How Digital Chatter Manifests in
Real-World Protest

Peter Pomerantsev on the Bots vs. the Activists

When I first meet Alberto Escorcia, he looks too tired even to be frightened. Someone’s been ringing his doorbell then running away so he can’t sleep at night, shining green laser beams into his bedroom, sending online death threats with his name spelled out in bullets, thousands of death threats every day so that his phone vibrates with alerts 24/7, like some sort of psychological torture implement.

But there’s no way Alberto can go offline. It’s his livelihood. More than that, it’s sort of his religion. “I see the internet in metaphysical terms, a war between love and fear that I can calculate through the algorithms.” There’s something a little otherworldly about Alberto. He can spend months analyzing linguistic patterns in thousands of social media posts to find connections. The sort of things others use machines to do, he does himself.

But somehow talking about the divinity of data doesn’t seem so unusual when you are in Mexico City, where religious drama is interwoven into everything, where the cocktail of mountain air and exhaust fumes makes the thin light shimmer and refract like through stained glass, and where millions of pilgrims every year climb a hill above the city, past rows of roses and limbless beggars to pray in the massive basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here the icons of Jesus are decorated with real hair and the priests command vast congregations to not follow the more popular cult of Our Lady of Holy Death, the Lady of Shadows, Santa Muerte, the patron saint of the narcos, who carries a scythe and a globe at her great festival on the Day of the Dead, when all of the city dresses up as skeletons.

Alberto is a great admirer of Srdja Popovic. He’s never been to any of the workshops, but he and his friends would pore over Srdja’s manuals as they planned their own protests, all united in their hatred of routine police beatings, drug-related shootings, stuffed ballot boxes, and rigged deals, and the chasm between the black glass-fronted boutiques and the security fences in the posh Polanco district and the toothless, impoverished Indians sleeping in piles in the baroque squares, a difference not so much between rich and poor as between different epochs.

Alberto and his friends began with actions that raised awareness of police brutality. After students were beaten by police, they went on silent marches and staged lie-ins where they stretched out supine on the street, blocking traffic. Protesting began as something personal for Alberto. In 2009, his family, along with other workers, had gone on a hunger strike to save the Central Light and Power Company in his hometown of Necaxa. Alberto, already a well-known blogger, helped amplify the protest to the nation. The workers won.

In the second decade of the 21st century, protest has become a way to connect to a greater world. While he was helping his hometown, Alberto was also constantly in touch with activists in movements in Spain and the United States, who were in turn talking to others in Turkey and the Middle East.

Dr. Marcos Bastos, a Brazilian academic at London’s City University, analyzed 20 million tweets from these movements between 2009 and 2013. He describes them as powered by “rooted cosmopolitans”—for example, a young woman unable to leave her home in Scotland as she had to look after aging relatives would watch livestreams of protests in the Middle East and guide protesters on how to avoid armed police. Discrete interests were pooled into something broader. A Swedish “serial activist” told Bastos, “I don’t fight for class struggle, feminism, ecology, or anarchism. My political reference is my mother. I need to persuade her. I’m fighting to reach out to the 99 percent: public values like justice and freedom instead of private values.”

“I see the internet in metaphysical terms, a war between love and fear that I can calculate through the algorithms.”

But Alberto found himself frustrated with the hit and miss nature of rooted-cosmopolitan protests. Some caught on; others were a waste of time. At meetings his co-organizers would blame failures on the weather, the government. Their approach, which mirrors Srdja’s, was to gather different groups, establish the lowest common denominator of mutual interests then spread the message to those whom they hoped would be the right people. But how would they know which themes to choose? The way they approached it seemed unscientific. And Alberto sensed that rational political interests were only part of what was needed to make a protest work. People wanted to be part of something emotionally powerful. That’s why they came to some protests and not to others. He sensed this instinctively, but he wanted to use data to turn his hunch into something practical.

