One of the most talked about political phenomena of the recent US election was the emergence of the "alt-right", a fringe conservative movement that swept into the mainstream due to its overwhelming support of Donald Trump. Unlike traditional US conservatism, the alt-right is strongly opposed to globalization, having almost as much distrust of the global elite and big businesses as it does big government. It is also fundamentally anti-progressive, rejecting liberal views on racial and gender equality, immigration, as well as political correctness in general. When Trump claimed during his campaign that “the big problem in this country is being politically correct”, he was largely echoing one of the alt-right’s signature mantras.
Although the alt-right has its pseudo-intellectual origins in the late-2000s across the conservative blogosphere, it is via social media that the movement has proliferated in recent years. This is mainly through unmoderated forums such as Reddit and 4Chan which are home to legions of pranksters, trolls, and provocateurs that have eagerly signed up to the alt-right's crusade against political correctness, and later spread the message through Facebook and Twitter. Amid the rise of far-right populism in the US and Europe, the question is whether these same forces are at play in countries outside the West, that is, in countries where the narrative of the angry white working-class which has lost out from globalization and is using immigration as its scapegoat cannot apply. Can an alt-right exist in Mexico?
Heart of darkness
Most people in the English-speaking world are probably oblivious to the fact that Mexicans are one of the biggest social media users in the world, particularly Facebook where it ranks sixth in the world in the number of users (more than Germany, Britain, France, or Japan). A cultural penchant for irreverence has suited Mexico well for internet humor and when something goes viral in Mexico, it goes viral in a big way; a recent Facebook invitation for a “quinceañera” party in a small rural town was accidentally left open to the public and attracted 1.2 million invitees, with thousands actually showing up. Mexico has also resorted to social media to uncover acts of corruption and impunity; videos of the wealthy abusing their privilege go viral under hashtag prefixes of #Lord and #Lady, and one city official in one of Mexico City’s more affluent boroughs recently became a mini celebrity for using the Periscope app to catch wrongdoers in the act. The Peña Nieto administration has also used social media, albeit for some rather non-democratic purposes; it is known to have a virtual army of fake Twitter profiles (known colloquially as “Peñabots”) to knock down trending topics that are not favorable to it.
But amid the humor and the politics, Mexico’s internet hides its own dark corners which are scarily reminiscent of the alt-right. On December 11th, Senator (and Olympic track and field medalist) Ana Guevara’s motorcycle was hit by a car driven by four men, one of whom then came out of the vehicle and brutally assaulted her. The incident caused widespread revulsion due to the wantonness of the attack, all the more since Guevara was brave enough to appear in public showing her injuries. Shortly after, a particularly disgusting hashtag emerged in Twitter in response to the assault: #GolpearMujeresEsFelicidad (“hitting women is happiness”). Although many claimed it was merely in jest, it did little to conceal some of the anti-feminist vitriol that is the hallmark of the alt-right, and strongly recalled some of its most notorious mass trolling attacks in the US.
(Source: El Universal)
Of course, it hasn't just been women who have been the focus of Mexico's troll armies. Earlier in 2016 and following the Orlando nightclub shooting, an equally abhorrent hashtag spread like wildfire across the Spanish-speaking Twitterverse: #MatarGaysNoEsDelito ("killing gays is not a crime"). Although attitudes towards homosexuality are changing particularly in more liberal cities like Mexico City, gay-bashing is still widely seen as acceptable in Mexico's macho culture. FIFA, for example, has repeatedly fined the Mexican football association due to fans' constant use of a gay slur (!eeh… puto!) during matches, including during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Although many fans have since repudiated its use, most have simply justified it as being banter, reserving their outrage against FIFA for trying to spoil their fun.
