It started as an apparent attempt to help.
On Aug. 25, just before noon, a message went out on Twitter that five children had been kidnapped from an elementary school by an armed group in Boca del Rio, a municipality not far from Veracruz, a port city along Mexico’s eastern coast that has seen an increase in drug-related violence over the last year.
The information was retweeted and posted on other social networking sites. Panicked parents who heard the news rushed to the school to pick up their children.
But the attack on the school was never confirmed. The Twitter user who sent the message, a math teacher named Gilberto Martinez Vera, and a local journalist named Maria de Jesus Bravo, who reportedly made similar statements on her Facebook account, were arrested that same day. Their charges? Terrorism and sabotage, which in Mexico carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.
Free speech and human rights advocates were outraged and began protesting, asking for the release of the pair who became known as the “Twitter terrorists.” The governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte de Ochoa, was faced with a dilemma that he broadcast on Twitter: “I’m a Twitterer at heart, I’m in favor of freedom of expression, but also of defending our right to live in peace.” People started to wonder if in times of crisis, the goals to protect one’s citizenry and support news-sharing on social networks were diametrically opposed.
In Mexico, the number of drug-related deaths has surpassed 40,000 since President Felipe Calderon launched an offense against the country’s drug cartels when he took office in late 2006. As the drug cartels battle one another for power, they seek to control the mainstream media, which often limits coverage of drug-related violence or forgoes it altogether. With that void, many ordinary Mexicans rely on crowd-sourced news from social networks and anonymous blogs to get information they can’t find in their local newspaper.
With Mexico becoming increasingly dangerous, its citizens have become increasingly connected online. According to a recent New York Times article, there are four million Twitter users in Mexico and 95 percent of the more than 30 million people with regular Internet access have Facebook accounts. There are plenty of ordinary citizens who can and do provide online warnings about drug-related violence in real-time.
The problem comes when (seemingly) well-intentioned watchdogs provide misinformation and cause panic, as in the Veracruz case.
The Veracruz governor quickly realized terrorism and sabotage charges were too harsh for the “Twitter terrorists,” but he was still left with demands to control rumors of violence on social networks. So he introduced a law that would criminalize making false statements “by any means” about explosive devices or firearm attacks that disturb public order with a lesser sentence: one to four years in prison and a fine.
Veracruz convened a special legislative session to debate the law, which passed on Sept. 20 in a 33-14 vote. Legislators who opposed it expressed fears that it represented a return to authoritarianism and could limit the use of social networks.
Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights also challenged the new law, saying it was too vague, limited freedom of expression and was unconstitutional. The nation’s Supreme Court is considering the group’s appeal.
Both the teacher and journalist who were arrested in Veracruz were freed the day after the new law passed and the charges against them dropped. And though the new law could still apply to their case, the state’s interior secretary said they would not be prosecuted under it.
Even though the pair was freed, the new law — the first of its kind in Mexico — and the controversy it sparked has ignited a dialogue across the country that can’t be reversed. According to the New York Times, at least one other state, Tamaulipas, is considering a similar law, and public officials nationwide are speaking out against new technologies that help spread rumors.
If the Supreme Court upholds Veracruz’s law and other states pass similar ones, it begs the question: How will states enforce laws that prosecute wrongdoers who are hard to find with intent that’s difficult to prove?
The case of the “Twitter terrorists” is a good example of how difficult it is to say definitively who started a rumor.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Andres Monroy-Hernandez, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a PhD candidate at MIT’s Media Lab, pointed out that at first Veracruz threatened to take action against 16 Twitter users. The Mexican media say a car caught fire near the school that day, which seemed to prove there had been a grenade attack, and helped the rumor spread.
It’s possible, Monroy-Hernandez says, that the rumor was actually started on the streets and it later spread on social networking sites.
“The government tried to portray who started it, but in reality they are not sure how much happened or what was true,” he said in an interview. “It points out the challenges of this law where enforcing it is ridiculous.”
