What do public officials and narco gangs have in common? Usually nothing. But in Mexico, both have rallied against citizens’ attempts to use social media to warn others about cartel checkpoints, shootouts, grenade attacks, and other public safety concerns.
Narco gangs see social media as a threat to their hold on power, while public officials complain the new technologies spread rumors. In fact, several Mexican states are considering laws criminalizing the sowing of “panic” on social networking sites.
This paradox endangers ordinary Mexicans who often cannot turn to the traditional media for information on which “no-go zones” to avoid to stay safe. In many parts of the country, especially in the north, media outlets have implemented a self-imposed blackout of coverage of drug violence.
With public safety information hard to come by, difficult to verify, and dangerous to pass along, what should ordinary Mexicans do? Can social media-empowered citizen journalists make a difference? Should they try? To explore this issue, I turned to Patrice Cloutier, a Canadian public servant specializing in emergency management and crisis communications and author of the Crisis Comms Command blog. His answers to my questions suggest the possibility of a Mexican revolution—where ordinary citizens band together to use social media (like the “Arab Spring”) to liberate themselves from tyranny (according to the BorderlandBeat blog, some Mexican villages have been successful at doing just that).
Q: How can Mexicans living in areas with narco gangs best use social media to keep themselves and their communities safe?
A: Social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, and SMS text message, are invaluable tools for fostering community safety. As alerting tools, they can let residents know when cartel activity has been detected in a neighbourhood, village, or area. But they must be twinned with a kind of “neighbourhood watch” organization to get actual eyeballs watching the streets.
Social media also can serve as a support mechanism for communities impacted by cartel violence. It enables online communities to coalesce rapidly to speed recovery efforts (e.g., donations, volunteer coordination, support for victims’ families, etc.).
Q: How can the risks and dangers inherent in using social networks to crowdsource public safety be minimized?
A: It’s hard for us to imagine what life must be like in Mexican communities facing bloody drug cartel violence. We live in very safe communities. In Mexico, drug violence has killed some 40,000 people in the past five years, many of them innocent civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Communities live under fear, police corruption, and brutality, and the distinction between good and bad guys is not always clear. Yet a few brave souls who recognize the value of crowdsourcing crime information are risking their personal security to help communities combat the cartel scourge. Many Mexicans, however, are afraid to join them because they know anonymity is hard to preserve on social networking sites.
To protect themselves and their communities, Mexicans need to use intermediaries to sanitize the provenance of crime reports, working with reputable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for support. Promoting the resulting crowdsourced maps and wikis would add extra protection by making the information as ubiquitous as possible, reducing the temptation of drug cartels to target civilians because the information would still be widely accessible despite retributions.
Q: What are the best ways public officials can prevent false rumors from creating chaos?
A: The only way public officials can prevent the spread of false information online is to be on the same social networking sites where rumours are spread. That means constantly monitoring social networking sites and having a strong online presence to correct online rumours. This might not be enough, however, when local or state officials themselves lack credibility because they are in the pay of cartels or are just inept. In such cases, whatever they say will likely be ignored.
At the same time, encouraging as many citizens as possible to crowdsource public safety information enables social media’s “self-correction” factor to take effect. People who spread false rumours and incorrect information on purpose will be quickly shunned and marginalized. Nobody will listen to them moving forward. But, as I mentioned before, before crowdsourcing can gain critical mass, Mexicans need access to intermediaries to sanitize the provenance of reports and reputable NGOs to help validate information.
Q: When does using social media to promote public safety become too dangerous?
A: It’s already dangerous for Mexican journalists and citizens to point fingers at the cartels, no matter what communications platform they use to do it. Just this week the United Nations named Mexico the fifth most dangerous place in the world for journalists.
I believe, however, social networks are the most powerful tool Mexicans have to fight drug cartels short of picking up guns and setting up village militias to confront them. The power is in the cloud and in the crowd. You can not shut up the whole population once, to paraphrase crowdsourcing guru Clay Shirkey, you reach the level of shared awareness where “everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows.”
Mexicans have shown themselves to be a very resilient people. I am confident they will survive the current crisis too. With the help of intermediaries and NGOs, they can harness the power of social networks to band together to rid their communities of drug cartels. A new horizon for Mexico is within their reach.
Personal note to Patrice: Thank you for doing this! You’ve provided extremely invaluable information!
Disclosure: Some of my former employers and clients work in the anti-corruption arena.
Your turn? What do you think ordinary Mexicans should do to protect themselves and their loved ones from bloody narco gang violence?