Twitter Mobs Bash Those Who Dare Challenge AMLO in Mexico Press

(Bloomberg) -- The reporter, a woman who didn’t identify herself, asked Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador if he was investigating nepotism in government. Within minutes, social media was ablaze with posts calling her a cow, a member of the gestapo and a “lazy pig” for not getting up from her seat to address the president.

Her crime was quizzing the extraordinarily popular leader of Mexico, a man-of-the-people leftist who holds a press conference every weekday but doesn’t appreciate members of the press confronting him. Lopez Obrador’s devotees on the internet don’t either, unleashing invective-filled hate campaigns against offending correspondents that appear to be widely driven by bots.

It’s something the Mexican president has in common with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, with whom he rarely agrees: disdain for journalists who aren’t in lockstep with the administration.

Instead of “fake news,” Lopez Obrador tends to dismiss critical reports as coming from the “fifi” press, slang for posh or elitist and out of touch. AMLO, as he is known, has also called reporters and their news organizations “puppets,” “hypocrites” and “two-faced.” His online supporters aren’t shy about using much harsher, and profane, language.

Inflammatory social media posts, from either pro-AMLO forces or those that oppose him, have raised concerns about the widening of divisions in broader Mexican society and the stifling of political discourse.

“It’s important to see the impact of polarization on the country,” said Rossana Reguillo, a social scientist at ITESO, a university in Guadalajara. “It’s making it hard to have a real debate.”

What’s more, the displays of animosity toward the press are particularly worrisome in a country that is the most dangerous for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. At least three have been murdered this year.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing today is that the president is constantly stigmatizing the press,” said Ana Cristina Ruelas, regional director of Article 19, a freedom-of-information advocacy group. “The moment that you stigmatize the press, violence against them could be justified.”

Social media attacks on journalists, particularly on Twitter, have risen since Lopez Obrador took power in December, according to an ITESO study headed by Reguillo. It found that coordinated Twitter accounts run by bots reinforce and amplify the president’s anti-media comments.

For decades, media companies in Mexico received so much money from government advertising that it often ensured positive coverage of presidents. AMLO says that makes certain media suspect.

When he has been asked to tone down his rhetoric, Lopez Obrador has doubled down, insisting he has the right to criticize news outlets that, in his view, have an editorial agenda to disparage him. He has denied that he or his administration have anything to do with software-driven accounts.

“It’s not true that there is a group encouraged by us to defend us against those who question and criticize us. We do not have bots,” Lopez Obrador said when asked at a press conference about the ITESO findings.

The president’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Daniel Blancas, a journalist from La Cronica who was kidnapped and beaten after reporting on fuel theft in Mexico, said Lopez Obrador should be more careful with the words he uses when he lashes out at the media. Blancas said his experience has made him more wary of the insults he receives via email and on social media whenever he poses a tough question at a press conference.

Twitter Mobs Bash Those Who Dare Challenge AMLO in Mexico Press

The president “should understand that the press isn’t there to hold his hand and march with him,” he said. “The press is there to stand watch.”

AMLO -- who by some gauges has an approval rating close to 70 percent five months into his six-year term -- has insisted there is not only freedom of the press in Mexico but space for criticism of his administration.

Watching the anti-press social media storm, that last part can seem questionable.

According to the ITESO study, Twitter bots, computer programs set up by people with a pro-Lopez Obrador narrative, are fast to detect a target and throw vicious assaults in its direction. They can easily create trends using hashtags and to reinforce and strengthen certain presidential comments, swiftly replicating the messages across many accounts.

ITESO detected one such account behind a recent attack on the daily newspaper Reforma, which often carries front-page stories that counter the president’s view and has become one of his punching bags. The #ReformaTodoLoDeforma hashtag -- for Reforma distorts everything -- dominated the Twitter conversation for a full day.

The chat section for YouTube watchers of the presidential press conferences is a non-stop display of insults directed at journalists taking the microphone. They are accused of receiving bribes or being disrespectful or worse. Comments against female reporters tend to be gender-oriented; a woman will be called a “slut” or a “bitch” or mocked for not wearing make-up, and sometimes is denigrated with references to sexual acts.

Despite the 7 a.m. start, the daily presser can get as many as 50,000 viewers on the official YouTube channel. The comments section swiftly becomes a blur of posts.

There is also a growing number of pro-AMLO YouTubers and video bloggers who grab clips and use them to produce segments criticizing or making fun of journalists. Last month, a couple hundred of these AMLO backers gathered outside the National Palace to demand more access at the press conferences. They shouted “liars” and “sellouts” at reporters leaving the event.

Alejandro Paez, editor of news website SinEmbargo.mx, recently wrote about what he called the “garbage” hurled at journalists online.

“The issue is that it does not stay there. They find the reporter on their personal Facebook or Twitter accounts and direct offenses, threats their way. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you write about,” he said. All it takes is to “dare to question Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.”

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