We have lost our way!
We are being told what to think about, what is important to us, but much of it is lies, paid for by politicians and special interest groups. How dumb can we actually become?
When word first spread that Russia had interfered with the USA Presidential Election, and later it was discovered that online social media had been involved, the bottom line was that it could happen to any election — anywhere. And, that it might not be Russia the next time, as millennial hackers were looking for a quick way to make a lot of money.
A few days before the elections in Mexico on July 1, 2018, there was concern that one particular candidate seemed to be doing better than expected. Now, pre-ballot polls suggest that leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) will be elected president as 89 million Mexicans head to polls.
AMLO had tried – and failed – to become Mexico’s president twice before, in 2006 and 2012, but his decision to make the fight against corruption the bedrock of his third presidential campaign appears to have paid off. Pre-ballot polls suggested the former Mexico City mayor would trounce rivals from the National Action Party (Pan) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the only two parties to have controlled Mexico’s presidency since the late 1920s, by at least a 20-point margin.
But, then the truth came out, a single 29-year old millennial, Carlos Merlo had effectively been paid to change the perception in Mexico.
This story is from BuzzFeed News, and was written on June 15, 2018 published on June 28, 2018, just four days before Mexico's election. The video below is shared from YouTube, but who knows how long it will remain online. It was translated from Spanish and is posted here as a way of keeping the story alive, as you need to know how this can happen again.
With millions of bots and thousands of newspapers that make fake news, this man, close to thirty, wants to manage Mexican politics in social networks.
Mexico City - The first tweets with the hashtag #GanaConVictoryLab appeared around six in the afternoon last Friday, June 15. After two hours, he began to position himself in the national trending topics on Twitter.
At eight o'clock in the evening, it was the fourth most used hashtag in all of Mexico, unseating the conversation about the three goals that Cristiano Ronaldo won that day in the World Cup.
The only problem: each of the accounts that mentioned #GanaConVictoryLab were false.
In front of a giant screen, Victory Lab owner Carlos Merlo, 29, showed BuzzFeed News the power of his company. "They (their team) write the texts in excel", he explains while showing the sheet full of simple sentences with the included hasthtag. Each sentence can be seen repeated. "The best company is #GanaConVictoryLab" and other words supporting the company.
"This I send to a software and then it starts tweeting without stopping," says Merlo with great confidence, as he takes the cell phone with his hands and sends the list of tweets to the software.
This program works when the bots analyze the frequency of publications of the other trending topics and they simulate the same periodicity. "This what he does is emulate the behavior of hashtags, like this one of Cristiano Ronaldo," he points to the screen.
Victory Lab is one of the hundreds of agencies operating in Mexico such as Cambridge Analytica that fill social networks with information that is not true. This company will make your publications the most viewed when the customer pays. Merlo explains that generating a hashtag like the one they did for BuzzFeed News to see how it works, would cost around 200 thousand pesos if the client really wanted it to be number one.
He explains that his company is the cheapest option for people looking to position themselves on Twitter and thereby generate legitimacy. "For a brand if it wants to be promoted on Twitter and be in the trending topics will cost around 100 thousand dollars."
In the last six months his main clients have been politicians, explains Merlo. In this company you can generate any type of content, in favor, against, any message that politicians want to position. The only difficult part of his job, Carlos explains, as he recharges himself on one of the walls of his office in Colonia Moderna in Mexico City, is for politicians to pay on time. "Paying on time is difficult, making the millions of tweets is easy but getting the money, not so much".
A study reveals that Mexico has little confidence in the media and institutions. 80% of Mexicans believe that false news has affected life in one way or another.
An employee of a digital marketing agency, explains to BuzzFeed News, anonymously, so that the clients of his agency do not know for whom he works, that the dirty War in politics takes a long time. This person, who has worked in some political campaigns, estimates that 90% of the trending topics in Mexico are controlled by digital Marketing agencies. In comparison with the United States, he explains, Mexico is still behind. "The United States is the king in this. The dirty war will get bigger and bigger and the news will be huge and then no one will care. "
Mexico City created the specialized cybercrime unit in October 2015 to try to prevent this kind of disclosures of web content from having more potential. They explained to BuzzFeed News that they have been investigating the creation of fake news for the last nine months but that they have not arrested anyone so far.
Merlo's career began in 2006, when he was 17 years old, he decided to create an unofficial page of the rock band Molotov on Myspace. For the year 2009, he says, this page achieved a large number of followers. "He would upload photos of the concerts, publish the dates of his presentations. In 2009 I contacted the label and I was hired and made my page the official of the group and I became the community manager of Molotov. "
Merlo started Victory Lab in 2011 when he responded to a politician who asked on Twitter if someone could help him use the internet. (He did not want to say which politician he was and we reviewed his twitter history and did not find a trace on this). "He came to my office, which was a department with six friends, he analyzed what there was and then he offered me work ..."
One of the biggest successes that Victory Lab boasts is when in 2014 he created the news that Paul Walker (actor killed in a car accident in 2013) was alive and could go to jail. This news, he explains, had six million visits. From there he took a lot of interest in how to reach a larger audience and says that the US election of 2016 served him well.
"I followed the US election very closely and I was fascinated to see so many tools that the Trump team used, so now we have something similar." When asked what he thought about Cambidge Analytica and what he did in the United States and Brexit, he said it was very interesting but he could not say that he liked it because now he would look bad.
"I like his work but saying it would be almost like saying that I agree with what Hitler did."
