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Citizen Journalists Tweet Mexico's Drug War, Replacing Traditional Media

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, January 10 2013

Over the past several years, a growing number of Twitter users in cities throughout Mexico have taken to their feeds with real-time coverage of violent crime. Part public service, part journalism, sometimes completely anonymous, these feeds have become, in many cases, an alternative to traditional news media when it comes to coverage of the country’s escalating drug war.

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England has now analyzed 16 months of drug war tweets from Monterrey, Reynosa, Saltillo, and Veracruz. From this data, they have been able to map tweet volume to violent incidents, as well as gauge the general level of violence over time.

In addition, the SMC conducted interviews with a number of citizen journalists – they use the term “curators” – learning that, besides a sense of altruism, many are motivated by the failure of traditional organizations to inform and protect the public:

Although traditional journalists regularly serve as curators, both on Twitter and in the mainstream media outlets, the rise of citizen curators suggests that existing outlets are not meeting public need. Both government officials and journalists have idiosyncratically engaged on Twitter, but much of the citizen curators’ success in building an audience stems from their willingness to curate information even when government agencies, journalists, and other media outlets are not, often for fears of reprisals from organized crime.

These citizen curators are not always infallible; like the institutions they’re operating outside of, they, too, can be compromised by organized crime groups. Yet as a TechCrunch story late last month observed, tech-based efforts to improve life for everyday Mexicans have proven to be some of the most innovative strategies against the drug war, from data mapping to apps that provide information about police checkpoints and other areas to avoid in cities. In their accompanying paper, the SMC points out that, “[like] other armed conflicts, the Mexican Drug War is also a conflict over the control of information.” The more information that makes its way into the hands of the people, the better they will be armed against drug-related violence.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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