13. Democracy in Mexico

Many fake tears get spilled when elites cry over how the Left is undemocratic or authoritarian, just loud enough to mute the sound of police bullets protecting conservative interests all over Latin America. This essay draws attention to a more fundamental danger that is creeping up on Mexican democracy and challenges it at it’s very core: a deadly combination of classism and online manipulation.

After the first year of AMLO’s presidency, one would get the impression that the 2018 elections never ended. Even if we have the first democratically elected leader to ever have an actual majority, we must observe that the Right is still in full campaign mode as if this never happened. They are still buying advertisements and online promotion. They keep organizing marches without crowds. They keep ‘demanding’ resignation by popular uprising, minus the popular uprising. They politicize every single move and spread fake news and smears as if in a last desperate now-or-never push on election day, years before any vote. Every week the end of the Fourth Transformation seems right around the corner, every week again. What is going on?

It seems that the PAN, in contrast to other opposition parties and their supporters, has never really accepted the outcomes of the 2018 election. Besides tiring, there is something bizarre about the lack of formalistic respect, the indignation and persistence with which Marko ‘Mexican Guaidó’ Cortes weekly calls for resignation, uprisings or foreign intervention. Opposition is part of politics, but I have never seen this behavior. It would give an outsider the impression that AMLO never won the presidency. Well, that is exactly what happened in the conservative mind. Not because they missed out on the fact that the Left won – although some idiots are still in conspiratorial denial. It is because they don’t consider it valid.

AMLO’s victory does not count, because he was voted in by poor people. Since he could only win with the support of people who were ‘not prepared’ to vote, he didn’t really get enough ‘real’ votes. While popular in polls, the citizens are really against AMLO, because the majority that support him are not ‘really’ citizens. He is thus an usurper in the eyes of the Right. The problem is not manipulation, it is background. Besides the point that an analysis of polls teaches us this is a closer description of the electorate of the PRI than Morena, we have to recognize that at the bottom this comes down to raw classism. This shows itself in a collection of antidemocratic and malinchista sentiments, which tu servidor hears with an increasing frequency in Nuevo León. Various colleagues, acquaintances or students have entrusted me that ordinary Mexicans cannot be trusted with voting, and only ‘prepared’ or educated people should both be able to hold office and vote. At least one person has probably told you too. This attitude has the added bonus that in retrospect the 35% ‘win’ of Felipe Calderon was actually a true majority, since all the real citizens voted for him. For the record, we cannot generalize this attitude to all officials and militants of the Right, of whom many I respect. Yet this disgust for the choice of the people and nostalgia for aristocracy (today called technocracy) is clearly on the rise.

It is elementary to understand that these forms of classism are a denial of the principle of political equality and thus of the very fundament of democracy, regardless of how it is institutionalized: that all voices matter. Privilege does not just hunger for social, economic and cultural inequality, just like with woman or ethnic minorities in earlier times, it ultimately comes full cycle in craving political inequality as well. If you believe only certain people should be able to run for office or even vote, you are not a democrat, period. Besides classist, these attitudes also betray a (neoliberal) reduction of the democratic process to choosing ‘the best’ manager for the company-state. A curious notion, since democracy was foremost born out of demands for representation, and later self-determination and the defense of social interests. Unlike the farmworker in Guerrero for whom nobody speaks, elites find in democracy as much obstacle as a tool when it comes to defending their interests. Yet we should also recognize that for many people these attitudes are the rationalization of frustration, rather than a true longing for Plato’s guardian class. Given many academics supported AMLO in 2018, especially in the social sciences and humanities, many conservatives would be uncomfortable with the opinion of actual experts on societal matters. Taste over science, said the duke.

