Was the #YaMeCansé Hashtag Hijacked By EPN Twitter Bots?

Read more

In early November, Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam’s snide “Ya me cansé” remark at a press conference about the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students inadvertently became a rallying cry for a Mexican populace that has had enough.

Within minutes, the phrase had been converted into a hashtag that exploded all over Twitter, attached to tweets that reflected the disgust, fury and deep grief people feel over the ongoing state and criminal violence that has seized the country. Like the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that sprung up in the wake of the decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson over the murder of Michael Brown, #YaMeCansé became a centerpiece of social media activism — a way to voice outrage, organize IRL protests, and create much-needed dialogue and awareness about some of the problems plaguing Mexico. It was a trending topic in Mexico for 26 consecutive days, receiving more than 4 million mentions. And then, abruptly, it disappeared from Twitter’s trending topic list yesterday.

What happened? Mexican site Sopitas has a theory: EPN Twitter Bots.

Most Twitter users are familiar with bots, computer programs that can perform automated functions on Twitter (like tweeting, following people, etc.). Usually, the ones you see are spambots — the kinds that have weird handles and pop up in your mentions offering you discounted iPads, or insider information on how to make 500k a year by working part-time from home. But bots can be used for more insidious purposes than hocking a product: they can also be a tool to manipulate and/or repress speech on social media. How? By flooding Twitter with fake users sending political tweets, like those pictured above, and hijacking hashtags so that Twitter algorithms register them as spam.

Twitter has never publicly revealed how its trending topics algorithm works, though you can learn a lot by browsing Twitter’s Developers’ blog. What we know for sure, is that the algorithm looks for topics that are being talked about more right now than they were previously. Which is why it’s suspicious that the #yamecansé hashtag disappeared so abruptly from the list of Mexico’s trending topics yesterday. According to data from the social analytics service Topsy, there were over 100,000 Tweets sent using the #yamecansé hashtag in the first days of December – more Tweets than on some days in mid-November. And yet, its trending streak, which continued all throughout November, is over. Why would it stop trending when it has just as many, if not more, mentions than before?

Sopitas speculates that it could be due to spambots hijacking the hashtag:

The phenomenon of bots jumping on a trending hashtag in order to get their tweets seen has been an ongoing complaint about Twitter, and the company has taken several measures to reduce this attention-grabbing move. Though they’ve never explicitly said so, it is widely presumed that these methods include removing trending topics that are perceived to be primarily made of spammy, inorganic interactions. While there is no way to verify this without Twitter releasing the mechanisms underlying their trending topics algorithm, one thing is sure: excessive spam messes up the utility of a hashtag. It fractures communication and makes it difficult to glean useful information on search, since results are filled with thousands of irrelevant messages that make no sense.

An entire economy has sprung up around this kind of spamming — you can now purchase fake accounts from online vendors and use them to simulate Twitter users, meaning anyone with money to spend can boost their numbers on Twitter or use fake accounts to push a narrative of their choosing, or even to sabotage an existing narrative. The question is, are politicians in Mexico purchasing twitter bots to censor Twitter dialogue around #yamecansé?

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that the voices of Mexicans will not be silenced. Already, protestors have already come up with an answer to the spamming of #yamecansé: #yamecanse2.

It’s already trending.