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.
For 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.