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March 15, 2013, 11:24 a.m.
Audience & Social

In Mexico, tweeting about the drug war to fill the void of traditional media

Researchers found that Twitter users covering the violence start to take on some of the characteristics of traditional media.


A study on social media use in Mexico found that Twitter users are taking up the role of informal correspondents on the sidelines of the country’s ongoing drug war. In cities like Monterrey, Veracruz, and Saltillo, Twitter users are spreading the word on shootings, arrests, and clashes between the cartels and police. And, researchers say, they’ve developed a kind of media-esque ecosystem that values traits like sourcing and attribution.

This is far from the first time conflict and citizen media have risen hand in hand, a pattern repeated in countries like Egypt and Syria, among others. That’s because there’s a common set of circumstances in many of these situations: “For many Mexicans, social media has become a fluid and participatory information platform that augments and often replaces traditional news media and governmental institutions,” the study says.

The study, “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare,” comes from a team at Microsoft Research, that looked at the volume and frequency of tweets in cities that have seen the most violence as a result of battles between drug cartels and law enforcement.

They found that tweets about the drug war were more spiky than consistent — chatter went up when specific events or incidents were happening in the community. And while the volume of tweets was often high around particular events or stories, the study found that only a small number of people are tweeting original information, with a majority retweeting:

…we found 65,082 unique posters across the four cities, who, on average, posted 9.4 tweets each. More specifically, those who posted new reports did so at a rate of 10.8 per person, those who spread tweets did so at a rate of 4.1 retweets per person, and those who referenced others did so at a rate of 5.5 per person. A few users contributed most of the content.

As violence has escalated in Mexico’s drug war, news organizations are increasingly under attack and journalists have become targets. As a result, some Mexican news organizations have become wary of reporting on the drug war. When she accepted the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism last month, Mexican journalist Marcela Turati said the silence from the media takes a toll on the public as well as reporters trying to uncover the truth.

“When we interviewed people, these curators, they cited this need in the community because the media checked out of the equation of helping information flow,” said Andrés Monroy-Hernández, one of the authors of the study.

The study focused on four cities, looking for the common traits among tweets, hashtags, and Twitter users who shared information. Most tweets had a similar combination of words referring to a place, people, city names, and the word “shooting.” Instead of providing a news wire, or something resembling regular reporting, Monroy-Hernández said the tweets acted more as a public service, advising people to stay clear of certain neighborhoods.

Looking at Twitter users in particular, Monroy-Hernández said the best of the so-called curators typically had a high number of followers and high volume of tweets. These were people who found information on Twitter or elsewhere on the web and shared it. In order to examine the issue further, Monroy-Hernández and the other researchers tried to conduct interviews with the top curators. Not surprisingly, many of the Twitter users they contacted were reluctant to talk, he said; sharing information online presents many of the same risks as traditional journalism in Mexico, as cartels have threatened people behind Twitter and Facebook accounts.

From those they were able to interview, Monroy-Hernández said people started spreading information both out of a sense of altruism and also out of frustration with government and local media. Over time, those users saw tweeting as more of a responsibility. In most cases, users were sourcing information from other tweets, reports on TV, and news from family and friends.

When asked about their motivations, two of these curators cited altruistic reasons. “Angela” said “I always make clear that tweeting is an altruistic community service,” before adding “it’s like if I was a news correspondent on social networks of the war we are living.” “Claudia” said that people tell her she is “like their angel for looking after them” to which she added: “that is one of the strongest motivations for me to continue tweeting daily!” Both of them mentioned being on top of their Twitter account throughout the day; “Angela” reported spending about 15 hours a day while “Claudia” just said “many hours.”

What was curious, Monroy-Hernández said, is that the community of narco-tweeters also took on traits of traditional media. Curators told researchers they often struggle with how to verify information. The authors also discovered there were varying degrees of collaboration and competition between accounts. From the study:

As “Claudia” said, “I do not like that people often do not give credit in the retweets of my tweets,” and when asked how this could be solved she replied, “it would be about the ability to be treated with importance, be given credibility, which would let more Twitter users know about you.”

As active as these Twitter communities are in various cities around Mexico, their reach remains limited. As the study points out, just 34.9 percent of Mexicans had Internet access in 2010, up from 17.2 percent a decade earlier. According to a report from the Mexican Internet Association, social media is used by 61 percent of people with Internet access, but of those, only 20 percent use Twitter. While that paints an uneven picture for the future, Monroy-Hernández said Twitter users, and the Internet population in Mexico, both skew young, which suggests those usage numbers will continue grow.

While Twitter itself may have limits for spreading information on the drug war, Monroy-Hernández said they discovered it is influencing other media. Much like in the U.S., politicians in Mexico are sensitive to younger voters and chatter online, he said. Maybe more importantly, Twitter is having an effect on TV news. “Instead of saying ‘John Smith reporting from,’ they cite social media,” Monroy-Hernández said. “They defer the responsibility to the social network.” In that way, Twitter acts as the intermediary, potentially providing journalists a safe distance from a story. By being a step removed from traditional media, Twitter may be helping to spread more information on the drug war, he said.

Photo of police transporting a suspected drug trafficker in Hermosillo by Knight Foundation used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 15, 2013, 11:24 a.m.
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