Fake news is multiplying on social networks in Mexico during an election campaign marked by increased political polarization, insults and attacks against candidates and parties, experts warn.
AFP's fact-checking journalists have debunked several news stories circulating on social media in recent weeks that turned out to be false.
One widely shared post said that the ruling Morena party wanted voters to use new identity cards linked to poll technology firm Smartmatic, which it accused of being "a Venezuelan electoral fraud company."
But the firm, now based in London, says it has no contracts in Mexico for the June midterm elections, and a new identity card will not be used in the vote.
In another case, a photo purportedly showed a tortilla shop being closed down in the northern state of Nuevo Leon for refusing to use wrappers with the logos of a ruling party candidate for governor.
In fact, the image was of a different business accused of overcharging in another part of the country in 2020.
A video shared on social networks was meanwhile said to show people throwing buckets of water at opposition candidates on a campaign tour, but the images were actually from local elections in Ecuador in 2019.
"We see a deliberate strategy by all political actors, of all political campaigns, to exacerbate polarization," said Abraham Trejo, coordinator of the Hate and Harmony project at the College of Mexico.
The campaign "is accompanied by insults and attacks on people," he added.
Facebook groups are "the bait" to lure people into WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups where content is widely disseminated because there is no regulation, Trejo said
- 'Manipulation' -
On June 6, Mexicans will elect 500 members of the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, as well as 15 state governors and around 20,000 local politicians.
Almost 94 million citizens are on the electoral register, of which 3.5 million are under the age of 20 and will vote for the first time.
There is "a real lack of proposals and, on the contrary, an increase in attacks, manipulation and false news," said Rossana Reguillo of ITESO university's Signa Lab, which analyzes social networks.
It is not just automated social media bots that disseminate fake news, she said.
"Automated accounts are not enough for those who use the platforms maliciously," Reguillo said.
Experts have identified four types of actor: the publisher, the bots that help spread the story, the "trolls" who go on the attack and seek to support the fake news, and the ordinary users "who jump on trends" without thinking, she said.
These actors interact with three groups of users.
The smallest is made up of people who actually verify information before disseminating it.
The second and biggest is those who easily fall for hoaxes.
Thirdly, there are the ideologists who will believe anything that aligns with their own beliefs.
Fake accounts are another common phenomenon.
An analysis by TwitterAudit, a tool for detecting false accounts, estimates that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has more than two million fake Twitter followers -- 26 percent of his total.
Former president Felipe Calderon, a staunch opponent of the left-wing populist, is estimated to have more than one million fake followers -- 19 percent of his total.
But the online battle is alien to many voters in Mexico, where only 63 million of its 126 million inhabitants have internet access.
"It's a country with a strong digital divide. Many people, especially in rural areas, are very disconnected from these dynamics," Reguillo said.