FEATURE14 August 2013

Verified accounts

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Could social media analytics help Mexicans steer clear of cartel violence?


Do you trust what you read on Twitter? When word spreads of a celebrity death or some other piece of scandal, do you take it as gospel from the first tweet you see – or do you go in search of verification from a trusted source; the TV news maybe, or the next day’s papers?

But what do you do when those trusted sources have been cowed into silence; when the only people you can turn to are other people like you? Except you don’t know who they are. They’ve been scared into hiding their identity for fear of reprisals. And the information you need to verify isn’t trivial. It could be a matter of life or death. Someone’s tweeted that an army convoy is heading your way, and a gun battle might be about to break out – and you certainly don’t want to wait to find out that it’s true.

That’s the situation in Mexico. The brutal, bloody conflict between the half-dozen or so drug cartels vying for control, and the government forces seeking to bring them down, has been known to claim the lives of innocent bystanders – those caught in the cross-fire – so regular people, going about their daily business, are in need of fast and reliable information to keep them out of harm’s way.

A disruptive force
Social media has an obvious role to play here. It’s shown itself to be a useful tool in the midst of various different crises around the world, whether natural, like earthquakes, or man-made (terrorism), helping to steer people away from danger and get emergency help where needed.

But crises are an everyday occurrence in Mexico. Where people might be willing to take the word of an unverified stranger during a one-off event, ongoing disruption like that wrought by the Mexican Drug War creates an ongoing need for trustworthy information.

In Mexico, however, the institutions citizens would typically rely on have been deliberately targeted with both threatened and actual violence by the drugs gangs. “Like other armed conflicts, the Mexican Drug War is also a conflict over the control of information,” write a team of Microsoft researchers in their paper, The new war correspondents: The rise of civic media curation in urban warfare. “Local news media organisations and governments have been forced into self-censorship and, as some claim, into collaborating directly with criminal groups.”

So web-connected Mexicans are turning to social media outlets like Twitter for “information and survival”, to quote a New York Times article. But people who are sharing reports of violence online have also been threated with cartel aggression. In 2011, two bodies were found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo next to placards that read: “This is going to happen to all the internet busybodies.”

Anonymity, then, is crucial for safety’s sake. So the question asked by the Microsoft paper is: What can services like Twitter do to help people verify information when they can’t verify the people doing the sharing?

Social media analytics might be able to help. One idea they propose is for a tool that would allow users to quickly see who else is sharing similar information on Twitter and to see the relationships between the posters. “If information was only posted by people who were all connected to one another, it may be less reliable than if information was posted by a disparate collection of disconnected nodes,” say the researchers.

The full paper is online at bit.ly/12FMmC6


This article was first published in Impact, the new quarterly magazine from the Market Research Society. Follow the link to read the digital version of Impact.


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