- Political activity on Twitter is evolving in some Latin American countries
- In Argentina, journalists uncovered 400 fake Twitter addresses favoring president
- In Mexico there was a concerted Twitter campaign for one candidate
Twitter has been adopted by politicians and supporters alike, but recent controversies in Argentina and Mexico question whether some groups have crossed a line.
The most recent dust-up happened in Mexico, where a video was released that revealed the tactics of one group supporting presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, the current front-runner.
The video captures a roomful of activists who support Peña Nieto and the instructions that a speaker is giving the laptop-equipped crowd.
"It's time to start working," the speaker says, instructing those gathered to begin tweeting what they are instructed to tweet and at the same time so as to create favorable popular, or "trending" topics about a presidential debate.
There were some negative "hashtags," or keywords, out on Twitter "that we have to turn around immediately," the speaker says.
This level of organization to sway social media topics has been dubbed "Twittergate" in Mexico.
In Argentina, an investigation on the program "Journalism for Everyone" revealed at least 400 apparently fake Twitter accounts it said comprised a network designed to tilt public opinion in favor of the policies of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The show's host, Jorge Lanata, showed how several Twitter accounts purportedly owned by rank-and-file supporters of Fernandez, tweeted and retweeted about the same issue at the same time.
"They all write the same things, as if they were robots," Lanata said.
It was a system designed to create trending topics and give the impression that there was broad support for the policies of the current government, he said.
When people think about politicians interacting with Twitter, the general perception is of them reaching out directly to the public, said Anthony Rotolo, a professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. But as politicians and their followers become more sophisticated social media users, the tactics can change, he said.
"We're seeing a lot of ideas on how to use the data beyond the two-way interaction," Rotolo said.
There's a sense among social media users that trending topics on Twitter have credibility of being what people are really talking about, and influencing them can add heft to a campaign, he said.
When the traditional media see that certain topics are trending, "they are more likely to assume there is a story there, or something to pay attention to," he said.
In Argentina, the network of alleged false Twitter accounts dates back one year, and creates 6,000 messages a month, or about 200 a day, all with a political bent.
When active, the system injects six to 10 messages on Twitter per second, the investigation found.
The journalists don't know who is behind the scheme, but they argue it is an attempt to sway public opinion at a time of controversial government decisions.
The investigation started with a tip about four suspicious pro-Fernandez followers, which led to the discovery of hundreds of puppet accounts, said Julio Ernesto Lopez, a technology expert and columnist who worked on the task.
Using Google searches the journalists found a number of patterns. First, many of the photos on the Twitter accounts of the Fernandez supporters were actually stolen from other places on the Internet.
One account, for example, had a profile photo of a young, smiling man named "Juna Cruz Geler," who describes himself as a student of politics and a dancer. The photo actually belongs to Mario Alvarez, a Spanish singer who won a reality show and had no idea his image was being used for politicking an ocean away.
Lanata interviewed Alvarez and several others who confirmed that their photos were being used without their knowledge.
By Wednesday, the Cruz Geler account had replaced the photo of Alvarez.
A spokeswoman for the president's office declined to comment on the report.
Opposition politicians in Argentina are known to have used Twitter tactics to influence the agenda, but nothing of this scale or organization has been seen before, Lopez said.
"The problem is that in Latin America, (Twitter) is ideal for governments of this era," he said.
Twitter allows for declarations or opinions, without the space for the reasoning or the arguments behind it.
"We talk like animals on Twitter," he concluded.
The Mexican group caught on the "Twittergate" video is called Ectivismo. After the video was leaked, they confirmed that it was their group, but said that the Twitter campaign is just one of a number of activities they conduct in support of Peña Nieto.
In both cases, the beneficiaries of the Twitter campaign might see a boost, but as the public becomes more savvy to the new style of propaganda, the effect will lessen, Rotolo said.
Once readers learn that visibility does not equal popularity, the benefits of such campaigns are diminished.
There is also the risk of backlash from the internet community, Rotolo said.
As the controversies in Argentina and Mexico may indicate, gaming the system to one's advantage may viewed as underhanded, and the backlash from Twitter users could cause more harm than good.