Peñabots, Digital Obfuscation, and Government Trolling

In the first class I mentioned peñabots as an example of government social media manipulation. Rather than define them myself I’ll lean on the Wikipedia page definition: “the name given to what analysts believe to be a network of automated accounts on social media used by the Mexican government to spread pro-government propaganda and to marginalize dissenting opinions in social media”. Though not the first institutionally-organized trolling operation they stand apart for their sophistication, their effectiveness at shutting down oppositional organizing, and their use in a nominally non-authoritarian government (although one with a deep history of media manipulation).

A lot of research has already been done on peñabots so I will just point to a few good places to get started. I first heard about them in Finn Burton and Helen Nissenbaum’s great book Obfuscation, which is a great research jumping off point for a whole host of different kinds of obfuscatory digital practices. The above talk from Chaos Communications Camp in 2015 is a great expose of original research. If watching something doesn’t feel right, Erin Gallagher has collected a trove of news and research articles collected on in a Medium page. If you only want to read one article, you could check out this one from Motherboard. Or if you are more into podcasts you could listen to this Reply All episode.

Now, for Americans in 2018, peñabots probably call to mind Russian government-sponsored trolling. For a really good early treatment on the Russian Internet Research Agency and their social media manipulation campaigns I would direct you to Adrien Chen’s piece for the New York Times Magazine:

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