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Ballots, Bots, and Bullets: The Complex Landscape of Mexico’s 2024 Election

Ballots, Bots, and Bullets: The Complex Landscape of Mexico’s 2024 Election

Published on
30 May 2024
Written by
Linda Li, Dr Javier Pérez Sandoval, Jorge Ruiz Reyes, Itzel Soto and Mónica Meltis Véjar
On 2 June 2024, over 96 million eligible voters will have the chance to voice their preferences, voting for a new president, 628 congressional seats and candidates for over 20,000 public service positions.

Ballots, Bots, and Bullets: The Complex Landscape of Mexico’s 2024 Election

Contributors: Linda Li, Javier Pérez Sandoval, Jorge Ruiz Reyes, Itzel Soto, and Mónica Meltis Véjar

The Mexican general election is scheduled for June 2, 2024. On that date, over 96 million eligible voters will have the chance to voice their preferences, voting for a new president, 628 congressional seats (500 for Lower House and 128 for the Senate), and candidates for over 20,000 public service positions across the country. This is Mexico’s fifth and largest electoral process since the 2000 transition to democracy, a process which is being overseen by an independent electoral management body, the National Electoral Institute (INE).

It has been roughly two decades since the ‘centrist’ Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the presidency after holding power for over seventy years. During this recent democratic era, Mexico has experienced several rounds of alternating political control at the national and subnational level. In terms of the federal executive, there have been three party rotations, with the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) winning in 2000 and 2006, the PRI reclaiming control in 2012, and the new left-of-center National regeneration Movement (MORENA) winning in 2018.

With a single-turn plurality voting system, this electoral cycle seems poised to result in a woman securing the executive office for the first time in the country’s history. In that sense, it is important to underscore that although Mexico’s political history has been predominantly male-dominated, electoral reforms over the last decade have increasingly strengthened gender equality. The most recent and pivotal one came in 2019, with the enactment of a constitutional reform that was labelled after its core aim: “gender parity in everything.” This legislation mandated that political parties nominate equal numbers of male and female candidates for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government (Pispoco, 2024). This groundbreaking reform has opened the door for the possibility of electing Mexico’s first female president in the upcoming days.

As recent polls suggest, the incumbent party’s candidate Claudia Sheinbaum (MORENA) comfortably leads the polls with over 50% of the preferences, being roughly 20 points ahead of opposition candidate Xochitl Galvez (PAN), and having an even larger advantage over MC’s (Movimiento Ciudadano) candidate Jorge Alvarez Maynez, who currently seats at a very distant third place with only 9% of the electoral preferences (Barruti, 2024; Llaneras, 2019).  In their apparent preference for Sheinbaum, Mexican voters seem to back the continuation of an agenda that favours a strong state presence in economic, social and public affairs, over the more right-wing and market-oriented agenda put forth by Xochitl.

While there are plenty of topics and issues that have circumscribed Mexico’s current electoral contest, here we focus on two critical aspects of the ongoing bout: i) Mexico’s media environment throughout the campaign, and ii) the dramatic levels of violence which has tainted the process. In drawing readers’ attention to these issues, we argue that media platforms and information technologies have played a crucial role in shaping political engagement and in addressing the gruesome challenges of observing   political-criminal violence towards public authorities and candidates across the country.

A Volatile Media Environment for Electoral Campaigns

Mexico’s media landscape is a dynamic field for political discussion, one that is heavily influenced by digital platforms. While traditional news outlets — largely corporate-owned — maintain strong ties with the country’s business and political elites, over recent years social media has continuously gained ground among the population. Although a strong rural-urban divide in digital news consumption persists (Martínez-Domínguez, 2020), a 2018 survey by the Reuters Institute revealed that 90% of Mexicans rely on social platforms for information, compared to just 45% who rely on traditional media. Among users, Facebook remains the top choice (67%) for accessing information in the 2018 survey, followed by WhatsApp and YouTube (Glowacki et al. 2018). Moreover, in the last six years there has been a surge in the consumption of information from short-form media platforms like TikTok. This shift has been particularly relevant among the youth, a notable portion of whom will cast their first votes in 2024 (Instituto Nacional Electoral, 2024).

In the field of digital campaigning, presidential candidates vie for attention and support employing various strategies to resonate with voters. Video platforms like TikTok and YouTube have surpassed other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or X (previously Twitter) in total level of activity vis-à-vis political discourse (Frausto, 2024). Candidates have used hashtags and short videos to engage audiences, focusing on political topics such as security, healthcare reform, education, and gender violence (Villa Roman et al., 2024). They also adopted distinct approaches to gain support from voters. Gálvez opted for an individualized appeal, aiming to connect with voters on a personal level. Meanwhile, Sheinbaum concentrated on championing the policies of the incumbent president, promising to uphold and continue his agenda if elected (Zegera, 2024).

