Sunday, May 13, 2012

Obsessed about Twitter

After the rather mediocre presidential debate, life in Mexico has plunged into one of those moments when one can see how immature Mexican democracy is.

The debate, unlike what happens in other democratic societies, displayed at once, the stiffness and shallowness of our public life. Stiffness, because the underlying problems were left untouched, since each candidate had less than 30 minutes and there was no real exchanges among the participants. 

Shallow, because on top of wasting, four-million Mexican pesos (more than 300, 000 USD), the presence of Playboy playmate Julia Orayén, the usher of the debate, gave a glimpse of how the top bureaucrats at IFE, the country’s top election authority, perceive themselves as entitled to such perks.

IFE, far from acknowledging the seriousness of its task, insists on acting as if it the Mexican democracy was robust and solid. But not only IFE. The main parties also show stiffness and shallowness.

The best place to watch how stiff and superficial political life is in Mexico is the social media, a much distorted mirror of what happens in Mexico. Before a detailed analysis the Mexican social media and the stiff and shallow approach of the parties, it is important to note that, according to the information available in the AMIPCI 2011 survey, only 29 percent of the Mexican households have at least one computer.

About 21 percent of the Mexican households have Internet access, providing access to just over 31 million people. Internet users tend to be mostly males, living in cities of more than 100 thousand people. They are very young, a good number underage. Many of them are members of families with medium to high income and a good number of them live in Mexico City or the State of Mexico. These numbers depict the proverbial Internet/technology gap between Mexico City’s metro area and the rest of the country (see page 7).

Another important fact is that the interest in politics among users of social media is markedly higher (16 percent), actually the double, as compared with people not participating in social media.

That is why it is more surprising that the three main political parties are spending so much time, money and energy in trying to dominate, to “colonize”, the Internet, the social media and, more specifically, Twitter.

This week provided a good chance to see how futile these efforts to “colonize” the Internet are since, right after the debate, someone published a video of one of the so-called “Twitter farms” in Mexico. One can listen in this video a soft-spoken boss instructing others about fighting a couple of Twitter hash-tags criticizing, Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, the PRI.

The video is just over a minute-long, and is almost impossible to understand what is actually happening in the room. One cannot tell whether the people in the room are volunteers, as PRI officials said or if, as many assume, they are workers or “cyber-hauled” (ciberacarreados) operating accounts in social media to win the so-called Trending Topics.

What is clear to the educated user in Twitter in Mexico is that PRI tries very hard to give the impression of a unanimous support to their candidate, pretty much the way it used to be back in the 1960s or the 1970s. The video confirms the suspicions many have expressed had about the PRI’s social media strategy, as there are way too may accounts supporting Peña Nieto which only post information or ideas favorable to Peña Nieto.

These accounts lack pictures or use photographs of professional models taken from other websites, so they are easily spotted as not related to real users. Moreover, there is a deep chasm between the profile of those who could vote for Enrique Peña and the profile of Mexican Internet users and, more specifically, of social media users in Mexico.

This gap combined with the false sense of unanimous support to Peña Nieto in Twitter reveals the PRI’s intention to manipulate, to lie, about their ability to communicate. PRI communication in social media lacks meaning. It, merely repeats slogans and ideas in a way leading many to wonder what else is the PRI willing to create this false sense of unanimous support. Social media users rightly feel cheated and, given their academic achievement, income, and political preferences, they do not hesitate to worry about the risk of allowing the PRI to act like that.

On top, one needs to add the growing tensions between the old and the new media just emerging in Mexico. Conflicts between old and new media are not new, but they are more severe in Mexico because the old media is much more dependent on public resources transferred to them by the municipal, state, and federal levels of government. See also the paper published by the NGO Article 19.

It is a very unfavorable situation, aggravated by the way in which press offices allocate their budgets, and by the brutal concentration of income making very difficult for small and medium-size businesses to invest resources in advertising. This is not just a matter of perceptions. As I said two weeks ago, there are on-going projects to analyze what happens in social media in Mexico.

One of such projects is Monitoreo Electoral en México (Monitoring Elections in Mexico), which shows that both the PRI and PAN presence in Mexican social media does not reflect the activity of real, flesh and blood, users but rather the operation of social media farms like the one in the video I referred previously.

The rather shallow and conceited attitude of the Mexican political parties has come to generate “Trending Topics wars” that have been solved following three logics. PRI has resorted to using so-called BOTS, which are programs generating fake users and to using so-called “social media farms”, and a very active presence in social media of some of its regional leaders.

The ruling party, PAN, also uses BOTS. It has displayed some level of coordination of its grass-roots membership, with some presence of key congresspersons and top-cabinet officials. However, Ms. Josefina Vázquez-Mota’s BOTS strategy, an attempt to match Peña Nieto’s follower numbers in Twitter, ended up in a major gaffe.

The weakness of Ms Vázquez-Mota social media strategy is only one of the PAN candidate’s problems. She had the worst “post-debate” performance of the four presidential candidates, which included his appearance in “Third Degree”, the news commentary and analysis show of Televisa, the media monopoly in Mexico.

