Mexico murders show how Internet empowers, threatens

I wrote this op-ed for CNN and I thought you might find it interesting.

Two days ago, I learned about two young people killed by drug gangs in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, their corpses bound and hung from a bridge. Unfortunately, drug murders happen so often in Mexico that they are not news anymore. This time was different. The murders have received a lot of international attention because the bodies were found with handwritten messages claiming that the couple had been killed for snitching on the cartels via the Internet. Is it possible that these murders grabbed more attention than last month’s 50-person massacre, because of the connection to social media?

As a technologist, I find it easy to get swept up in the techno-utopian view of how social technologies are changing the world for the better. I do believe it. For example, Twitter hashtags are saving lives in Mexico by empowering citizens to report shootings and helping others to avoid them. However, those same hashtags have landed three people in jail on charges of “terrorism” for supposedly spreading false rumors on-line.

Now we learn about the murders of supposed “Internet snitchers. It is not clear whether the couple was killed for actually posting something on-line or if their murder was used as an opportunity to scare people away from social media. In any case, the messages against online reporting might indicate that social media are seen as a threat. For example, one of the notes on the bodies named, a website run anonymously on Google’s Blogger platform.

Social technologies, like other peer-to-peer technologies, are incredibly disruptive. Social media open new opportunities for empowering the disenfranchised, but also create big new challenges–some so big that people’s lives might hang in the balance. There has been a heated discussion in the tech world about online anonymity, especially the “real names only” policies of some social networks. Social media is seen as neutral ground by people in Mexico. They might not trust their government or even their neighbors, but they do trust big-name high-tech companies to provide an unbiased platform that empowers them to connect with others.

These events in Mexico are another reminder of the responsibility that high-tech companies have when providing these empowering platforms. Yes, these are for-profit enterprises…but with great tech powers, comes great responsibility (as Stan Lee might say).

The American media are in a privileged position to report safely on what is happening in Mexico. American journalists can, and should, amplify the voices of those who are unheard. Mexican voices present in social media speak of a complex problem with just as much relevance for the U.S. as Mexico. After all, the drug war is a thorny geopolitical conflict closely linked to stability and national security. The American public partially funds the war: via taxes on one side, and through drug consumption on the other.

My hope is that the fascination for social media communication will drive better coverage of systemic issues at the core of the conflict, such as debates on decriminalization, arms, and human trafficking.