Alberto started looking at Google searches in the periods leading up to protests. He found that interest in certain topics (gas prices, police shootings) would become visible online months before they became articulated as reasons for protest. That meant that one could also anticipate the issues that would unite people.

Then Alberto began to look at how social media messages traveled among people in successful protests. Protests grew as the communication among users increased online, forming a dense lattice of interconnections, what computer scientists call “capillarity.” Alberto read tens of thousands of messages that generated the most connections. He went through every line individually, a painstaking process that took months. He found that every wave of protests involved a certain amount of words that made the lattice of communication grow thicker, words that worked almost like magical magnets powering capillarity. It was these increasing interconnections that Alberto described with the word “love.”

He realized that if he knew in advance which subjects brought people together, and which words strengthened the interconnections, he would be able to inspire protests.

To show me, he opened up a laptop. In the center of the screen was a vibrating ball of dots with lines in between, with new lines joining in between the dots all the time, the whole thing quivering, growing, thickening. This was a real-time representation of online conversation among protesters during Mexico’s biggest-ever demonstrations in 2014, when hundreds of thousands came onto the streets after 49 students were murdered by narcos and the government did nothing to investigate. Each dot was a person. Each line a conversation between persons, and the links grew with the mention of the words powering the movement.

As Alberto showed me the graphic representation, an actual march went by outside the café we were sitting in. This is how I’d always seen protests: images of passionate people, slogans, speeches, stories, history. Alberto saw them differently, as something more abstract: little throbbing lines and dots, individual words emanating power outside the linear logic of full sentences.

From the top of the screen something new emerged: many little darting, bat-like shapes. These did not connect with each other; instead they descended separately on the ball, pecked away at it, pulling it apart. “These,” says Alberto, “are the bots and cyborgs.”

The protesters weren’t the only tech-savvy actors around. During the 2012 elections, Mexico became famous in computer science circles for the automated social media personas, basically computer programs pretending to be people, used by the eventual winner, Enrique Peña Nieto. Known as peñabots, these were Twitter accounts that could be produced by the thousands and then programmed to push out pro-Peña messages. Bots usually were pretty stupid: they just repeated the same message over and over. Cyborgs were a step up. Bots would push the original line, but when someone took the bait and interacted with it, a real human operator would step in and guide the conversation.

Over the decades there have been many studies that show how people modify their behavior to fit into what they think is the majority point of view.

One time a cyborg came to see Alberto. PR companies close to the government would pay “bot herders” like her, a student, to run more than a hundred fake personalities on social media. She said she felt guilty. But the pay was good.

With the protests swelling, government bots and cyborgs were now repurposed to undermine them. Protesters suddenly found themselves being smeared as being paid by the opposition, as anti-patriotic. Instinctively protesters started to respond, defending themselves online against their accusers. On Alberto’s screen you could see the consequences. As the little bat-shaped bots pecked at the ball, the little nodes representing protesters would stop interacting with each other and instead turn outwards to engage with the attackers, and as they did so the thick lattice became thinner, the ball started to break apart, becoming a quivering, shapeless thing.

At this moment of crisis for the protests, Alberto had an idea. He knew the words that thickened the links between protesters. What if he could flood the internet with these words? He created a YouTube video. It was just a girl talking to the camera, listing the reasons the protests were important. But every word she said had been carefully scripted by Alberto, each one selected as a linguistic potion.

When the video went viral, protesters stopped being distracted by the cyborgs and began talking to each other again, repeating the words that brought them together. Alberto could see the quivering ball coalesce, the little bats pecking in vain.

“That’s what I mean when I say the internet is a great battle between love, interconnectedness, on the one side, and fear, hate, disjointedness, on the other,” he explains.

After the cyborgs came the sock puppets, social media accounts that embed themselves within the protesters’ online community and then manipulate it from the inside.