During the interview, Ms Vázquez-Mota not only refused to distance herself from Felipe Calderon’s administration. She even regretted the fact that Mexican law prevents the acting president from attending campaign rallies and events. Ms Vázquez-Mota decided to become the heir of the Calderón administration legacy, despite the fact that she has been unable to match Peña Nieto and despite the fact she is now trailing Mr Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Milenio daily poll.

Her situation is so difficult now, that voices talking about replacing her as candidate have multiplied. The problem here is, Who could become the PAN new candidate? If Ernesto Cordero decides to step in he will have to fight the ghost of his unfortunate statements about how some families survive on six thousand pesos (450 USD) a month salary. Who else then? Could Margarita Zavala, the Mexican First Lady, step in? Would Diego Fernandez de Ceballos come back from his retirement?

What many panistas are unwilling to acknowledge is that the problem is not Ms Vázquez-Mota, but the heavy, unsustainable burden of 60 000 dead from the futile war on drugs and, above all, the dismal performance of the economy. Mexican economy has been unable to create formal, well-paid, jobs. As the National Statistics Office, INEGI, acknowledged, during the last twelve months, 763 000 persons joined the informal, so-called, “black” economy. With those numbers, there is no way for any ruling party to win.

PAN should acknowledge that Josefina is not a miracle worker. Moreover, Josefina would have to acknowledge the risks involved in being the heir of the current government’s legacy.

However, not only PAN and PRI make mistakes, the left too. Although no there are no documented cases of BOTS or “social media farms”, Mr. Lopez Obrador is, as I said two weeks ago, the “king of Twitter” in Mexico. And indeed, the left, specifically the left in Mexico City dominate at its pleasure the Mexican social media. There is no real need to inflate the Twitter Trendinr Topics with hash tags pushed in social media “farms”, because the left has a “natural” majority of users identified with Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr Miguel Mancera, the left mayoral candidate in Mexico City.

However, something that left the City has failed to understand since last year, when Eruviel Avila swept the gubernatorial race in Mr. Peña Nieto home State of Mexico, is that the reality in Mexico City is vastly different from the rest of the country, including that of State of Mexico municipalities within the Mexico City metro area. That is why leftist social media users discredit almost all polls. They do not understand, as an example, why there might be people who want to cast a vote for the PRI.

The main problem for the Mexican left in Twitter is the fact that their dominance turns into insults, verbal aggression, and even bullying of whoever breaks rank with what the left perceives as politically correct. This was evident in the reactions to the unfortunate episode that starred Enrique Peña Nieto and a group of people at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana campus.

The protest was not spontaneous. Far from it, it was prepared as a series of activities to express rejection to the PRI presidential candidate. However, rather than arguing with Peña and his ideas, a dynamic of insults and verbal aggressions broke out in the Iberoamericana campus.

As this was unfolding in the Jesuit University in Mexico City, in Twitter, PAN supporters allied themselves with the left to insult the PRI presidential candidate, despite the fact that Felipe Calderon has been repeatedly the target of insults from the left. It is hard to know what will happen from now on. I have, however, some questions. what is the limit, if there is any limit at all, of the harassment strategy in Twitter? Is the left aware of the fact that there is a deep disconnection between the “Republic of Love” proclaimed by Mr. López Obrador and the active and systematic harassment in Twitter?

As far as PRI is concerned, would it be too hard to acknowledge that Twitter is not PRI territory and to stop using social media farms and BOTS to generate the false impression of an overwhelming majority supporting Peña Nieto? Does PRI realize how harmful is their leader’s obsession with unanimous support for their candidates? Will they ever acknowledge how this behavior comes out as harassment?

Does PAN will ever acknowledge that they have been ruling for almost twelve years Mexico? Will they ever acknowledge how unable they have been to do what people expected from them? Will they keep blaming PRI for their misadventures? Will they ever learn to admit their own mistakes? Will they take advantage of the remaining seven of weeks before Election Day?

Will the left acknowledge that Twitter is not Mexico? Will they acknowledge that rather than insisting on showing how much they hate Enrique Peña or Felipe Calderon they should be concerned, for example, with having enough representatives for little more than 120 000 polling stations? Something that, incidentally, they were unable to do back in 2006.

What is clear is that Mexican politics are far from being as mature as circumstances require and we get lost, sadly, in scandals which do not facilitate solving the country's problems.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Debates, Institutions, and Distrust

Just a few hours before the first presidential debate one should stop and think how we come to this date. It is hard to face it, but there are little or no expectations about what might happen in the debate. One of the most prestigious political marketing consultants in Mexico, Gisela Rubach, put it briefly in her Twitter account: "This Sunday’s debate will determine who is gets the number 2 slot".

In other words, do not expect too much of a debate with a rather stiff format. A debate where cameras will be zoomed in on whoever is talking, most likely without a boom, an open microphone, so you will only hear whoever is on your TV screen, and, with nothing but 30 minutes for each candidate.