Preliminary analyses suggest that Sheinbaum leads in online interactions across all platforms, which likely stems from her strategic use of video content throughout her campaign (Instituto Nacional Electoral, 2024; Frausto, 2024). This tactic is likely to have resonated particularly well with Generation Z voters, who make up over 40% of the total voter population and have a strong preference for video-based communication (Instituto Nacional Electoral, 2024; Frausto, 2024). Interestingly, out of the three contenders, Álvarez Máynez has gained the most positive feedback, with only 12% negative feedback in all online interactions (Frausto, 2024).

Misinformation and computational propaganda are now common occurrences in contemporary elections around the globe. During campaigns and electoral processes bots are commonly used to promote the growth of a trending topic in favour or against a specific candidate, and they are also traditionally used to spread falsified information about current public opinion polls or other contenders (Keller, 2019).

In that sense, Mexico has been no exception: although Mexican parties have denied using computational propaganda in previous elections (Martínez, 2018), some studies suggest that during the last two presidential races (2012 and 2018), major political parties —including the incumbent’s — may have used fake accounts or “bots” to manipulate public opinion (Glowacki et al., 2018; Noain, 2019). It is no surprise then that earlier this year, several prominent political parties accused their opponents of investing millions into social media bots. They claimed that bots were used to amplify marginalized opinions and concepts on social platforms, artificially inflating their interaction numbers (Calderón, 2024).

As such, in the run-up to the 2024 elections, Mexico’s political landscape is characterized by digitalisation. Social media has become a field for spreading information and running election campaigns, but it’s also affected by disruptive forces. As candidates compete for visibility and voters navigate an increasingly complex media landscape, misinformation can cast a shadow over the democratic process.

Votes and Bullets: Mexican Elections amidst Criminal Violence

Beyond the increased salience of media platforms, forms of online abuse, such as doxing (see Barrientos Nieto, 2024), have been less relevant than other direct or physical methods of violence in Mexico. For over nearly two decades, organized crime has diversified and intensified its strategies to influence local politics in Mexico. Since 2006, in election after election, the country has experienced an increasing number of direct attacks on elected officials, civil servants, candidates, and political party militants. To map the extent of this increasingly problematic phenomenon, in 2018 the Mexican NGO Data Cívica launched ‘Votar entre Balas’, an initiative that systematizes data on attacks against authorities, candidates, and political parties —threats, kidnappings, disappearances, armed attacks and assassinations — perpetrated by organized criminal groups (OCGs) along with the main characteristics of their victims. The initiative documents these events by monitoring both social media outlets such as X (formerly Twitter) as well as traditional news media outlets.

While complete data and methodology can be found on the project’s website, the events are monitored on a daily basis using web scraping methods to get news from social media and other sources such as Google News. The events are then fact-checked by the team behind the initiated at Data Cívica. Some of the results are staggering. For instance, between 2018 and 2023, an average of eleven people from the public or political sphere were attacked each month. The data also reflects that candidates and members of political parties are more likely to be attacked during campaigns and electoral periods. Specifically, the data reveals that the four weeks prior to an election are particularly violent.

Looking more closely at the 2024 electoral cycle (which began in September 2023), Data Cívica reports a shocking total of 401 incidents in which potential or registered candidates, public security officers, and other officials have been attacked by OCGs. As of April 30, 2024, twenty-five of the victims were murdered, fifteen suffered armed attacks, eleven were kidnapped and fourteen were threatened.

The risk of this persistent electoral violence is threefold. First, it dampens electoral participation. Second, by intimidating candidates, forcing them out of the race, or by making candidate replacement a necessity, electoral violence also has a negative effect on political representation. Third, studies have also shown that electoral violence is part of the diversified portfolio of strategies OCGs use in order to capture the state, securing access to local bureaucracies and gaining access to public funds and resources which are then used to ascertain criminal governance (Trejo and Ley, 2022).

Looking Ahead

In the 2024 election, Mexicans are tasked with more than choosing their next president and representatives; they are navigating a treacherous landscape where digital innovation and brutal violence collide. The significant shift towards digital campaigning has democratized information and opened new avenues for manipulation. Meanwhile, the relentless violence threatens to undermine the very fabric of democracy. One of the paradoxes is that the political transition in Mexico in the early 2000s brought an upheaval in political-criminal violence that continues to challenge the resilience of Mexico’s electoral process (Trejo and Ley, 2022).

Given the broad difference between the potential presidential victor and the likely runner up shown by the polls, these elections seem to have been “less contested”. Nonetheless, there is plenty of competition for the more than 20,000 seats that are at stake, and beyond electioneering, day-to-day violence will continue to be one of the main issues after June 2. The decision taken by Mexican voters will be fundamental in determining the paths taken to overcome these challenges, paving the way for a future where democracy can flourish without fear or falsehoods.

References

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