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The Rise of the Urban War Correspondent on Twitter

After drug cartels intimidated many local newspapers in Mexico into silence, ordinary citizens began passing on news about drug-related violence themselves. Researchers from Microsoft decided to find out why.

  • July 16, 2015

The Mexican drug war is an ongoing conflict that began in 2006 when the government began a systematic effort to dismantle the drug cartels that dominate the market for illicit drugs. This war has taken a heavy toll on Mexican society. More than 120,000 people have been killed, with more than 27,000 missing.

Freedom of speech has suffered too. The cartels have targeted news organizations by killing journalists, threatening staff, and burning down newspaper headquarters. Many local newspapers have simply stopped publishing details of drug-related violence, resulting in an almost complete news blackout.

But in the absence of official sources of news, something else has happened: ordinary citizens have begun sharing information about the violence over Twitter. This has helped to warn people about danger in their communities.

Some of these Twitter accounts have become hugely popular. They have also become important sources of new information and also pass on useful messages from followers. And the people behind these accounts have turned themselves into a new breed of citizen journalist akin to the traditional war correspondent.

That has piqued the interest of Andrés Monroy-Hernández and colleagues at Microsoft Research in Seattle. These guys have studied the urban war correspondents on Twitter, tracing how they have emerged in Mexico and even tracking down one or two to explore their motivations.

These guys began their digital fieldwork by simply observing the conversations on Twitter, looking for hashtags that point to information about violence. That pointed them toward four cities that were central to discussions about the Mexican drug war.

These were Monterrey, Reynosa, Saltillo, and Veracruz, which also all had corresponding hashtags that commonly conveyed local information about violence. This allowed Monroy-Hernández and co to filter the Twitter firehose for tweets with these hashtags over 16 months in 2010 and 2011.

One thing became immediately clear about this content—up to 40 percent of the messages were retweets, an unusually high proportion. Monroy-Hernández and co say this is good evidence that the preferred way of contributing to this debate is by reposting other people’s content rather than creating new content.

The team also found that the number of tweets spikes when violence strikes and drops when the cities are calm. The biggest spike in Monterrey consisted of over 7,027 tweets on August 25, 2011, when an attack at a casino left 53 people dead. The messages contained images of the scene and later the names of missing people.

These messages came from over 65,000 different people in the four cities, who on average posted more than nine tweets. However, a small fraction of these people tweeted more than 1,000 messages each.

And many of these super-users have become important hubs in this network. In effect, these tweeters are a new breed of citizen journalists.

An interesting questions is why these people volunteer to write in such dangerous circumstances, at clear personal risk. Monroy-Hernández and co set out to contact them and interview them about their motivations.

They immediately ran into the significant problem of trust. Most of these people questioned the motivation of the team, for obvious reasons. Only four of them agreed to talk, and even then only anonymously, over Twitter. One agreed to a Skype interview.

The conversations revealed that these people were largely motivated by an altruistic desire to help their communities. But they also competed with each other and wanted to be the first with the news, and that led to a lack of trust between users.

They all also jealously guarded their true identities. That’s unsurprising given that two bodies had recently been found showing clear signs of torture with a note saying: “This is going to happen to all the Internet busybodies.”

This raises an important challenge to the designers of communication systems such as Twitter. The urban war correspondents clearly need a way of establishing trust between themselves and other individuals without revealing their identities. That just isn’t easily possible today.

Twitter has a mechanism for verifying individuals who use its service, but this is not ordinarily accessible and, in any case, does not quite do the job of ensuring anonymity. “While verification may be a decent proxy, all they really need to know is whether or not the information that is being presented is credible,” say Monroy-Hernández and co.

There is another problem. The same anonymized system that would make communication easier for urban war correspondents in Mexico might also make possible an entirely different type of criminal activity elsewhere.

How to manage these competing forces is going to be something of a conundrum for anyone who takes it on.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1507.01291 : The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare

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