Whether or not you can prove what happened on the ground was the direct result of something posted on a social networking site has been the source of much debate recently, in particular by those trying to measure the effect social media had during the Arab Spring. Some researchers say social media helped facilitate dialogue, but didn’t actually spark the protests. Others say “a spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground,” and argue Twitter posts led to protests.
If researchers with access to hundreds of thousands of tweets can’t come to a conclusion about the Arab Spring, it’s no wonder that investigators in a Mexican city had difficulty determining whether a single Twitter user was to blame for the panic at the school.
Beyond locating the source of a rumor and determining whether a rumor is to blame for public disorder, there is another part of the new Veracruz law that is problematic: proving the intent of a rumor-starter.
In his New York Times op-ed Monroy-Hernandez notes: “It is unclear what the motives and roles of those 16 people charged with spreading the rumor were. Did they ‘shout fire’ because they thought they saw flames or did they completely invent it?”
The governor of Veracruz said his law was meant to be used against those with bad intentions, but human rights advocates worry it could be used against the government’s political opponents or well-meaning citizens who pass along information without verifying it.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera is an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville and has been studying the use of social media in Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that shares a border with Texas to the north and Veracruz to the south. She says governments can’t say citizens have a responsibility to verify information before passing it along on social networking sites in times of crisis.
“Social media sometimes doesn’t involve a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s so fast, the way people respond. If you talk about death and life and shootings, how are people going to say, ‘Let me think about this and be responsible’? You’re going to retweet it.”
Monroy-Hernandez says building a case against someone who intended to cause public disorder would be very difficult; the government would have to prove there was a systematic approach, perhaps by opening multiple social media accounts and building a credible online reputation that would allow the information to spread quickly.
“It’s really hard to know what somebody’s intentions are, even in cases of murder,” he points out. “You really have to build a case that people were preparing. I doubt cartels or citizens will be that organized.”
Correa-Cabrera notes that the rule of law in Mexico is notoriously weak and it’s not uncommon for mass murders to occur without anyone being charged. If murders are going unprosecuted, she says, what are the chances any case under this law will proceed?
But that doesn’t assuage the worry of those who say the spread of misinformation in Mexico has gotten out of control.
Monroy-Hernandez says maybe the solution isn’t the “knee-jerk reaction” to create legislation, but to “create a system of information sources that are trusted, where the government also has a voice.”
A mere four minutes after the school attack rumor allegedly started on Twitter, the governor of Veracruz, who has more than 57,000 followers, sent out his own tweet dismissing the attack. But by then “it was either too late or the governor was not considered a reliable news source,” writes Monroy-Hernandez.
So why did the rumor spread so quickly? And why couldn’t the governor stop it?
In his tweet, the math teacher used a hashtag, #verfollow, that is used to spread news in Veracruz. The message was retweeted by a popular account used to track violence in the city and the already widespread fear of drug-related violence in the area lent credibility to the situation’s plausibility.
Researchers say determining how social media users decide which sources to trust is difficult. In recent years, a few anonymous websites that report on the drug war, like Blog del narco and Borderland Beat have accrued huge followings.
Monroy-Hernandez is conducting research now that looks at how certain anonymous social media accounts have gained more followers than the mainstream media or government, emerging as authorities on topics of violence.
He’s looking for patterns that might be helpful to governments that want to become trusted sources, likely by consistently spreading truthful, helpful information in real-time. Once they gain that authority, he said, they could then combat false rumors and remove them from the flow of information quickly.
But if Mexican governments continue to crack down on social media users, it could have the opposite effect, forcing citizens to post less frequently about violence or to resort to using anonymous accounts, instead of networks that encourage users to use their real identity, fostering more mistrust.
And where there’s mistrust, rumors get out of hand quickly — no law will stop that.
Kalyn Belsha is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Texas Observer, The Houston Chronicle and RedEye Chicago and she holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.