Archive for the ‘Civic Engagement’ Category

Impure Hip Hop Dissent

Monday, September 7th, 2015

I was reading an essay by Tommie Shelby called “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth”. In it, Shelby argues that political rap, although it’s lyrics are sometimes misogynistic, homophobic, celebrate violence against cops, and valorize gunplay and street crime, still exhibit an important form of political dissent that should not be cast aside because of its “impurity”. He calls this political rap music “impure dissent”, and argues that it has some intrinsic value since it is not meant to elicit some sort of social change, or somehow change the status quo.

Among the many interesting ideas mentioned, Shelby says that beyond condemning an injustice, impure hip hop dissent has two further functions: “to publicly pledge loyalty to the oppressed, and to explicitly withhold loyalty from the state. {…} This dissent is the expression of solidarity with the oppressed against perceived injustice, not so much because those in power may change course as a result, but because the dissenters want to make clear whose side they are on.”

Another thing that struck me was that while the political speech in hip hop may make its way into the public sphere, it does not necessarily ask for a rational communicative exchange. How could it? When you’re singing about glorifying street crime, you’re not inviting other people to take part in a conversation about its merits. This one-sided dissent may strike other people as “morally impure” since dissenters are refusing to listen much less reply to criticism. “These dissenters … may seem to be lacking in [the] appropriate civic spirit of reciprocity.” Shelby offers another possibility. Dissenters may hold the opinion that critics are arguing in bad faith, and that their unsympathetic attitudes towards their plight is an indication that a meaningful dialog is just not possible.

This reminded me of some of the insensitive responses to the Ferguson protests, in particular the hashtag #PantsUpDontLoot. Perhaps the tiny faction of individuals who were actually involved in the looting could be described as practicing “impure protesting”. They might not have been looking for dialog. Especially not from someone who would reduce the entirety of all racial injustices in the country to “pull up your pants.” Maybe they were looting because they were just really fucking angry.

Shelby’s essay comes from the book “From Voice To Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age”, which I highly recommend. It was a happy coincidence that I read this today since I was planning on going to the movies to watch “Straight Outta Compton.”

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Also: When I thought about writing this I was thinking about how impure hip hop dissent might compare to narcocorridos. Several times I have heard narcocorridos compared to hip hop since they promote and glorify violence. And much like hip hop artists, many narcocorrido artists come from very humble backgrounds and have faced years of neglect and injustice from the state. However, the more I thought about it, the harder it was to make the case that narcocorridos can qualify as impure dissent. Mainly because, in my limited knowledge of narcolyrics, much of that music is not political at all. It mostly just celebrates narcoculture. It’s worth looking into, though. I might also have a very biased opinion since I come from a place that was very much affected by narco violence.

Censorship on Twitter Using Bots? How #YaMeCanse Was Knocked Off Twitter Trending Topics

Thursday, December 4th, 2014


In late September of this year, 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero went missing. In an attempt to prevent students from disrupting a political event for his wife, the mayor of Iguala ordered local police to stop and detain the students. This set in motion a series of events that resulted in several murdered students and 43 missing students. People later learned the missing students were handed over to a local cartel and were subsequently killed and burned until no traces of their bodies were left behind. This announcement was made during a press conference by Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam where at the end of the conference, tired and exasperated, said “Ya me cansé.” I’ve had enough.


Mexicans took to social media and responded with “We’re tired too…” Of the violence. Of the injustice. Of the impunity. Of the corruption. The #YaMeCanse hashtag became the rallying cry for discourse online and protests all over Mexico. The hashtag has been on Twitter trending topics almost since Murillo Karam’s press conference. Yesterday, the hashtag suddenly disappeared from the list even though usage had not waned.

Usage of #YaMeCanse


This sudden disappearance of such a popular hashtag raised some eyebrows. Determining trending topics is a little more complicated than simply calculating the number of mentions of a hashtag. Twitter has an algorithm that determines trending topics based on several factors. According to Twitter, one of the rules against usage of trending topics is “Repeatedly Tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending or trending higher.” It is very likely that the overwhelming spamming of the #YaMeCanse caused Twitter’s algorithms to treat the hashtag as spam and proceded to remove it from the trending list.

As reported in, an army of bots had been RT and tweeting the #YaMeCanse hashtag for several days.

“Who says that online censorship and repression does not exist online? A storm of bots tries to disappear #YaMeCanse”

Spam Tweets

Another analysis by Lo Que Sigue shows the difference between connected and disconnected tweets symbolizing real people versus bots.


Not to be easily dissuaded, the Mexican twitterverse quickly came up with a simple solution: #YaMeCanse2, which is currently trending. An added cleverness to adding the number ‘2’ is that it forces people to ask “What happened to regular #YaMeCanse? Where’s #YaMeCanse1?” which leads people to find out about the attack. It’s a sort of the Barbra Streissand effect where in an attempt to censor one hashtag, not only do people evade the censorship, but in doing so call attention to the attempt at censorship.

