Mexico: Social Media Takes on the Drug Cartels

Social Media in Mexico is booming, but its more than just Farmville and LOL cats. As Mexican society copes with increasing narco-violence in the Northern border towns, Twitter and other social media are serving as a lifeline for coping with the turmoil.
Click here for video about the narco-violence in Mexico
Of the 34.9 million internet users in Mexico, 61% use social networks (AMIPCI). In fact, Social networking is the most popular online category in Mexico, accounting for 30 percent of all time spent online (Comscore, July). Facebook dominates with 19 million visitors. Twitter has grown from only 32,000 users in 2009 to 3.3 million active users today. Mente Digital estimates that 14% of internet users are on Twitter, a higher rate of penetration than the US. Mexicans tweet more frequently than their US counterparts, with 13% of users posting two or more tweets per day. 18% of internet users access from mobile platforms (AMIPCI).
Top Internet Categories in Mexico by Share of Online Minutes 
Source: comScore Mexico Metrix, July 2011
Percent Share of Total Online Minutes
Social Networking
Instant Messengers
Since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on cartels in late 2006, the violence has claimed more than 42,000 people. Traditional news outlets, particularly along the border, have been silenced or intimidated into self-censorship by the cartels. To fill the void, citizen journalism blogs are taking on the cartels, including Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog Del Narco, Wikinarco and Borderland Beat. The Nuevo Laredo en Vivo blog shows real-time city maps with the location of drug sales points, lookouts, safe houses, etc. Unfortunately, even these anonymous contributors have been targeted. Moreover, the drug gangs are becoming cyber-savvy, using YouTube to post videos showing how they torture and murder rivals.
Dynamic map from the Nuevo Laredo en Vivo blog, with crowd-sourced information about drug sales points, safe houses, lookouts, etc
The hope is that social media can be used to fight the oppression of the drug cartels. By combining hashtags, which link related Twitter posts together in a unified stream, reports by individual Twitter accounts can be transformed into an ad hoc news service. The border towns of Reynosa (#reynosafollow), Monterrey (#mtyfollow) and Veracruz (#verfollow) are using shared hashtags to bypass corrupt officials and inform their citizens. Curating these disparate tweets is crucial as only 1 in 12 Tweets in March included a hashtag.
However, crowd-sourcing public safety information brings the risk of spreading false rumors. Two bloggers in Veracruz state spent several weeks in jail last month after posting false reports that created panic in the community.
Posts last month by Veracruz bloggers that cicrculated false reports and caused panic on the roads of Veracruz
Social networks alone will not defeat the drug cartels. In a country where 60 journalists were murdered over the last  decade and dozens more are missing, the potential for social networks to inform the population is very important. Can social media succeed where government and other institutions have failed?