Translated by Nili Blanck
Por Rossana Reguillo y Jesús Robles Maloof
Mexico City, May 12 – In February 2015, Rossana Reguillo, a Mexican academic and blogger, internationally recognized for her work on social movements, received a death threat over Twitter. Attacks characterized by this type of violence have snowballed over the last two months, extending onto other social media outlets belonging to Rossana Reguillo, such as her personal email account; individuals close to Reguillo have also received dangerous threats. In the wake of these events, we search for opportunities to reflect on organizing and the exercise of freedom of expression, and the political implications regarding the emerging forms of violence and censorship over the Internet.
In the theater of the Internet, the symbolic characters of the “troll” and the “bot” function as worrisome harbingers that narrate the potential decline of freedom of expression in Mexico. Within a context already overwhelmed by extreme violence, deteriorating institutions and retarded democracy, strengthening freedom of expression and guaranteeing access to information – discussion as well as civil participation of collective interest – proves vital.
The troll is a symbol deriving from Norwegian folklore, a species that takes human form and is most commonly represented as a demon, ogre or some other kind of evil creature, despite the fact that neither the troll’s origins nor malignant associations are known.
Similarly, the introduction of the term “troll” and the saying “to troll the Internet” cannot be precisely determined. Various academic essays and journalists locate the introduction in the ‘90s, on the site Usenet (Users Network), a system for global discussion on the Internet created at Duke University. Early usage of the term is associated with the idea of “trolling for newbies,” which enabled experienced Internet users to mock Internet freshman.
The scale and magnitude of these attacks towards individuals as well as news sites and forums for critical opinion not only call for an urgent reflection on the issue, but also bring to light questions fundamental to understanding the importance of this issue within an era in which the Internet is both a tool and a new public sphere.
One of the most salient concerns arising from this new socio-political discourse is the impetus to mitigate this violent behavior, and to denounce the life we lead virtually as distinct and less authentic part of the rest of our lives; nevertheless, reality shows us that media users increasingly risk their reputation to participate in key debates towards the development of specific agendas. Regarding political contexts, it is possible that the common advice – “don’t feed the troll” – is no longer a sufficient enough answer.
Another issue is the lack of available information about the serious damages incurred by victims of Internet violence, from their physical and emotional wellbeing to their consequential retirement from online activity and the renunciation of the free word, events now being documented by “Dominemos las TIC” (Take back the TIC).
A third question that surfaces within this reflection is the absence and invisibility of a political stance that addresses the implications of the normalization of violence on the Internet on the qualities of the judiciary and democratic organs. This so-called troll, harassing and abusive, serves today as a mechanism for silencing through fear and discomfort the critical voice of certain actors, private as well as governmental.
BLOCKING IS NOT ENOUGH
The literature available on the subject often emphasizes the psychological disorders of these actors; although this certainly may be true, these “trolls” enjoy imposing harm onto others (side note: the term used for this, “shandenfreude,” is a German word in lack of a good Spanish equivalent, denotes the joy one experiences as a result of someone else’s suffering), tactfully employing psychological weaponry as a method of obfuscating from the debate the most concerning element of this phenomenon: the political.
The strategies of control and monitoring have been widely documented on behalf of governments and other institutions of power not clearly designated across the web. The proliferation of “Troll Farms,” which refers to the “cultivation” and the use of numerous false Twitter accounts, are evident in Mexico.
The bots (i.e. an abbreviation for robot) are those accounts created to perform functions automatically, such as posting tweets that link to websites; retreating or following someone mentioned in a word or hashtag or some kind of reverse strategy; saturating discussions or silencing dissenting voices in public debates contrary to government interests, have evolved into a serious problem to maintain Twitter as a “deliberatively genuine and informative space,” as said by Enrique Valero and Pepe Merino.
Empirical analysis and the use of data mining tools like Gephi, Json and Flocker affirm the conclusion that emerges out of the public space of Mexican networks, especially Twitter, that the strategies of marketing and dirty war that involve the simultaneous use of trolls and bots, although seemingly different, both share the end goal of interrupting the conversation, injecting fear, and tricking what we call “meaningful communities” that work to generate open, respectful discussion on key processes and debates.