In such a short time, candidates most probably will reiterate the general lines of their campaign ads. Ms. Vazquez Mota will insist in that she is “different”, but will not tell us why she is. Mr. Enrique Peña Nieto will tell us that he does not want to split the country, without any explanation. Mr. Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador will tell us that both PAN and PRI are nothing but the same and that we must vote for him.

The organizers keep telling us that there will be exchanges; but with 30 minutes per candidate it will be difficult to go beyond the same platitudes that have marred the presidential contest. It is hard to expect any change because the questions for the debate are extremely broad, allowing the candidates to avoid, with relative ease, any specific or technical answer. There are no mechanisms to force some degree of technical precision.

If they offer a million or one million and a half jobs, there is no way to force them to tell us how they will achieve such goals. A basic comparison between the debate in Mexico and the debate between François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in France is shocking. Here in Mexico each candidate will have 30 minutes.

The French candidates had 75 minutes per person, plus the time to each of the two moderators. That is without taking in consideration that the French debate had wide camera shots, open microphones, and the very setup of the TV studio. In Paris, everything seemed to facilitate the discussion. In Mexico City, everything seems to preclude any exchange. Moreover, in Paris the moderators had the authority to force answers from either Sarkozy or Hollande.

In light of these differences it should not surprise the arrogance of Mexican TV mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego who decided not to broadcast the debate in any of the two TV Azteca national networks. To this sad story of the Mexican presidential debate one should add yet another problem: the conflicting distrust in the two highest authorities on electoral matters in Mexico.

First, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, has been far too lenient with the parties and Ricardo Salinas Pliego. The Federal Electoral Tribunal, Trife, on the other hand issued on the early hours of this Saturday, May 5th, a rather troublesome ruling forbidding the IFE from carrying a “quick count” after the election.

The ruling came after the Democratic Revolution Party, the largest left-to-center party in Mexico, filed a complain against the the IFE’s decision to carry the the" quick count ", as it has been done in previous presidential elections. This ruling raises several questions. Why the PRD filed the complain when it should be interested in giving certainty to the election? This question raises more questions:

Does Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-to-center candidate asked for this? What reason could there be to maim the electoral authority? Was this a decision pushed by Manuel Camacho Solis, the broker of the endless struggles of the Mexican left? Was this a decision of the national leadership of the PRD? If so, is this yet another expression of the endless struggle between Mr López Obrador and the PRD leaders?

There are too many questions and all very difficult to answer. One needs to keep in mind that eliminating the IFE’s "quick count" does not preclude the parties or any pollster from organizing their own "quick counts". Killing the IFE’s "quick count" will generate a period, who knows how long, of uncertainty about the election.The electoral court's reasoning is rather poor. The judges say that "IFE used a fuzzy reasoning when it approved the quick count".

However, it is hard to understand the judges ruling, but even if they are right, this does not invalidate, on the one hand, the need to have a "quick count" as complement all the other tools available to the public on Election Day to know who wins the election. On the other hand, it does not invalidate the "quick count" technique as such.

The Trife had a choice to demand a better implementation of the “quick count”. What is ludicrous is to say that we can forget about the “quick count”. The Trife seems to be out of touch regarding the overall trust in the Mexican electoral authorities. Trust is not the fruit of isolated acts. It needs redundancy, that is to say, it needs systems and instruments supporting other systems and instruments if they fail.

I do not know if the judges are too influenced by the overall perception that the election is already decided with a wide margin, but that would be absurd. Although all the available surveys give a wide lead Mr. Peña Nieto, that advantage will narrow, so the need for exit polls, “quick counts”, and other instruments will be higher.

Having a "quick count" organized by the electoral authority could be extremely useful to avoid the kind of uncertainty we had back in 2006. The electoral authorities, IFE and Trife, have been unable to promote trust in their actions. IFE, as an example, has been extremely weak in its dealing with media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego. Trife’s ruling on the “quick count” far from strengthening the IFE, its administrative pair, weakens it further. One should keep in mind that IFE has been hostage of the levity, arrogance, and diva attitudes of some of the council members.

In March, as an example, the council members were forced to put some limits to the astronomical bonds and perks they were going to assign themselves after the election. These excesses were tamed only after the public outrage at the council members was way too evident. It is worth keeping in mind that trust in IFE is still recovering from the 2006 slump brought by the fickleness and irresponsible behavior of then Chairman, Luis Carlos Ugalde.

Now, according to data from Consulta Mitfosky polls, only 28 percent of Mexican citizens trust the IFE, 41 percent have some trust on the electoral authority and 27 percent have little or no trust in IFE (see third chart on page 7 of report).

These numbers are very bad for an institution as important as IFE should be and if one adds the decision to ban the "quick count", there is little or no chance to overcome the effects of the 2006 election night. And the worst part is that 24 hours before the debate, instead of talking about what the candidates are telling us, we are talking about the lack of trust in the electoral authority. Take counselor Marco Antonio Baños’s behavior.

Far from contributing to improve the overall conditions in which the election will happen, he seems to be determined to encourage confrontation. One only needs to see his exchanges with Raul Trejo Delarbre, a prestigious scholar at UNAM’s Institute of Social Research.