includes the National Action Party (PAN), the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Movimiento Ciudadano, as well as the state parties Compromiso por Puebla and Pacto Social de Integración. Barbosa represented the Juntos Haremos Historia, a coalition formed by the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the Labor Party (PT), and the Social Encounter Party (PES). The preliminary vote count indicated that Erika Alonso won between 36.4 and 38.9 percent of the votes whereas Miguel Barbosa garnered 33.9 to 36.8 percent, according to the electoral authority.
However, the Electoral Institute cited at least 176 different counts of irregularities on the day of the election, fueling speculation about the accuracy and validity of this result. For instance, several news outlets reported that 70 polling stations were robbed and burnt in addition to five people who were killed that day. These were not the only reports of violence surrounding the local election. According to a report on July 3, 2018, supporters of Morena and the PAN clashed at a hotel where the PAN members were supposedly collecting polling and election records to alter the results.
The tensions between the two coalitions was mirrored in the candidates themselves. Shortly after the announcement, both Martha Erika Alonso and Miguel Barbosa added to this uncertainty when they both declared themselves the winner of the election. In addition, Miguel Barbosa accused the former-governor of Puebla, Rafael Moreno Valle, of manipulating the electoral results to benefit his wife Martha Erika Alonso’s gubernatorial campaign.
These circumstances prompted representatives of Morena to request the National Electoral Institute (INE) conduct an investigation and recount of the votes. However, representatives of the Electoral Institute of the State of Puebla pushed back on this request and emphasized the local organization’s impartiality, the successes of oversight in previous elections, and the INE’s unsuitability in addressing local issues.
The recount of the local votes began on July 4, 2018 with reported delays. The electoral authority of Puebla announced on July 5 that due to errors in filling out the counting protocols and a high number of invalidated acts the Local Council of the INE would have to open 486 of 7,456 electoral packages.
The recount served as the backdrop for the emergence of two hashtags in support of Martha Erika Alonso on July 4, 2018, which were supported by bot-like accounts. The first one, #PueblaEligióPAN, registered very high traffic at 12:00 p.m. local time.
By 2:00 p.m., the hashtag had 6,273 mentions by only 381 users.
This density of tweeting — almost 16.5 tweets per user, on average — is wildly uncharacteristic of organic traffic, where an average of 1.1–2.2 tweets per user would be expected. It indicates that the traffic was driven either by a small group of hyperactive human-run accounts or, more probable, by bots.
The first tweet was sent from the account @s0yTT, but the tweet has now been deleted. This is not unusual, however, as this account regularly deletes what it tweets. Created in October 2013, the account has registered 23,600 tweets although only nine tweets and 165 photos or videos remain on the page. Interestingly, @s0yTT profile’s name conveys a game of words that when translated into English could mean “I am Trending Topic” — s0y and TT, respectively.
One of the first users tweeting with the hashtag #PueblaEligióPAN was @siendokarma, an account that used it at least 107 times.
Another account, @HEIIBat used the hashtag 77 times. The first tweet was posted on July 4 at 11:57 a.m.
It is worth mentioning that in the account description @HeIIBat location is: in the state of Jalisco, Mexico; part of the #SundayTTGroup; and lists the webpage ImBatman.com, a domain that is available on GoDaddy.
Apparently, the #SundayTTGroup group is managed by @sundayttg. According to a tweet on April 18, 2018, the account is used to promote trending hashtags.
Created in January 2018, @Oshita_25 is an account that primarily tweets about or in support of Martha Erika Alonso. In the aftermath of the election, the profile was one of many that tweeted with #PueblaEligióPAN in a very rapid way. As can be seen below, since its creation, the account only tweeted three times before using #PueblaEligióPAN.
Another account which used the hashtag several times was @Somoslndirectas. According to a Sysomos machine scan, the account is located in the state of Durango and used the hashtag 69 times. The first tweet was posted on July 4 at 11:50 a.m., but since then, all of the tweets related to the hashtag have already been deleted.
This same thing happened with both @_AleGarcia_1 and @Criz_Angels. According to a Sysomos scan and as reported by @DFRLab’s Ben Nimmo on Twitter, by 3:00 p.m. on July 4, 2018, @_AleGarcia_1 used the hashtag 155 times and @Criz_Angels used it 125 times over a two-hour period.
This behavior is characteristic of amplifier bots, used to push the hashtag into the trending topics. It is especially reminiscent of the tactics used by Carlos Merlo, sometimes called the “fake news king” of Mexico, in earlier hashtag drives which @DFRLab has studied.
The second hashtag that emerged in support of the Por Puebla al Frente coalition candidate was #YoVotéXMarthaErika. Again, @DFRLab analyzed traffic on the hashtag using the Sysomos online tool. The hashtag received 16,600 mentions from 1,623 users, a botlike average of 10.2 posts per account. Of the total number of mentions, 94.1 percent of them were retweets, which, again, is more characteristic of bot activity than organic engagement.
On July 3, the hashtag registered a spike in traffic, and by the next day, it reached almost 10,000 mentions.
One of the accounts that tweeted the hashtag initially was @LuisLar108, an account that was created in May 2018 and that had been tweeting and retweeting support for Martha Erika Alonso. The account also had tweeted using #MarthaEsGobernadora — Martha Is Governor.
Another account created in May 2018, @LunaLunaNiza, used the hashtag at least 733 times, according to a Sysomos machine scan.
Another account, @MenesesZala, which was created even more recently in July 2018, used the hashtag at least 113 times.
These accounts, again, appear botlike in their behavior. The strong likelhood is that both hashtags were driven by automated accounts controlled by a single organizing entity, rather than organic traffic.
Compared to other Mexican states, Puebla set records in terms of lawsuits and general complaints. According to a press release by the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for the Attention of Electoral Crimes (FEPADE), Puebla had 127 complaints, significantly beating second-place finisher Mexico City’s 51 complaints. Furthermore, according media reports, Puebla was the entity with more violent incidents registered on July 1.
As the recount continued, on July 5, Mexican media reported that Miguel Barbosa’s total votes has increased by approximately 29,300 votes. On July 8, 2018, amidst a heavy security operation, the Electoral Institute of the State of Puebla awarded Martha Erika Alonso winner of the governor’s election. According to the electoral institute, Alonso surpassed Miguel Barbosa by 4.1% of votes or a difference of 122,054 votes. The next day, the elected candidates from Morena issued a press release that stated that they did not recognize the victory of Martha Erika Alonso.
It is important to pay special attention to the rhetoric from political coalitions and their supporters. Social media is a vital platform for political expression in part because of its ability to disseminate information rapidly while maximizing its audience reach. The emergence of bots online has turned this discussion on its head and, in the long-term, could prove to be damaging by distorting some voices.
In terms of Puebla, apparently bot-promoted content fuels existing divisions between the coalitions and heightens tensions. Although violence and online disinformation are not necessarily directly related, it is important to consider the impact of digital distortion of particular points of view in fueling political tensions as a result of the increased frequency of incident reports in Puebla. Herein, it would be worth evaluating the response generated, such as the hashtag #YoNoVotéXMarthaErika, which originated as a direct response to #YoVotéXMarthaErika.
More importantly, since both leading candidates declared victory over the other, it is important to investigate how artificially generated support for the victory of a specific candidate can influence the conclusion of this electoral process. This is important since the state congressional elections have also been surrounded by controversy, and accusations between political actors have increased. The use of bots and artificial support on social media platforms after the elections in order to promote the victory of a candidate over another should be regarded with preoccupation and alarm, especially when it could fuel tensions that could turn into violence.
Fernando Meneses Romero is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
#ElectionWatch in Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
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