Victory Lab currently operates with 17 offices throughout the country, with 15 or 20 employees, approximately each, that is at least 200 employees. The office that BuzzFeed News visited is in the south of Mexico City. A black laminated gate and a house with three rooms and a bathroom. In the first quarter young people are concentrated, between 20 and 25 years working in front of laptops generating memes, tweets, videos. "They are millennials who work for five months and then leave with their parents saying they were exploited. There is a lot of rotation, people come and go. "
For the vast majority of these young people this is their first job. Wear pants and shirts. They are there around 12 hours and pay them biweekly. They studied communication but there are also people from political science or international relations who were interested in knowing that they would work in campaigns, only that it was not what they imagined.
The Victory Lab business is doing very well. Carlos Merlo was present in all three presidential debates. In the first one inside the Mining Palace, in the second one he traveled to Tijuana but his partners asked him to see him outside so that he was not related to politicians and for the third he traveled in a private jet. He traveled with his wife on Tuesday at noon, invited BuzzFeed News but a day before mentioned that his partners did not agree as they did not think it was a great idea.
When he wanted to hide what politicians he worked with, he said that he only works with political parties, to which BuzzFeed News told him, if that meant that he was not working with Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, an independent candidate, to which Carlos Merlos only smiled and He said yes with his head.
BuzzFeed News looked to the three campaigns, PRI, Morena and Pan to know if they knew Carlos Merlo or his company and the response was negative.
In the office where they work, it is full of images of Carlos Merlos. The young people drink coffee in cups with their face that is accompanied by the Victory Lab, the mouse pad also has its image. Explain that this is also worked in photoshop to look thinner and laughs.
He explains that all his team controls around four million accounts on Twitter. Many of them were purchased from Russian agencies and in their office they "mexicanize" them with more credible names.
"In Russia it is easy to get many accounts. All the marketing agencies in Mexico have bots and they all buy them from Russia. The accounts have Russian names. When we buy them we send the receipt of Paypal and that's it. 25 cents each. "
In the last debate, Merlo said that his team generated a million tweets. When he said this, the young people behind him just nodded when his boss said the phrase. It is normal for them. The Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that they were monitoring the conversation at this event.
"We are actively monitoring trends and spikes in conversations related to the Mexican elections to detect possible manipulation activities, we take appropriate action when we find content and accounts that violate our terms of service, and we are committed to ensuring that Twitter is a safe place to All users and serve to promote a healthy civic engagement and discussion We will continue our efforts to protect Twitter against negative actors and malicious automation efforts. "We are committed to ensuring healthy conservation." We will continue our efforts to protect Twitter from users. and automated and negative networks that seek to manipulate, "commented the spokespersons of the social network.
Carlos Merlo says that the normal thing is that false news is generated among several politicians. And the other thing is that they also ask for attacks for themselves to be able to go out and say that they are being attacked in networks by another candidate. But the power of this company, apparently, does not stay on Twitter, it also has it on Facebook and Instagram, according to the owner of Victory Lab.
In the last six months Facebook's attempts to pull down the fake news sites have not been successful in their networks. Instead of running on a single fake news site with millions of followers, Victory Lab has another way of doing it. They operate four thousand websites that produce Fake news that pretend to be a local newspaper. They register names that could be a normal means in any part of the country like "Good morning Campeche", and they seem like something small but their followers are loyal.
"We made these newspapers since 2011, says Merlo. "Facebook can pull our fake news pages. We pay a million pesos to promote them, but they will not be able to throw all of them, "he says. When BuzzFeed News requested a comment from Facebook, the spokesperson was aware of Victory Lab, but did not comment. He then spoke and said that "Facebook has investigated the activities of Victory Lab and other companies that do the same in an internal report for the Mexican election."
Luis, a 22-year-old who finished college in December 2017, who declined to give his last name, told BuzzFeed News that the key to generating an audience that really believes in them is to work as if they were a real newspaper. "We talk to them about what we would like to know, if they want weather, security, politics, we generate those contents, as if we were really a newspaper," he said.
With the network of pages that you have built for years, you can put the same news in the other media and thereby generate more noise. And so, according to Merlo, Facebook can not detect it.
Luis explains that they use Wikipedia to write about these places where they create the media, like "Good morning Campeche", although none of them has been there, with Wikipedia and other pages can generate the news. Luis and Carlos explain that sharing ads about lost dogs or about the weather is what most fans have given them.
When Alberto left the University he saw an ad that said: "Do you want to work in an electoral campaign? Come with us". He studied International Relations in Querétaro and believes that this first work is a great step forward to get involved with the political life of the country and above all he made it clear that what surprised him the most is that lies do not work better than exaggerating the facts.
"When you play with people's feelings, when you make a story and exaggerate the facts you generate a sensation and that's what really works," he explained.
Merlo says that it's really the fault that the news is spread, it's the one who shares it, "if the people at the time of reading the news think a little and analyze the news they would realize that it is false and they would not share it. But people do not do that, they really want to believe the news and share it. They need attention and my news gives them. "
Carlos Merlo can also manipulate Instagram. During the interview with BuzzFeed News he uploaded a photo to his account and in 15 minutes he had 15 thousand likes, mostly by fake accounts. Currently it is in 40 thousand likes.
Victory Lab is not as powerful as it may be in the future. Merlo explains that with the growth of Internet use in Mexico, the penetration of smartphones. "With big data we can know what they want and with that, have more potential."
Merlo says that when they take their notes to verify if they are real or false they only make more conversation and there are even times that they themselves shares them in their networks. At the end of the day he gives more diffusion and he laughs about this. And in the same way this type of interviews works, people hate it but then they look for it.
At 29, Carlos Merlo says he is tired and dreams of a day when he can change his life. Perhaps to make a restaurant and have six children with his wife and to have a quiet life. But his next goal will be the next presidential election in 2024 and get the winner of the election. "I will make the next president, after this, I resign."
After the documentary was published Facebook canceled the Victory Lab account and the personal account. I have complained to the social network saying it was censorship. Minutes later they also unsubscribed their Twitter account.