A study conducted by Microsoft investigates the emergence of “war correspondents” in Mexico. The study looked at how citizens are using Twitter to disseminate information about gang attacks and potentially dangerous situations to large numbers of people.
InSight Crime reported on the Microsoft study:
The study, titled “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare” (pdf), analyzed Tweets relating to the Mexican cities of Reynosa, Monterrey, Saltillo, and Veracruz over a 16-month period. The study identified a group of people, dubbed “curators,” who published a high volume of Tweets related to drug violence, sharing information and warning other users. The report argues that in some ways, these individuals are taking on the role of a new generation of “war correspondents.”
For the authors of the report, the importance of these citizen curators points to a deficiency in more traditional sources of information, namely the government and established media outlets. Local governments and newspapers often face intense intimidation from organized criminal groups, with many forced to cooperate with them, or to refrain from printing stories on criminal violence.
The independent media have been attacked by the narcos for reporting on any deaths related to the gang warfare taking place in Mexico’s northern regions. Likewise, government officials have also been threatened (some bribed) to prevent them from taking any action.
The intimidation of media and government sources leaves a vacuum of information. And that is where the citizen journalists step in. But there are problems with this as well.
No matter where citizen journalists operate — Mexico, Syria, New Orleans, etc — the bottom line is the credibility of the reporter. With no way to check the veracity of the information, receivers of the news have to make their own judgments about credibility.
As InSight Crime points out:
There are risks in leaving the gathering and dissemination of crime news in the hands of these non-professional curators. One question is how to assess the reliability of the information. Using Twitter allows these contributors to avoid the dangers faced by traditional media outlets, as they can remain anonymous, but this very anonymity makes it difficult to know if their information can be trusted.
And, as the Microsoft authors point out, some of the curators of information gain credibility and trust.
Social media curators seek to spread information to new audiences by selectively identifying and sharing content coming from the broader stream. These curators develop reputations with their audiences based on the perceived value of the information that they spread. Some curators simply pass on information posted by others, while other curators add commentary or insert their own interpretations or updates.
For journalists, tapping into this Twitter exchange could help develop stories and gain a better understanding of what is happening in the drug wars in Mexico. (And maybe even learn how there are cross border issues involved.)