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Mexico murders show how Internet empowers, threatens

By Andres Monroy-Hernandez, Special to CNN
September 16, 2011 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
A sign near two bodies of people hung from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo contained messages threatening users of social media. The image has been edited for profanity.
A sign near two bodies of people hung from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo contained messages threatening users of social media. The image has been edited for profanity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writer says murdered couple in Mexico may have been revenge for blogging on drug cartels
  • He says social media can do good in world, but disrupts too and is seen as threat by some
  • He says there's tech world controversy over "real name" policy of some social networks
  • Writer: Tech firms must consider their duty; U.S. media must amplify Mexican voices

Editor's note: Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

(CNN) -- Two days ago, I learned about two young people killed by drug gangs in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, their corpses bound and hung from a bridge. Unfortunately, drug murders happen so often in Mexico that they are not news anymore. This time was different.

The murders have received a lot of international attention because the bodies were found with handwritten messages claiming that the couple had been killed for snitching on the cartels via the Internet. Is it possible that these murders grabbed more attention than last month's 50-person massacre because of the connection to social media?

As a technologist, I find it easy to get swept up in the techno-utopian view of how social technologies are changing the world for the better. I do believe it. For example, Twitter hashtags are saving lives in Mexico by empowering citizens to report shootings and helping others to avoid them. However, those same hashtags have landed three people in jail on charges of "terrorism" for supposedly spreading false rumors online.

Now we learn about the murders of supposed "Internet snitchers."

A brutal message from Mexican cartels

It is not clear whether the couple was killed for actually posting something online or whether their murder was used as an opportunity to scare people away from social media. In any case, the messages against online reporting might indicate that social media sites are seen as a threat. For example, one of the notes on the bodies named blogdelnarco.com, a website run anonymously on Google's Blogger platform.

Social technologies, like other peer-to-peer technologies, are incredibly disruptive. Social media open new opportunities for empowering the disenfranchised, but they also create big new challenges -- some so big that people's lives might hang in the balance. There has been a heated discussion in the tech world about online anonymity, especially the "real names only" policies of some social networks.

Social media is seen as neutral ground by people in Mexico. They might not trust their government or even their neighbors, but they do trust big-name, high-tech companies to provide an unbiased platform that empowers them to connect with others.

These events in Mexico are another reminder of the responsibility that high-tech companies have when providing these empowering platforms. Yes, these are for-profit enterprises, but with great tech power comes great responsibility (as Stan Lee might say).

The American media are in a privileged position to report safely on what is happening in Mexico. American journalists can, and should, amplify the voices of those who are unheard. Mexican voices present in social media speak of a complex problem with just as much relevance for the U.S. as Mexico. After all, the drug war is a thorny geopolitical conflict closely linked to U.S. financial stability and national security. The American public partially funds the war: via taxes on one side and through drug consumption on the other.

My hope is that the fascination for social media communication will drive better coverage of systemic issues at the core of the conflict, such as debates on decriminalization, arms and human trafficking.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andres Monroy-Hernandez.

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