In 2017, when there were protests against a hike in gas prices, the sock puppets acted. Activists had been guiding protesters to move around the city safely, avoiding the police and being beaten up. Now the sock puppets gave fake directions and pushed the protesters into the arms of the police. They spread fake stories that there had been violence and looting, posting photos of supermarkets with their windows broken. The photos were of riots in other countries and relabeled as if they were in Mexico. Criminals began to join the protests, which gave the police an excuse for violence.

And after the sock puppets came the online death threats, the green laser beam shone into Alberto’s apartment, his doorbell buzzing.

One takes such threats seriously in Mexico. During my visit Alberto asked me to meet him at the annual gathering of Article 19, an international NGO that helps protect journalists, and which derives part of its funding from Freedom House and the US State Department and European Foreign Ministries. At the Article 19 event, the faces of murdered journalists were flashed on the walls: eleven had been killed in the last year, with 99.75 percent impunity. The event was held in one of those colonial, russet-colored palaces in Mexico City that usher you into a cool courtyard of columns, arches, and cloisters so tall and graceful it somehow served to rub in the sad context of the gathering.

As canapés were handed around, one of the directors of Article 19, Ricardo Gonzales, told me the story of a journalist from Reynosa, a city in the Northeast.

In Reynosa, the narcos controlled the local newspapers, which, like Soviet-era publications, only talked about how clean, peaceful, and prosperous the city was when the reality was drug shootouts, with locals getting caught in the crossfire of gun battles that officially did not happen. Then social media came and changed everything. A Twitter channel, Reynosa Follow, would give live updates on shootings. Reynosans warned each other about dangers: “Two gunmen on the corner of Third and Fifth, take an alternative route . . . ” Everyone who contributed to the project did so anonymously. As Ricardo explained, the narcos were offering money to anyone who would reveal the identity of those behind Reynosa Follow. They were particularly pissed off with an account named La Felina, who had a picture of Cat Woman as her avatar, and who would even post photos of local narcos with demands for their arrest.

He still believed that the internet could reveal a society’s true needs and desires, demands for change lurking in the fluctuations of search engines and algorithms.

Then, one hot August day, a narco gang in Reynosa was caught in a shootout and one of their men was hit and wounded. The narcos rushed to the local hospital. Three doctors, two male and one female, were assigned to him. Nervous at being in a hospital too long, they kidnapped the doctors and took them to a safe house to treat their wounded colleague: a common practice. They took the doctors’ phones. When they checked the woman’s, it opened up on La Felina’s Twitter. It turned out this plump, fifty-something medic treating the wounded narco was the person they had been looking for. A few hours later La Felina tweeted:

friends and family, my real name is maría del rosario fuentes rubio. i am a physician. today my life has come to an end. don’t make the same mistake as i did, you won’t get anything out of  this. i realised that i found death in exchange for nothing. they are closer to us than you think.

Her last two messages were photos: one of her looking directly into the camera, the next of her lying on the floor with her face blown off. They had live-tweeted her execution. Then they replaced her Cat Woman avatar with Maria’s blown-off head.

The narcos like to show that information technology can’t be used to undermine them. One gang took a corpse and dressed him up as a carnival figure made up of computer parts: a keyboard to replace his mouth, CD-ROMs instead of eyes. The narcos were good at symbolism.

Given this context, Alberto decided it would be wiser to spend some time outside Mexico.

In the 2017 general election, the PRI lost to Andrés Manuel Lopéz “Louis” Obrador, otherwise known as AMLO. Obrador promised to clean up corruption but in his own way, top-down. He spoke the language of old-school state socialism and nationalism. Alberto knew some of Obrador’s team and he felt it was safe enough to return home. He liked the promises, but he was also wary. He felt that the new government had capitalized on the hard work of protesters—but would it listen to them when in power?

“Obrador also used bots in his campaign. I will be watching him.” With the PRI out of power, Alberto wanted to learn more about his adversaries. He’d heard about a campaign manager called Chochos, who was reputed to direct an army of online trolls, bots, and cyborgs.

