Ben Norton reports on a wave of social-media censorship in Mexico that has targeted left-wing users.
A senior executive at Twitter Latin America spent years working for right-wing Mexican politicians, including the notoriously corrupt Felipe Calderón. During his tenure as president, Calderón reportedly operated death squads, coordinated with drug cartels, and ordered the assassination of journalists. He even publicly called for an “armed rebellion” to overthrow the country’s current, democratically elected leader.
Twitter has claimed the administrator’s lengthy political history has no influence over his work at the social media giant. But amid a wave of social media censorship that has targeted left-wing users, many Mexicans are crying foul.
As U.S. Big Tech corporations are becoming more brazen in their direct interference in countries’ political affairs, the Mexican government has initiated an international campaign to resist social media censorship.
When U.S. President Donald Trump was suspended by Twitter in January, Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador condemned the move as a dangerous precedent.
“Yes, social media should not be used to incite violence and all of that, but that cannot be a reason to suspend freedom of expression; that should not be used as an excuse,” López Obrador said in a press conference on Jan. 14. “How can a company bestow upon itself omnipotent, absolute power, like some type of Spanish Inquisition on the right to free expression?”
Known popularly as AMLO, López Obrador has spoken out repeatedly and forcefully against social media censorship, recognizing that it targets not only right-wing supporters of Trump, but also his own progressive followers.
Officials in AMLO’s administration have contacted governments in the European Union, Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia to organize a joint action against internet censorship. “I can tell you that, in the first G20 meeting we have, there will be a proposal on this issue,” AMLO said.
"How can a company portray itself as omnipotent, absolute, like some type of Spanish Inquisition on the right to free expression?"
Mexico's progressive President AMLO spoke out against social media censorship, warning US Big Tech corporations are threatening global free speech pic.twitter.com/dXP4HzlLbf
— The Grayzone (@TheGrayzoneNews) January 24, 2021
Mexicans protested that the pro-AMLO influencers were banned just days after a right-wing Mexican celebrity took to Twitter to call for López Obrador to be assassinated, and faced no punishment.
On Jan. 18, Mexican social media influencer @Joe_Trouble, who has nearly 2 million Twitter followers, tweeted, “On Obrador, we need to use the same vaccine that they used against Kennedy” — an obvious call for Mexico’s left-wing president to be shot in the head. But Twitter did not suspend @Joe_Trouble, whose account is verified with a blue check mark; all the company did was delete his tweet.
Just three days later, however, Twitter suspended the accounts of numerous big-name AMLO supporters, without providing any explanation for their banishment.
— José (@joe_trouble) January 23, 2021
The purge of Mexican leftists was only the latest example of Silicon Valley corporations silencing activists from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Palestine, Iran, China, Russia and other countries that have been targeted by the U.S. government.
Many Mexicans, including President López Obrador himself, placed the blame firmly on Twitter’s company staff. In a morning press briefing on Jan. 20, AMLO pointed to a top executive with a long record of work with conservative Mexican politicians, including the progressive president’s most powerful rival.
The operative’s name is Hugo Rodríguez Nicolat. Before he was hired as Twitter Latin America’s current director of public policy, Rodríguez worked directly for Mexico’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN), filling top roles in both the party and the administration of former President Felipe Calderón.
Mexican opposition politicians and even some major Spanish-language media outlets falsely claimed that AMLO’s statements about Rodríguez were incorrect, by misrepresenting his words. But the Twitter executive boasts of his work for the PAN on his publicly available LinkedIn profile.
Rodríguez is not the only Twitter executive with clear political ties. In 2019, it was exposed that Twitter’s top Middle East editor was also working with the U.K. army’s psychological operations (psyops) unit, which admits to waging “information warfare.”
The revelation that one of Spanish-language Twitter’s most senior administrators worked for a former right-wing Mexican leader credibly accused of widespread corruption and repression set off a political firestorm inside the country.
Twitter is one of Mexico’s most popular social media platforms. Most major politicians are active on the site, as is a vast community of journalists and communicators who wield considerable influence on Mexican politics.
The vast majority of mainstream media outlets in Mexico are aggressively anti-AMLO, and openly biased against his left-wing Fourth Transformation (4T) movement. This has made social networks like Twitter an alternative base for pro-AMLO perspectives that are almost entirely absent in mainstream media.
AMLO’s Twitter support base is so substantial that his supporters were able to get hashtags #TwitterCensura (Twitter censors) and #TwitterEsPanista (Twitter is a PAN supporter) to trend on the website in Mexico.
As the controversy grew, Twitter suspended the accounts of more prominent AMLO supporters, whose list of followers numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The suspensions took place within minutes of one another, pouring fuel on the fire, and confirming the allegations of political bias in the minds of AMLO’s online base.
