Mexican authorities are holding two people in jail for using Twitter to spread rumors about a school attack, showing how citizens look to social media to fill voids of information, for better or worse.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Last week, just days into the school year, Twitter messages about a drug cartel attack on a school spread throughout the city of Veracruz, causing mass-hysteria as panic-riddled parents raced to the school.
Gerardo Buganza, interior secretary for Veracruz state, said the chaos caused by the Twitter rumor was unrivaled.
“Here, there were 26 car accidents, or people left their cars in the middle of the streets to run and pick up their children, because they thought these things were occurring at their kids’ schools,” Buganza told local reporters.
When the dust settled, police arrested Gilberto Martinez Vera, dubbed @gilius_22, a 47-year-old math teacher, and 57-year-old Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, known as @maruchibraco, a well-known journalist and radio commentator for tweeting about the attack.
Prosecutors say the two caused such panic that emergency numbers “totally collapsed because people were terrified,” damaging service for real emergencies.
Both are in jail for terrorism and sabotage, possibly the most serious charges for Twitter use. Sentences can carry a maximum of 30 years behind bars.
“My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school,” Martinez Vera tweeted. “I don’t know what time it happened, but it’s true,” he wrote in a follow-up.
Pagola said she just relayed such messages to her own Twitter followers.
Martinez Vera’s defense lawyer, Claribel Guevara, said she never claimed to have firsthand knowledge of the incident.
“How can they possibly do this to me, for re-tweeting a message? I mean, it’s 140 characters. It’s not logical,” Guevara said, quoting her client.
The case highlights how social media, like Facebook and Twitter, has become a refuge for weary residents who don’t trust official news agencies and have turned to technology for information.
In this case, many Veracruz residents were already frightened by escalating drug cartel violence. Local media outlets often censor such news reports in an attempt to placate the perpetrators, leaving social networking to fill the void.
For example, last month, suspected cartel members tossed a grenade outside the Veracruz aquarium, killing a man and injuring a woman and two children. While few details about the incident made it onto the evening news in the port city, social networking sites were full of reports about it.
But as the latest incident in Veracruz highlights all too clearly, social media, like traditional news sources, may get news wrong sometimes, leaving residents and governments with more questions than answers.
The pair’s arrest underlies the question of whether repeating inaccurate information on social media sites is a crime. Those who disagree see the imprisonment as a governmental attack on free speech and are petitioning the courts to release the two.
Amnesty International is taking up the pair’s cause, saying officials are exaggerating the case and should be looking a little closer to home for the cause of the problem. The human rights group blames the panic more on the uncertainty many Mexicans feel because of an escalating drug war, which claimed more than 35,000 people in the past five years.
“The lack of safety creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which rumors that circulate on social networks are part of people’s efforts to protect themselves, since there is very little trustworthy information,” Amnesty wrote in a statement on the case.
Even though the residents of Veracruz and the protesters that took part in the Arab Spring are miles apart, their situation is similar in this respect. Both populations illustrate how social media can become a valuable tool when official information either isn’t trusted or is in short supply.
The search for verifiable information, rather than the means used to obtain that information, may motivate people to choose social networking for their news regardless of whether they live in a dictatorship or a democracy.