Although I’m aware this essay is hypothetical, the disavowal for democracy shows itself in many ways. On the surface it shows in the never ending hate and utter lack of respect not just for the president but the voters themselves. It shows in the recurrent flirting with the idea and practice of national and international coups. It shows in the nostalgia for the Porfiriato. But it shows in a deeper sense in the willingness to manipulate public opinion, which gets amplified through social media. While conservatives certainly have no monopoly over voter manipulation, they do it with more confidence and consistency – since their resources allow them to do this even without political power. The British Conservatives deserve a shout out, since they are the original gangster in this game: in November they were caught for changing their twitter account to a hoax fact-checker during an election debate; and for paying google to make a fake duplicate website the first result when searching for the socialist party Manifesto. In Mexico we of course have our own long history of mass manipulation, so it should not surprise this carries over into the social media era. We just never witnessed it from an opposition perspective.

If the vote of the majority is in principle considered misguided and just a formal necessary evil, then it is in principle justified to manipulate them. This logic is clearly manifested in the topic of fake news: if I am willing to risk my reputation with you over the rhetorical advantage of showing a fake picture of Evo Morales on a luxury airplane instead of a military one, I probably don’t care about what you think beyond tricking you. Or at least not more than the fisherman cares how fish see him. But I discussed that in an earlier essay.

What is new is the phenomena of bots, online fake accounts that automatically spread certain opinions. Despite being formal breaches of the terms and agreements, social network operators have been unwilling or unable to reign in this expanding phenomenon. Bots are used to spread real or fake news, provide ‘like’ support to boost the algorithmic priority, or tip the balance in online polls, etc. And simulate public opinion, of course. A real time example: while writing this I saw the news that the police saved two kidnapped people (objectively good news), but literally every single comment on the Televisa Youtube page I read is negative, short, and made at the same hour from anonymous accounts.

So how big is this problem? I won’t attempt to use government estimates, but a recent roundtable on the Multimedios program ‘Cambios 27’ (10 November) on social media gives some insight. The researchers that track online activity show cases where the range of automated replies (bots) range from 36% bots responding to (ironically) AMLO complaining about bots; to an estimate of only 19% confirmed real users (!) responding to the senate vote on the Human Rights commission. Read that again. They – who in other sections come across as very critical of the 4T – estimate that between 30 and 50% of interaction on any given political news are bots. Understand that this means we entered a world in which just under half of the online political debate is fake. Understand that elites moved beyond the old trick of hiring background audience, but are replacing real people with robots. Since the voice of the poor doesn’t count anyway, the bot is a much better citizen: it already has the ‘best’ opinion.

Bots are a fundamental insult to democracy. The combination with fake news allows this evil to hide in plain sight: it’s very function is to manipulate and redirect the public eye. Direct warnings for bots by the government itself are ridiculed and turned against the messenger… by those very bots. In some cases, this can be so successful that ‘well prepared’ people start parroting logical reversals of reality. Some examples. The decrease in the budget for government media advertisements (read: bribing the press), somehow becomes suppression of free speech. The morning conferences (read: daily direct questions from the press) are not displays of transparency, but somehow become authoritarianism. The attempt to cut the presidential term in half, somehow becomes an attempt to double it? Sounds a bit crazy when you read it dry, right? But what if I sprinkle a couple thousand likes and shares on it?

I was confronted before with the treatment of democracy and voting as hindering formalities on different levels when finding my way in Mexico, but I never quite got over it. I never thought I would have to defend democracy or political equality itself, or the principle that it is wrong to lie to people. Shaming used to be enough. Yet we must rise to the challenge. First of all, there is legal work to be done in making sure that the use of bots by political organs is criminalized. Since I like my politics serious, I would suggest that massive offenses don’t just get fined but lead to disbanding of the party itself. If it turns out to be the Left party, which would surprise since they raised alarms about the issue, so be it. Second, we need to improve protections against fake news, preferably in cooperation with the social media platforms themselves. The latter, one may never forgot, are private companies that don’t naturally follow public interest. And third, we must go on the offensive when it comes to democracy – not just by arguing for it, but by doing it. By pushing for more participation, not just in the formal election of a new master, but also in our jobs, schools, and law enforcement, and so on.