Faced with a mounting scandal, Twitter issued a vague statement denying the involvement of specific individuals — an oblique reference to Hugo Rodríguez Nicolat — in policy decisions and suspensions.
While Rodríguez and Twitter have publicly insisted that his political history does not affect his work at the company, The Grayzone has uncovered examples of Rodríguez using his influential position to help amplify U.S.-backed coup attempts in both Venezuela and Nicaragua, offering Twitter Latin America’s massive platform to US-sponsored right-wing regime-change activists.
US-Schooled Right-Wing Operative
A look at Rodríguez’s professional career shows how one of Spanish-language Twitter’s most powerful executives was cultivated by elite institutions in the United States, worked for an NGO funded by the U.S. government, and established himself as a major player in Silicon Valley Big Tech corporations.
Rodríguez got his start studying at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), an institution that trains elite politicians from around the world, as part of a double-degree program with the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science. (Tuition, room, and board for one academic year at SIPA costs nearly $90,000. Mexico’s minimum wage under Calderón fell 43 percent in his six-year term, and the average Mexican family with three-full time workers was surviving on just $300 per month.)
After graduating from the world’s most exclusive academic institutions, Rodríguez returned to Mexico to work as an advisor to right-wing politicians in the Senate, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Rodríguez was then hired as the right-wing PAN party’s “international projection coordinator” from 2005 to 2006. He described his duties as follows: “Organized activities and events that promoted the Party’s policies and positions internationally. Prepared speeches and briefing materials for congressmen of the Party when asked to address international issues.”
Then, in 2006, Twitter Latin America’s current public policy director served on the transition team for President-elect Calderón, of the PAN.
Calderón is López Obrador’s main political rival, and has overseen campaigns aimed at destabilizing and removing the sitting left-wing president from power. In July 2020, Calderón openly called for an “armed rebellion” to overthrow AMLO’s government (along with the Chavista government in Venezuela).
Calderón is a major U.S. ally, who coordinated closely with the George W. Bush administration, launching a disastrous “war on drugs” that led to 102,859 deaths and 22,112 disappearances in his six-year term. He is also notorious in Mexico for overseeing widespread, systemic corruption.
In August 2020, a top Mexican military officer stated that Calderón created a “death squad” that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered civilians. Former security officials also said Calderón collaborated with drug cartels and even ordered the assassination of a journalist.
Under Calderón’s government, Hugo Rodríguez Nicolat worked in senior positions at Mexico’s National Institute of Migration. He was later appointed an economic adviser for the Calderón administration’s Mexican mission to international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, including the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Soon after the PAN lost power in December 2012, Rodríguez went on to work for an NGO in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state called Escalera. This organization is funded by the U.S.government’s soft-power arm USAID, along with the Ford automobile corporation.
Next, Rodríguez took a position with the ride-sharing giant Uber. He worked his way into a position as director of the company’s public policy and government relations in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, leveraging his political connections to push for more favorable economic policies.
In April 2017, Twitter promoted Rodriguez as head of public policy for Twitter Latin America. On LinkedIn, he describes himself as an “Ambassador for Twitter in Spanish Speaking LatAm to elected officials, government agencies, ministers, as well as civil society entities engaged in policy making issues of importance to Twitter and our users.”
While Twitter and Rodríguez himself claim to be apolitical, his Twitter history shows the company’s Latin America public policy coordinator promoting U.S.-backed regime-change operations.
In February 2019, the Trump administration backed a coup attempt against Venezuela’s socialist government. USAID (which funded Rodríguez’s former employer in Chiapas) collaborated with the U.S. military to try to violently force a so-called “aid” convoy across a bridge on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Rodríguez used his Twitter account at the time to encourage people to join this U.S. government-backed “AidVenezuela” campaign, a thinly disguised coup attempt.
— Hugo Rodríguez ???? (@HugoRodriguezN) February 22, 2019
A year prior, Rodríguez promoted another U.S.-backed right-wing coup attempt, this time against Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government.
In October 2018, Rodríguez helped coordinate a discussion with the right-wing Nicaraguan insurgent Víctor Cuadras. The event was officially sponsored by Twitter Latin America.
Just a few months before Rodríguez helped coordinate the interview, Cuadras took at trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby for more direct U.S. intervention in the coup attempt. On a junket financed by the U.S. government-funded organization Freedom House, Cuadras and other regime-change activists met with neoconservative politicians including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and advocated for Washington to impose suffocating sanctions on their home country. (The U.S. Congress went on to successfully pass these crippling economic measures.)
The Grayzone revealed that Twitter relies on the U.S. government-funded Freedom House to censor foreign media outlets.