On Chochos’s Facebook page was a grinning clown face. Chochos agreed to talk to Alberto over Skype but refused to show his face.

Though they were on opposing sides of the digital barricades, Alberto and Chochos spoke like two mutually respectful professionals swapping notes. When my translator transcribed their conversation, she kept getting confused about who was who.

Alberto asked about the fake pictures of looted super markets that had been spread during the gas protests, which encouraged them to turn violent.

Chochos said he knew exactly who was behind those. It was a 19-year-old member of a social media group called the Scientific Sect. Whenever one of their fakes would go viral, they would celebrate. Media might talk about “organized cyber criminals,” and “psychological warfare,” but the Scientific Sect was just a bunch of teenagers who wanted attention.

Alberto told him how people had started coming around his flat, ringing his bell.

Chochos shrugged it off. The kids created avatars for themselves that were intimidating on social media. Now they were getting the online world confused with the real, pushing their avatars into reality. It was still all a game. The thing with Twitter is you can be whoever you want to be, a woman, a troll, an activist. You can play both sides of an argument and no one will know. They weren’t, he insisted, actually violent.

“It’s like a nightclub,” said Alberto. “As soon as the lights go out you can be whoever you want.”

Alberto saw a greater problem up ahead. He still believed that the internet could reveal a society’s true needs and desires, demands for change lurking in the fluctuations of search engines and algorithms. The tragedy of digital manipulation was not just that individuals were harassed and abused but that they once again were being divided from their own reality. Mexico had 70 years of “truth” being dictated by a one-party state. People had accepted the reality the regime imposed on them as normal. Today bots, trolls, and cyborgs could simulate a climate of opinion, of support or hate, that was more insidious, more all-enveloping than the old broadcast media. And this simulation then would be reinforced as people modified their behavior to fall in line with what they thought was reality. An Oxford University analysis of bots calls this process “manufacturing consensus.” It is not that one online account changes someone’s mind; it’s that en masse they create an ersatz normality.

Her last two messages were photos: one of her looking directly into the camera, the next of her lying on the floor with her face blown off.

Over the decades there have been many studies that show how people modify their behavior to fit into what they think is the majority point of view. In 1974, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist and pollster, demonstrated how people will go along with the majority opinion to fit in. The need to belong is one of the deepest human inclinations, Noelle-Neumann argued, and people are motivated by fear of isolation. That is why exile, expulsion from the group, is one of the oldest forms of punishment.

In the age of mass communication, media become the gauge through which people decide what the dominant public opinion is. Noelle-Neumann, rather prettily, describes the dynamic as a “spiral of silence.” On one side are interpersonal connections, which push alternative opinions up the spiral, on the other are mass media, which push them down. At the bottom of the spiral lies the silence.

Noelle-Neumann defined two types of persons who fight against the silence. The first are what she termed the “hardcore,” who feel so rejected by society they don’t care what anyone thinks of them and revel in a lost, invented past. The other are the “avant-garde,” activists who do want people to listen to them despite all setbacks: “Those who belong to the avant-garde are committed to the future and thus by necessity, are also isolated; but their conviction that they are ahead of their time enables them to endure.”

It seemed a good way to describe Lyudmila, Alberto, Srdja, and the other activists I had met.

“Dark days are coming, Peter,” Alberto told me when I was back in London. “A new generation of bots and trolls are pushing us further and further into a world of pure simulation.”

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From This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, by Peter Pomerantsev, courtesy Public Affairs. Copyright 2020, Peter Pomerantsev.

Peter Pomerantsev
Peter Pomerantsev
Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics where he runs the Arena Initiative, dedicated to investigating the roots of disinformation and what to about them. He has testified on the challenges of information war to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the UK Parliament Defense Select Committee. He is a contributing editor and columnist at the American Interest. His first book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, won the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson, Guardian First Book, Pushkin House and Gordon Burns Prizes. It is translated into over a dozen languages.





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