‘Criminal Violence’ Tweet Leads to Shutdown, Questions in Mexico

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Schools and businesses shut down en masse in some parts of Mexico state over fears that a mysterious criminal group was on a rampage. Now state authorities say the rumors were bogus and are blaming social media.

Some 70 percent of the schools in one municipality of Mexico state shut down Thursday due to fears of criminal violence in the area. As La Jornada reports, businesses closed, streets emptied, and state authorities deployed an additional 500 police officers to the city, Nezahualcoyotl, in the northeast of Mexico’s Federal District.

But as fast as authorities were to deploy additional police reinforcements, they were just as quick to deny that anything was wrong. The president of the Federal District’s human rights commission blamed the mass shut-downs on a social media “psychosis,” in which networks like Twitter and Facebook spread false rumours about the alleged insecurity in Nezahualcoyotl. The state secretary of security echoed these claims.

“There have been rumors generated on social networks, and we want to clarify that they’re just that: rumors,” he told La Jornada. “There’s nothing. These municipalities are calm.”

Alternative media website ADN Politco told a different story, interviewing various residents who described seeing groups of armed agitators on the streets. Other witnesses reported seeing a group of people patrolling the neighborhoods with a bullhorn, warning of looting and shootouts. There were a few panicked tweets (like this one), as well as photos uploaded of the empty streets and the alleged group of agitators (see above). Other tweets warned that criminal groups like the Familia Michoacana were behind the agitation.

Other media reports affirmed that the discord was actually caused by a clash between two political groups: Antorcha Popular, a group affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Movimiento Ciudadano, which is associated with rival party the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). According to El Universal, clashes between these two groups left 35 people injured and up to two dead on September 5.

InSight Crime Analysis

The incident raises questions over where does the real authority lie when reporting security risks — in the hands of the media, the state authorities, or more horizontal networks like those on social media. Mexico has seen a flourishing of message boards like Nuevo Laredo En Vivo and Twitter accounts that share security tips and report on aggressions between rival gangs.

But it’s not clear if these message boards make people feel safer or more at risk. What’s more, they are dangerous. Last year, several Internet users active on Nuevo Laredo En Vivo were killed by the Zetas for their apparent participation in the online forum.

And while there is no doubt that the Internet is a powerful and practical tool for spreading information about security risks, it also spreads disinformation, as in the case of Mexico state. These networks can also be used by criminal organizations, which can, for example, manipulate the authorities into sending security forces in one direction, while they commit criminal actions in another. 

The central question in these matters is how to create effective and trustworthy filters for these “alerts.” Whereas traditional media may have served this purpose in the past, there are huge information voids now that social media can effectively fill in some cases but not in others.

Until these “trustworthy” filters are created, the state has clumsily tried to regulate this activity. For its part, Mexico has previously taken a hardline against citizens accused of “inciting panic” by spreading false reports about security. Last year, a schoolteacher and a radio presenter were threatened with up to 30 years in prison for falsely reporting that gunmen were on a rampage in Veracruz city.  Proceso reports that four people have been arrested accused of “inciting panic” in Nezahualcoyotl, although their names have not yet been released.

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