It’s quite possible that this is not a coordinated attack on the hashtag by some entity. It could be just regular bots hijacking a popular hashtag. And it is very tempting to attribute to this “attack” to the government of Mexico. I would not be surprised at all if it was, and I’d be willing to bet that the Mexican government is behind this (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I would like to find definitive proof. The people behind Lo Que Sigue working to start an Indiegogo campaign to try and find the origin of these bots. Perhaps we don’t have to wait around for this to get funded and we can crowdsource/collaborate to try and see if tracing the origin of the bots is possible. I would welcome any ideas on how to do this.


So Trending Topics are more complicated than they seem. It’s hard to tell whether bots had any role in dropping the hashtag from the trending list. It seems that Twitter is actually looking for “bursts” of tweets, and how fast these tweets appear ( ∂Tw/∂t?). It is entirely possible that volume of tweets remained stable but the “burstiness” was gone. I don’t know. Twitter’s algorithms are very private. Even if bots played no part in dropping the hashtag, the possibility of that happening might still exist. After all, riding hashtags to promote unrelated content is shunned by Twitter. Whether they can detect that algorithmically, I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. If they can detect that, then it’s entirely possible to spam a hashtag using bots. Perhaps the only way to find out is to actually measure the volume and speed of the bots. Doing this, it turns out, is very hard.


GovLab Post: Democratizing Policymaking Online: Liquid Feedback

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Note: This post was written for the GovLab on June 10. You can view this same post at The GovLab’s site here.

Liquid Feedback
This week, Beth Noveck kicked off her talk at the Personal Democracy Forum conference by reflecting on the the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S), Italy’s 5 Star Movement, and their use of Liquid Feedback (LQFB), a software for policymaking and political discussion. After its initial deployment by the German Pirate Party, the software has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years, and most recently it has been adopted by several M5S groups in regions such as  Lombardy, Lazio and Sicily. True to their principles of participatory democracy and free access to the internet and information (and in response to criticism about how they run their business), it is no surprise that these two parties have been searching for a platform to engage their members more directly. But is Liquid Feedback the answer?

Liquid Democracy
Before we get into Liquid Feedback, lets introduce the concept of “liquid democracy.”

Think about how you would vote on where to go to dinner when hanging out with five of your friends. The five of you would sit around the living room, discuss what each of you are in the mood for and then vote on a place that would suit most people’s cravings. This is a very simplified version of  a direct democracy. However, what if instead of 5 friends, you’re hanging out with 30 friends? You might not remember the last time you had to discuss and agree on where to eat with 30 people, and that would be because as a group grows larger, discussions get longer and reaching a consensus gets harder. Also consider that Billy and Jane are from out of town, and what do they know about local food?

Direct democracy — one person one vote — does not scale well. The voters might not always be knowledgeable on the matter being discussed. That is why today, many governments use a form of representative democracy, where people vote on representatives they trust who will represent them when voting on policy decisions.

As most voters can attest, however, your representatives may not have expertise on every topic and won’t always share your same opinions on every single issue. We don’t want Billy and Jane choosing the restaurant.

Liquid democracy tries to take the best of both direct and representative democracy by allowing the voter to decide whether to delegate her vote to a representative on a given issue or simply vote on her own. Say you’re an expert on education, wouldn’t it be great if you could have your representatives vote for you on all health care issues, but when it came down to education issues, you could cast your own vote? This is what liquid democracy attempts to do. This video, by German designer Jakob Jochmann, provides a great introduction to liquid democracy. Liquid Democracy would have been unworkable prior to the Internet but is becoming a reality today and ready for prime time testing.

Delegate your votes to someone else who in turn can give their votes to another person they trust.

Liquid Feedback – How it works
Liquid Feedback is an open-source software created to facilitate Liquid Democracy. It enables policy discussions and decision-making with this kind of proxy voting system. It allows participants to propose policy, revise anyone’s proposals or propose alternatives, and vote on issues themselves or by proxy (someone else vote’s for them).

Here’s how it works:

Any member can propose policy. For the proposal to be taken to a revision period, it needs to gather 10 percent quorum within a certain amount of time. Once in the revision period, any member can set up an alternative proposal and over the next few weeks members vote up or down on the available proposals until a winner emerges. The voting is where it gets interesting. A member can decide to vote individually on an issue, but it would be a daunting task to read and go through every policy paper available.

Liquid feedback allows you to give your vote to someone you trust would vote on your side of the issue. Additionally, the person you delegate your vote to can also give his vote, along with all of his votes, to someone else. Very quickly, people could gain a lot of voters and hence a lot of power, but the system allows members to reclaim their votes at any given time, so if someone wants to keep their voters, they need to keep constantly working for them. “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them,” says Ingo Bormuth, the spokesman for the Berlin Pirate Party.

Liquid Feedback allows members to delegate their votes in three ways. Global delegation is where members give their vote to a representative on every issue. The second is subject delegation, where people give their vote on specific subjects only, like health or education. The last one is issue delegation, where a member only entrusts another member with their vote on specific issues.

