Twitter Producing New Breed of ‘War Correspondents’ in Mexico

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A report from Microsoft looks at the emerging role of Twitter in sharing information about the Mexican drug war, highlighting the role of users who gather and disseminate large quantities of news.

The study, titled “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare” (pdf), analyzed Tweets relating to the Mexican cities of Reynosa, Monterrey, Saltillo, and Veracruz over a 16-month period. The study identified a group of people, dubbed “curators,” who published a high volume of Tweets related to drug violence, sharing information and warning other users. The report argues that in some ways, these individuals are taking on the role of a new generation of “war correspondents.”

For the authors of the report, the importance of these citizen curators points to a deficiency in more traditional sources of information, namely the government and established media outlets. Local governments and newspapers often face intense intimidation from organized criminal groups, with many forced to cooperate with them, or to refrain from printing stories on criminal violence.twitter drugwar

As well as gathering information that may be misrepresented or suppressed by the government and media, microblogging on Twitter is also used to issue instant warnings about outbreaks of violence in high-risk areas. The authors identified spikes in the volume of Tweets in the four cities, corresponding to major events, such as the arson attack on a Monterrey casino in August 2011 (see graph).

The report is due to be presented at technology conference the CSCW 2013, in Texas, February 23-27.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are risks in leaving the gathering and dissemination of crime news in the hands of these non-professional curators. One question is how to assess the reliability of the information. Using Twitter allows these contributors to avoid the dangers faced by traditional media outlets, as they can remain anonymous, but this very anonymity makes it difficult to know if their information can be trusted. As the Microsoft report points out, “there is a significant need for developing technical strategies to assess trust without revealing identity information.” 

The perils of this were illustrated by claims that Twitter handle “@AnonCurator” was being used to gather information on the location on military deployments, according to a Blog del Narco piece cited by the report.

These news “curators” may also face risks to their own safety. A series of gruesome murders in the city of Nuevo Laredo in 2011, in which the bodies were left with signs claiming that the dead had been contributors to websites that compile information on organized crime, is just one example. One young woman was a confirmed administrator on the website Nuevo Laredo en Vivo. A message left by her mutiliated body read “this happened to me because of my reports, and yours,” signed in the name of the Zetas.

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