A team of social media users in Mexico have written a "Twitter Manifesto" in reaction to the latest killing of an alleged online chat forum administrator. Some of their demands are untenable, raising questions about what actions bloggers can really take to protect themselves.
Speaking in the name of bloggers and Twitter users in violence-ridden states like Tamaulipas, the manifesto (read full pdf version here; Spanish pdf version here) gives voice to the apprehension and anger circulating through some online media networks in Mexico.
The criminal groups attempt to restrain our voice... to kidnap us and carry out criminal atrocities or to make direct threats against our companions. This constitutes a flagrant threat against the only freedom left to us, now that the local, state and federal governments are indifferent to our demands, and without even bothering to verify they ignore the facts that we report on our social networks. In summary, we have been abandoned to our fate in this unequal fight of free citizens against the drug traffickers.
The declaration comes a day after a decapitated man was found alongside a sign identifying him with the online alias "Rascatripas." It was the fourth such killing this year in Nuevo Laredo.
"This is what happened to me for failing to understand I should not report things on social media websites," the sign read, before making reference to the woman killed last September for activity on the Internet forum Nuevo Laredo En Vivo.
Since then there has been no official confirmation on the body's identity, although, according to Vanguardia, users of the chat forum have confirmed a user known as "Rascatripas" was killed. His last comment, registered two days before the decapitated body was found, described a local highway as unsafe "all the time," according to the report.
As happened with the September killing of the forum administrator "La Nena de Laredo," users at Nuevo Laredo En Vivo pledged to continue their online activity following Rascatripas' apparent death. On Wednesday, one user warned against using cell phones on the street: "These ZZZZ's think you're talking to the army and will pick you up. Be careful."
The ZZZZ is a reference to the Zetas criminal gang. The Zetas have been blamed for all the violence against social media anti-crime forum administrators and users.
The Zetas also squared off in recent weeks with members of the online hack-activist group Anonymous. Anonymous members posted a video threatening the Zetas with retribution if they did not release a kidnapped member of their group. The member was reportedly released and Anonymous backed away from its threat.
Within the buzzing community of social media users along the Mexico-U.S. border, comes the "Twitter Manifesto." But when the document asks the government to better guarantee "cybersecurity" and "freedom of speech" online, it only highlights the difficulty of enforcing these requests.
Each new killing like "Rascatripas" reinforces the fear that Mexico may enter a period of heightened confrontation between online media users and criminal gangs. And considering that Mexican security forces are still struggling to consolidate security on the ground, there appears to be little that formal institutions can or are willing to do to protect citizens who act in cyberspace.
As previously explained by analyst James Bosworth, the Zetas' apparent persecution of social media commentators is parallel to the persecution faced by traditional media reporters. It is the same war over who controls the flow of information in Mexico. If this war continues to eliminate non-traditional media users like forum commentators and Twitter devotees, it may only contribute to the siege mentality already prevalent in border towns in Mexico.
Recognizing the futility of asking Mexican authorities for more protection from the threat, some have turned to issuing best practices. On another forum – the Frontera listserve – security consultant Gordon Housworth shared suggestions on how social media users can better protect themselves from the threat of criminal gangs.
"To these valiant social media commentators, know that your weapons are primarily defensive in nature, and of those the best is building and
maintaining your anonymity," Housworth writes.
He goes on to list some of these weapons:
- Add new handle (online name) unrelated to your current handle/online name.
- Consider adding that new handle on a different network. (Moving location is the first rule of breaking hostile surveillance.)
- Use that new handle only, only, for your own public safety monitoring/alert sharing.
- Do not share that handle, do not advertize that you have another handle. (Someone can earn money by turning you.)
- Continue your usual posting on your old handle. (When an old handle drops and a new one appears handling the same traffic, it is not hard to connect dots.)
- Be terse in the new handle, or at least do not use idiomatic language that you use on the old handle, i.e., try to remove identifiable language.
- Remember to be thoughtful about what and how you report or discuss criminal matters, i.e., if you say, "I saw X" then someone knows that you were in range to see X at that time.
- Consider using services outside Mexico such as twitter.
- Avoid creating identifiable patterns.
What happens next will depend on collective action, individual saavy and tremendous courage. But it's not clear who will muster it.
Hacker groups like Anonymous have proved they have the political will and the ability to go after local governments and big business in Mexico, but have backed away from openly confronting criminal groups like the Zetas. And despite its name, the Twitter Manifesto is more a cry for help than a call for action.
--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.