The source of both hashtags was ultimately traced to a troll group calling itself Legión Holk. Its logo uses the same font design as the videogame Grand Theft Auto which suggests an origin within the gaming community much like the alt-right. Its mascot, a crudely drawn version of the Incredible Hulk, shows more than a passive resemblance to the mascot of the alt-right, Pepe the Frog, which recurrently alludes in some way to Trump (such as appearing with his hairstyle or with Make America Great Again caps) but also is depicted with Nazi paraphernalia such as SS caps and swastika armbands. Legión Holk would make the headlines a month later, on January 18th following a rare case of a school shooting in the city of Monterrey which left four wounded and one dead (the shooter). It is claimed that the perpetrator, Federico Guevara Elizondo, had a history of mental illness, but he was also believed to have left a fateful final post on a Legion Folk Facebook group as well as on Hispachan, the Spanish-language version of 4Chan, cryptically warning that he was going to perpetrate a massacre. As is often the case on social media, it is impossible to know the extent of involvement of these groups and whether they have claimed credit for the attack simply for the purpose of notoriety. But the fact that they have some role in the story shows the extent of their influence.
In the US, the alt-right existed long before it had a candidate that ticked all their boxes. Mexico’s proto-alt-right is also so far alien to politics, but the elements of possible political involvement are there. With its belief that irreverence trumps political correctness, coupled with its overtly misogynist and discriminatory attitudes, the only reason they have not taken a side is because there’s no side to take yet; right-wing populism of the type that benefits people like Trump in the US is currently non-existent as a political force in Mexico. It also does not appear likely that one will emerge to contest the upcoming June 2018 presidential election although it should be noted that Trump announced his candidacy not much longer before the US election than the Mexican election is from today.
What these groups also appear to show is strong support for authoritarianism, which is a known personality trait of Trump voters. A well-known Facebook site known as Las Aventuras de Carlos Salinas de Gortari cranks out humorous memes in support of one of Mexico’s most despised presidents, who governed in 1988-94 but left the country teetering on the verge of crisis (the economy crashed just days after his successor took office). His administration was also known for its heavy hand against dissent and its widespread corruption. However, Salinas continues to have a certain appeal as Mexico’s last strongman which makes him appropriate as a hyper-capitalist (NAFTA was signed on his watch), anti-leftist superhero. Even if this depiction is in jest, at least superficially, it is hard to imagine a more suitable figure to appeal to those Mexicans increasingly disillusioned with the country's deficient democracy and chaotic state of governability, particularly during the current Peña Nieto administration which has proved to be a disappointment on many fronts.
Like all superheroes, Salinas needs a supervillain, which inevitably is left-wing radical Andrés Manuel López Obrador. López Obrador is the constant butt of the site’s jokes and his supporters are disparagingly referred to as chairos, a slang word used to describe young, idealistic, and oversensitive progressives, not unlike the "social-justice warriors" that the US alt-right hates. The term has even been tweeted by ex-president Felipe Calderón. It also helps that López Obrador has routinely depicted Salinas as being the power behind the throne in Mexican politics even today. Las Aventuras de Carlos Salinas de Gortari is just one in a community of similar meme-making Facebook sites all with a distinctively alt-right flavor: No al Fanatismo de la Izquierda (anti-left), Veganchairos (anti-vegan), and the defunct Femichairos (anti-feminist). López Obrador also has his own Las Aventuras de López Obrador page, although unsurprisingly it is simply an extension of the mockery seen in the Salinas page. It's impossible to ascribe this to mere coincidence when it is apparent that the same anti-progressive and pro-authoritarian sentiments that fuel the alt-right north of the border, appear to be present south of the border too.
With anti-establishment sentiment at an all-time high, and with it, the risk that López Obrador could win the presidency in 2018, it would not be surprising if Mexico’s angry right-wing internet legions became increasingly desperate to find a champion. Unfortunately for them, there is no re-election in Mexico which rules out Salinas himself. Although Salinas and Peña Nieto hail from the same party, the PRI (whose authoritarian credentials are bolstered by the fact that it ruled Mexico for over 70 years until losing the 2000 election), Mexico's proto-alt-right does not appear to have as much love for the latter, although defiance toward Trump appears to be gaining him sympathies. As a result, the movement is likely to remain in the shadows until someone recognizes the political value of this particular kind of brooding social rage. But the fact that such similar groups of people can exist in countries that are culturally dissimilar and with vastly different reasons for political and economic discontentment does point towards a worrying possibility: that social media's power to erode liberal democracy anywhere in the world should never be underestimated.
Follow the author on Twitter @raguileramx