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Social Media and Survival: Following the Mexican Drug War via Twitter

Posted October 5th, 2011 in Crime, Social media by davecopeland

All of the writing I’ve been doing about Mexican drug cartels for Daily Dot — and, specifically, how the cartels are now targeting social media users in the same way that they once targeted cops and journalists — ended up becoming the basis for a lecture I gave this morning on social media as a replacement for traditional journalism, with an examination on all the pros and cons:

People who post information on social media about Mexican drug cartels are essentially facing a two-sided attack. One one side, you have the cartels themselves, which killed three people last month for purportedly posting information on Mexican crime blogs. The cartels themselves are online, posting propaganda about themselves, false information to distract or disparage rivals and law enforcement, and to root out enemies to target for execution.

On the other side is the government, which is looking to avoid a repeat of an August incident in Veracruz, in which tweets about armed gunmen taking hostages at a school spread rapidly. The false reports set off chaos as parents raced across the city to retrieve their children, and now at least two Mexican states are considering laws that would punish people who “disrupt public order” with information they post online.

The problem, of course, is that many people have become dependent on the information being shared on social networks. Covering the cartels as a journalist is pretty much a death wish. Some papers and broadcast outlets have acknowledged they are no longer covering the cartels, either because they don’t want to lose any more colleagues, their insurance companies told them to stop, or both (this video is a pretty good, seven-minute primer on the pure terror Mexican journalists face)

Enter social media.

This isn’t an Arab Spring, lets-start-a-revolution kind of social media; this is simple life-and-death, as in “Just heard explosions near my house; be careful if you go out” social media. Some 6,000 people were killed in Mexico’s drug war last year alone, and many of them were innocent bystanders either caught in the crossfire or in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can make the case that, without social media, the number would have been higher.

The fear, of course, is that erroneous information will get out. About half of all cartel-related posts on Twitter are re-tweets, meaning people share posts from other users. You can click first, read later and — as anyone who has used Twitter for more than a day knows — that is the usual order of sharing. That means there is very little verification going on. It also means that news — real or made up — travels incredibly fast.

And it’s a valid concern. But I’m not sure if it’s worth stifling free expression through laws, or creating a chilling effect. Journalists, after all, get stories wrong all the time. And yes, propaganda spreads on Twitter when the cartels pose as regular users. But the cartels have bought off journalists and cops in the past in an effort to distort the truth. Are the new laws going to discourage hardened criminals who murder people on a daily basis from posting false information that violates said laws?

Probably not, but it may make the everyday person who hears gunshots — or were they fireworks? — in their neighborhood think twice before posting the potentially life-saving information.

(Notes from my lecture — see Prezi above — including links back to the New York Times source material).

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