By Elaine Rita Mendus
A recently published paper by Microsoft employees is taking a close look at Twitter usage during the Mexican drug wars.
The paper, “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare,” written by Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Danah Boyd, Emre Kiciman, Munmun De Choudhury, and Scott Counts analyzes hashtag use by people in four cities in Mexico, tweet volume in periods of peace and violence, as well as an analysis of the rise of civilian public information officers in the Twitter world.
The paper compiled some interesting data on Mexico’s Internet and social media usage:
- 34.9% of Mexico has Internet access as of 2010;
- An increase from 17.2% from 2000;
- 77% of Internet users are under 34, with 37% being under 18;
- 40% are 18 to 34 years old;
- 61% of Mexican Internet users are utilizing social media;
- 39% use Facebook, 38% use YouTube, and only 20% use Twitter;
- 53% of Twitter users reported using the service at least once a day, from their home (39%), work (16%), and on mobile devices (18%).
Researchers looked at tweets from August 2010 to November 2011 that focused on four cities: Veracruz, Monterrey, Reynosa, and Saltillo. They zeroed in on certain hashtags, too: #mtyfollow (Monterrey), #reynosafollow (Reynosa), #saltillo (Saltillo), and #verfollow (Veracruz). Looking at 609,744 tweets over the course of 16 months, the study runs from August 2010 to November 2011. The cities with the most tweets in these hashtags were Monterrey and Reynosa, the largest and smallest cities in the study respectfully.
For all of the cities except Reynosa, researchers found that one third or more of the tweets (29.9% to 40%) were retweets, a fifth were mentions (tweets which included the name of another user). This suggested that for these cities that spreading information was the preferred method of contributing to the discussion.
Tweets using the city hashtags rise during violence, and fall during periods of calm. The writers note that tweets with the hashtags spiked in correlation with major events. The biggest peak in tweets in #mtyfollow, for instance occurs on August 25, 2011, the same day 53 people were killed in an attack on a casino. Tweets during the event shared images, as well as names of missing people who might have been at the casino. The same kind of spikes occur in all of the other hashtags, the only real outlier being in Veracruz for the same day, when rumors of kidnapped school children were being spread.
In interviews, Twitter users suggest that Mexican civilians no longer trust the government or old media much to report on the realities of the drug war. In Monterrey for instance, the writers have found that four of these so-called “social media curators” have three times the followers of the governor Rodrigo Medina (115,678 versus 40,822 followers), and nearly as many as the popular news media group Telediario (139,919).
They found that many of these curators, at least in Monterrey, were women who “want to do something to address the violent situation of their city.” Most hide behind pseudonyms. The writers also report that among these curators there is competition for the scoop on events, with curators becoming upset at others who steal their breaking news ant try to pass it off as their own.
Overall, the paper presents us with three interesting points on the drug war in Mexico.
- First, the Twitter communities for these cities (and likely Mexico as a whole) are young, and fiercely protective. Community backlash toward abuse of hashtags for commercial use, as well as the competitive nature suggest that not only is there an identity of community, but a desire to keep it for the members. The competition for the scoop on what’s going on at the ground is also rather fierce – so these social media curators are protective of themselves as well.
- Second, hashtags rise and fall in correlation with violence. Peaks in hashtag use can correspond with either rumors or large, violent events.
- Lastly, the government seems to be disregarded as a serious source of information. People are more trusting of twitter users than government officials or newspapers for an explanation of what is going on at ground level. This is no surprise when journalists and politicians are open targets in the drug war, either for bribes or bullets.
To read the entire paper click here.