In the context of midterm elections and crisis in the country, such as the missing students at Ayotzinapa, the fire that occurred at ABC Nursery, political prisoners, and Tlatlaya – comprising the short list – of evidence of grave corruption such as the case of the Higa homes, coupled with the electoral process and the structural reforms, #YaMeCanse, and the most recent case of journalist Carmen Aristegui, confirm the attempts against freedom of expression, human rights and democracy.
Bots, to change the course of the conversation; trolls to inject fear in relation to the same conversation; at the center “farms,” that cultivate accounts and operators, that today are so profitable for powers seeking to extend their tentacles to control network operating old tactics within new platforms.
LEARNING IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
Rossana Reguillo was the target of an orchestrated attack overseen and conducted over Twitter by another well-known account. Data mining analysis of the account responsible for initiating the attack reveals that the majority of its followers were “bots” and that “trolls” that participated in this attack sustained the consistent interactions between the attacks. The initial death threats, on top of misogynistic and hate-infused language, contained what is known as “a message decoy,” or, “phishing,” a link that redirects to an apparent home of Twitter that is false, with the purpose of stealing the user’s password and other sensitive information.
This graphic, representing the analysis produced by a team of data mining experts interested in freedom of expression, reproduces the attack almost in real time. The graphic shows the last two hundred interactions and supports of the involved accounts. The green dot represents the “target” (from hereinafter we choose to avoid the notion of the “victim,” as that is what attackers seek to build), and the lines between each node show the last two hundred interactions as well as time of the attack. The motive appears to be the participation of Reguillo in Ayotzinapa protests.
Rossana Reguillo’s case, despite its emotional and personal labor, has allowed for us to learn and gain crucial insight into understanding the risks derived from the utilization of social media as a method for prolonging censorship.
THE RESPONSE TO AGGRESSION
Threats, under Mexican criminal law, are crimes that function independent of the methods used to carry them out. Article 282 of the Federal Penal Code establishes a sanction of three months to a year in prison “to the one who commits a threat, realized in any manner, to another and inflicts harm to that other in health, honor, or rights.” The crime worsens if public servants commit threats.
In the last eight years, Mexico has transformed into one of the most dangerous countries for journalists where adverse living conditions continuously impede upon the exercise of freedoms. Minimizing the amount of threats only serves the purpose of rampant impunity in aggressions against journalists and human rights defenders. The experience offered by the protection of dissident voices teaches that denunciation alongside social support is key to protecting against risk at its origin.
National and international solidarity with Rossana has been impressive. After an initial analysis of risk, a protection plan with legal traction was implemented and incorporated into the Protection Mechanisms for Advocates and Journalists. This included personal care, analysis, documentation and criminal complaints.
Despite these measures, the attacks continue what is now nearing three months. Signs pointing towards political orchestration of the attack grow stronger and have become the main line of defense work. The practice employed by government and political agents of hiring digital marketing agencies that can provide along with other services “an army of accounts ready to cross the Twitter battlefield that can protect and watch over” cannot go unrecognized as one of the greatest emerging dangers against freedom of expression.
PGR received the official complaint, sufficient evidentiary material, as well as a detailed research proposal under the new procedural process regarding those suffering a crime. Due to the fact that omission of rights creates incentives for the comfortable establishment of impunity, the use of these documents by PGR will undoubtedly play a determining role.
In March of this year, in light of harsh criticism about its previous policy on abuse, Twitter modified the attention it gives threats. Nevertheless, Twitter’s actions continue to demonstrate its inability in attending to systemic attacks that narrate a political site of origin. As argued by Nadia Kayyali and Dany O’Brien, the answer may not lay in centralization, but rather in “attending better to the behaviors faced by individuals” while companies “broaden their horizons.”
The task for law enforcement and civil society is not to ignore the critical and purposeful voices from the public arena and let them live in a condition of normalized violence, but to denounce this dark threat against freedom of expression and to document with the motive of denunciating the aggression of the authoritarianism disguised as millionaires writing lucrative contracts and operating marketing agencies.
To defend the critics is to defend the Internet as a civic tool. The possibilities of a more democratic dialogue are along the way to building an environment for discussion without violence.