Monday, November 07, 2011

Twitter and Social Networking Sites: Saving or Taking Lives in Mexico?


Mentedigital: Twitter in Mexico 2011

NYT: Mexico Turns to Social Media for Information and Survival

NYT: After a Kidnapping, Hackers Take On a Ruthless Mexican Crime Syndicate

Reuters: Mexican Social Media Boom Draws Drug Cartel Attacks

Worldwide, social media outlets have proven to be powerful tools for inspiring social and political change. Sites like Twitter and Facebook became the global command center for the Arab Spring uprisings and the current Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Social networking has become a valuable tool for communication and the exchange of ideas across all sectors including, economic, educational and governmental entities. World leaders like Barack Obama ‘tweet’ and the White House has a Facebook page. Although social networking can be valuable to social and economic development, as evidenced by the Arab Spring movements, it can also be problematic. While citizens across the globe are using social media networks as a communication hub, in Mexico such networks are a matter of life and death.

The violence surrounding Mexico’s ongoing drug war has taken an estimated 40,000 lives in Mexico over the past five years. In an effort to further their criminal enterprises, the cartels have embarked on a brutal intimidation campaign targeted not only at rival organizations, but innocent citizens as well. The killings are often gruesome and accompanied by highly disturbing public messages threatening death to those who attempt to interfere with cartel activity. Victims have been beheaded, disemboweled, hung from bridges, or dumped in roadways. Criminal prosecutions are thwarted by governmental corruption and witnesses are often silenced by fear. The cartels have also targeted and killed reporters covering the drug wars and local media outlets have largely stopped reporting on their crimes. Because the cartels have silenced radio and news outlets, Mexicans increasingly rely on posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites to avoid cartel checkpoints, gang-violence, and shoot-outs as these situations are posted in real time. Unfortunately, the cartels have access to these social media sites as well.

In an effort to further silence and intimidate, the cartels have set their sights on the social media users who oppose them. Several people who allegedly posted information about cartel activities on Twitter have been brutally murdered. The most recent wave of cartel killings include three social media users described by their murderers as “snitches” on public banners found near their bodies. Although most social media users remain anonymous, some observers believe the cartels have infiltrated government and law enforcement offices that utilize advanced tracking software that can identify users.

Despite the danger, citizens continue to use social media. This week, in response to a cartel kidnapping of one of its members, the group “Anonymous” (a collaboration of international computer hackers) released a video on YouTube threatening to reveal the names of alleged cartel associates if the Anonymous member was not released. Critics claimed that Anonymous was endangering innocent lives as any names that Anonymous may have are likely tainted by corrupt officials, police, or the cartels themselves. Thus, Anonymous could actually contribute to the violence they seek to stop as rival gangs target the people named on the lists. Ultimately, the cartel released the Anonymous member, diffusing the situation. This scenario raises important issues with respect to the use and impact of social media networks. While social networks certainly can be used to empower the masses, the situation in Mexico demonstrates their capacity to spread chaos and death.

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