— Hugo Rodríguez ???? (@HugoRodriguezN) October 11, 2018
While Twitter denied political bias or individual involvement in censoring accounts, the suspicious suspensions of several high-profile AMLO supporters raises serious questions about the platform’s ostensible commitment to neutrality.
When the #TwitterCensura (Twitter censors) and #TwitterEsPanista (Twitter is a PAN supporter) hashtags were trending on Jan. 21, Twitter suspended prominent AMLO supporters who helped to kick off the campaign.
The activists behind these accounts told The Grayzone they were banned after criticizing Twitter Latin America public policy coordinator Nicolat for his past work with the right-wing PAN party.
@Miriam_Junne said she had used Twitter for 10 years and had never encountered problems in the past. Suddenly, amid the #TwitterEsPanista campaign, an email arrived informing her that her account had been suspended. Twitter did not bother to explain which guideline she allegedly violated.
“Look, this is not a coincidence,” @PumaChairo told The Grayzone. “Three accounts with tens of thousands of followers that support the 4T (Fourth Transformation) were banned in the span of just 20 minutes.”
After @PumaChairo helped kick off the #TwitterEsPanista campaign, he said he was targeted by a massive trolling campaign. Hundreds of accounts spammed him, working in tandem to file mass reports to Twitter and get him banned.
The trolling and mass reporting campaigns were led in part by the right-wing Mexican activist Alejandro Baqueiro, who operates under the profile @BaksLive.
Baqueiro has boasted about his role in getting left-wing users suspended. He tweeted a photoshopped image of Felipe Calderón as the all-powerful comic book character Thanos, bragging in the caption of “Eliminating half of the leftist accounts on Twitter.”
Eliminando la mitad de las cuentas chairas de TW pic.twitter.com/ZCmvij9aYC
— BaksLive (@BaksLive) January 22, 2021
Another prominent user who joined @BaksLive in the coordinated censorship campaign was right-wing activist @HatsumiNonaka. Nonaka openly admitted that they were coordinating mass reporting sprees to try to get leftists suspended.
“Let’s learn to report,” she tweeted, linking to information on how to falsely accuse a pro-AMLO account of “malicious use of automization” by claiming it is spam or a fake profile.
— Hatsumi Nonaka ????? (@HatsumiNonaka) January 21, 2021
After helping to get the left-wing accounts suspended, Nonaka taunted AMLO supporters: “Suddenly I have been so happy singing, as if my crush had told me that they like me too… I am simply enjoying the suspensions hahahahahahaha.”
Les digo a unos amigos, que de pronto andaba toda feliz cantando, como si mi crush me hubiera dicho que yo también le gusto, entonces me di cuenta que eso no pasó… simplemente ando disfrutando las suspensiones jajajajajajaja pic.twitter.com/4kEN1vbQCO
— Hatsumi Nonaka ????? (@HatsumiNonaka) January 21, 2021
The right-wing trolls also coordinated to try to suspend the account of Sin Censura, a popular pro-AMLO YouTube channel with more than 2 million views. Because of the nearly universal anti-AMLO bias in Mexico’s mainstream media, Sin Censura has become a major platform for the majority of Mexicans who support the progressive president, but do not see their views represented on TV.
Sin Censura reported on Jan. 22 that unknown people had been trying to hack into their Twitter account.
— Sin Censura (@_VicenteSerrano) January 22, 2021
Twitter has done nothing to stop these coordinated, politically motivated mass-reporting campaigns, which are explicitly aimed at silencing speech and censoring the views of left-wing activists.
It is widely suspected that the PAN and other right-wing groups in Mexico pay for coordinated teams of trolls to spread anti-AMLO disinformation on Twitter and other social media platforms.
In fact, as The Grayzone reported, a U.S. government-linked PR firm located a few blocks from the White House was exposed in 2020 for spending millions of dollars to spread fake news on social media on behalf of the right-wing opposition in Mexico, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Ironically, while right-wing groups that support U.S. foreign-policy interests are waging open propaganda wars on social media with almost complete impunity, Twitter is falsely accusing grassroots left-wing activists in Mexico and other countries of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and using the unsubstantiated allegation to suspend their accounts.
“Twitter closed my account without any explanation,” the censored pro-AMLO user @ElReyTuitero told The Grayzone. “I was suspended along with other pro-AMLO users, supposedly for ‘manipulating the network,’ that is to say, for using bots. I never had any warning on the platform. And obviously I don’t use bots. If my account has been successful, it is because of my ideas and because people like to read me.”
He concluded, “I think that Twitter suspended the accounts to send a message to President López Obrador, to show him that they can silence the 4T (Fourth Transformation) at any moment, just like they silenced Trump and his followers in the United States.”
Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He is a reporter for The Grayzone, and the producer of the “Moderate Rebelspodcast,” which he co-hosts with Max Blumenthal. His website is BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.
This article is from The Grayzone.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.