Posts Tagged Digital Activism

Internet Necesario and the Mexican Netroots

8 October 2010

On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty’s restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.

If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009…

A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico’s netroots– the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications– including internet access– in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.

It’s hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario (“the internet is a necessity”).  In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter’s trending topics– one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut– and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.

By week’s end– the last day of the legislative session– “Internet Necessario” had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country’s top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital’s Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators’ words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.

In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a “luxury” was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don’t mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.

Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate’s Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media– a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.

The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country’s netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it.  Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.



A Tale of Two Twitters

6 October 2010

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.


In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists’ respective employers– most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America– negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar– caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists’ simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that “can’t and won’t protect them.”


In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It’s not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.


So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world– perhaps even more so than before– we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.



Social Networking Against Violence in Ciudad Juárez

25 February 2010

Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, may be the most violent city in the world; the spectacular murder rate and the uncounted headless bodies are attributable primarily to the drug trade that plagues the entire border region. Back in October, a State Department Tech Delegation to Mexico City kicked off a collaborative effort to allow citizens of the border region to offer the police anonymous tips via free text message whenever they witness violence.

But that’s not all that’s going on in Juárez to combat the pandemic of grusome violence. A bottom-up movement organized by one librarian has been holding protests, vigils, and speaking out against the violence in their city. Daniel Cruz Batista was fed up with all the violence in Juárez, so he started a Facebook group called “Ya Basta de Violencia en Juárez!!” (Enough With the Violence in Juárez).  He gained 6,000 followers within a week, and now has more than 9,000. Another Facebook group, “Jóvenes Por Juárez” (Young People For Juárez), has 4,000 members, and has similarly acted as a forum for citizens to connect, share information, and organize.

In an essay I highlighted a few days ago, Ethan Zuckerman offers three theories of how internet access can change closed societies. Two of those theories can, I think, be applied to a place like Mexico’s border region, where the problem isn’t government oppression, it’s that average people are powerless in the face of violent crime syndicates. The first, which Zuckerman calls the “Twitter Revolution Theory” is the idea that if people have web access, they’ll be able to use that connectivity to communicate and organize with like-minded people. The second, the “Public Sphere Theory,” holds that the web provides people a place to think, speak, and express themselves freely, and to create a “parallel public sphere” to empower social actors.

The problem in Juárez is, on its face, a problem of law enforcement’s inability to stand up to a powerful criminal element. But it runs deeper to a weak local government, and, at its root, a civil society that lacks the power, cohesion, or capability to stop the violence.  While social networking tools like Facebook are clearly not the whole solution to this kind of a problem, they are a crucial step, through the mechanisms described by the above theories. Via two Facebook groups, begun by average citizens, the rational, peaceful, law-abiding majority is able to communicate and organize, and then, ultimately, build a civil society that is strong enough and cohesive enough to stand up for security, stability, and justice in Juárez.

Violence can be a force as oppressive as authoritarianism, violating rights to life, liberty, and security of person. Fortunately, tools of connectivity have the potential to be as powerful in standing up to drug lords as they can be in standing up to dictators.



Lessons from Iran: Using Facebook to Become A More Effective Autocracy

7 December 2009

Six months after a fraudulent election threw Iran into spasms of violence and exposed to the world the true autocratic nature of the Islamic Republic, a new round of protests and suppression have arisen around National Student Day– a holiday to mark the killings of three students by the Shah in 1953. Thousands of Iranian students gathered at Universities in Tehran and elsewhere today, where they chanted slogans against their government. As in June, the government sent in the paramilitary Basij militias, who used tear gas, electrical truncheons and stun guns to break up the protests. Robert Mackey at the Lede has been offering the most regular, comprehensive updates of the protests as they have unfolded.

Iran’s oppression hasn’t gotten much attention since the summer’s protests concluded, but the government has continued their sinister crackdowns– and they’ve gone global. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday on a series of interviews conducted with Iranians living in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Many of the interviewees who had spoken out against the regime reported having received threatening messages via e-mail or Facebook, and some were intimidated with threats against their family members still living in Iran.

Five interviewees who traveled to Iran in recent months said they were forced by police at Tehran’s airport to log in to their Facebook accounts. Several reported having their passports confiscated because of harsh criticism they had posted online about the way the Iranian government had handled its controversial elections earlier this year.

An Iranian engineer in his 30s who lives in a German-speaking area of Europe, and who attended protests there this year, described having his passport, cellphone and laptop confiscated when he later traveled to Tehran. He said he was called in for questioning several times, blindfolded, kicked and physically abused, and asked to hand over his email and Facebook passwords.

Iran ProtestersInterrogators showed him images of himself participating in protests in Europe, he said, and pressed him to identify other people in the images.

“I was very scared. My knees were trembling the whole time and I kept thinking, ‘How did this happen to me?’” he said recently. “I only went to a few demonstrations, and I don’t even live in Iran.”

He said he was told he was guilty of charges including attending antiregime protests abroad, participating in online activities on Facebook and Twitter that harmed Iran’s national security and leaving comments on opposition Web sites. He said he was given a choice: Face trial in Iran, or sign a document promising to act as an informant in Europe.

He says he signed the paper, took his passport and left Iran after a month. He says he has received follow-up emails and phone calls but hasn’t responded to them.

As I wrote the other day, this kind of thing is a chilling reminder that these incredibly powerful technologies can be badly abused, and in the hands of a government with bad intentions, can be turned on their head in the service of oppression, rather than freedom. To take a historical perspective on this phenomenon– much as I dislike Nazism/Hitler analogies, FDR wasn’t the only one who mastered radio to his political advantage…



Mobile Technology: Good, Bad, or Just a Tool?

30 November 2009

Much is made of the power of mobile phones.  Indeed, much is made of them right here on this blog.  But, as with all seemingly magical tools of development/healthcare/education/whatever, there is a tendency to get swept up in the zeitgeist and to think of the mobile phone as a silver bullet. And as with all things, it’s not. In fact, we can’t think of the phone, or the internet, or any other technology as inherently good or bad. They’re simply tools. New, powerful, disruptive tools– but just tools.

Bear with me while I illustrate my point by weaving a thread through two articles published recently in faraway parts of the world:

  • Yesterday, a Sri Lankan newspaper covered a recent leak that the government intelligence services had been tapping the phones of an influential former general and his associates. The tapping was motivated not by any security concern, but by political concerns– the general represented a powerful opposition group.
  • An opinion piece in the African Business Daily last week looked at the “pros and cons of increased access to mobile phones” in Uganda. The “pros” were the usual litany of access to information and services– but it was just that: access. (The “cons” had mostly to do with Uganda’s highly regressive taxation scheme, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

Just a toolThe point here is twofold.  First, mobile technology, like any other technology, is subject to misuse and abuse by those in power. Part of NDN’s big argument about new technology (and the reason that we got involved in this space in the first place) is that new technolgoies are changing society in a similar way to how radio changed the world in the 1920s and 30s. But just as FDR used the radio to speak directly to the American people, Hitler used radio to speak to Germans.

As we see in Sri Lanka, and as we saw in Iran, mobile technology can be used equally by those on either side of any struggle. This is by no means an argument against the technology itself– as I said, it’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad– but simply a reminder that we must be watchful for the same evils as ever.

Second, in Uganda as everywhere, access to a phone and a network is never the end in itself. The power of the technology lies in the information you can access and the services you can take advantage of. That’s why we see our mission at Global Mobile as greater than simply expanding access to mobile technology– even moreso, we’re thinking about how we can leverage this technology to improve lives and socities around the world. Technology and services– one is useless without the other.