The software does have its limitations. In its mission statement, Liquid Feedback says it is an “online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision.” This means that the software is only intended to be used to decide on policy papers within a party, and is not meant to replace a legislative body’s core function. Germany’s Pirate Party is one of Liquid Feedback’s largest adopters. For now, the software is only used by the party to finalize position papers that then inform decisions at the party’s conventions. Some members would like to see it used to make decisions within the party, but for now, it seems the software is still in its trial period for the Pirate Party. This doesn’t mean only few users have tried out the platform. Almost 10,000 pirates are LQFB members. Yet for now, use of the platform is limited to condensing results and bringing them to a vote at the party’s convention.

There also seems to be a small tech literacy barrier. As is typical of open-source software, the interface and user experience are far from award-winning. Political science professor, Christophe Bieber, says the interface may be “seen as ‘nerdy or geeky’ by many new recruits, especially when compared with the familiar mechanisms of wikis and collaborative text editors. It has an interface only a developer could love”. If Germany, with a high digital literacy might find it a little challenging to gather participants, countries with low digital literacy might be long ways away from adopting such technology.

German Pirate Party Logo

In a NY Times op-ed, Steve Kettmann wrote that on some level, Liquid Feedback “is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is,” Kettmann writes, “ it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.” Simon Weiss, a Pirate politician in the Berlin Parliament is more sceptical of the idea that the platform might be attracting voters. Weiss says that while the average person might know the Pirate Party is a grassroots movement with a strong internet presence, many are still unfamiliar about LIquid Feedback.

If Liquid Feedback did draw in a crowd, it didn’t last. Last month, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, reported that the party’s popularity had sunk from 13% to 3% in polls, and four out of five Germans do not believe the party will gain the 5% vote necessary to gain a seat in German parliament. If Liquid Feedback did attract young audiences a year ago, it seems the hype was not sustained through this year and the Pirate Party has major issues to address.

Whether this platform can scale or not is difficult to say, and we might have to wait to see more results. Christophe Bieber says the data on the system’s performance remains scarce, so it might be too early to tell. Simone Weiss says Liquid Feedback has always been “intended as a prototype for a future version of democracy” and they are currently experimenting with it themselves. But Liquid Feedbacks problems might be evident already. By October 2012, Der Spiegel wrote “In North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, the Pirate Party’s parliamentarians have used the software to gather general opinions on just two issues so far. A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed …  20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants. It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.” It seems that we cannot know for certain whether the software can scale or not because we have not seen a large enough participation by LQFB members to know for sure.

Democratizing Lawmaking
While no new technology has made it really possible to democratize lawmaking at a large scale, people have certainly been trying. Liquid Feedback isn’t the only software trying to democratize political processes and lawmaking. Germany’s federal parliament is using Adhocracy for a commission on digital policy and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been another similar platform for its party think tank.

Liquid Feedback and M5S
In the latter half of last year, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) decided to adopt the platform in response to criticism on its lack of internal democracy. Because M5S has a much larger representation in Italy’s senate and chamber of deputies than the Pirate Party does in it’s own country, we might see much wider adoption of the platform in Italy than in Germany. Here is where we might see whether the platform can scale. The issue of security might prove to be the bottleneck in the scaling process. In order to ensure that a person can’t create multiple accounts, vote more than once, or cheat the system, people have to go through a verification process before they are allowed to join. The M5S movement has tens of thousands of members, and verifying all of them and allowing them all to participate in discussions might be a huge undertaking.

MoVimento 5 Stelle Logo

However, the platform has been already adopted at a regional level. Recently, the M5S chapters from the regions of Lombardy and Sicily were able to elect candidates for the presidency using only Liquid Feedback. So far few issues are being discussed in the Lombardy and Sicilian Liquid Feedback portals, presidential candidates being the major one (although the Lazio LQFB seems a bit more active). Yet the platform is still in its infancy and given the success in its ability to chose candidates online, we might expect more issues to be brought up via LQFB.

Online platforms that attempt to democratize political processes such as policy making are still in their infancy. Liquid Feedback is only one such experiment and we can expect to be hearing more of it in the news in the coming years. While it’s shortcomings won’t necessarily mean its demise, if Liquid Feedback doesn’t evolve to solve the challenges of security, scalability, and user experience, then it might end up fading away with all its promises of liquid democracy.

You can try out a test version of Liquid Feedback here and browse the Pirate Party’s version here. For a full list of M5S instances of LQFB, click here.

The Internet vs. The Cartels: Social Media Use in Mexico’s Drug War

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Note: This post was made for Clay Shirky’s Political Uses of Social Media class at ITP. It references a couple of documents that the class read for class, but I tried to write this as a self-contained post for those who have not read some of these articles (although they are all linked).

This a brief overview of the use of social media in Mexico and its role in the Mexican Drug War. I will start with a bit of background on how the situation got to where it is, and how the use of social media has evolved throughout the years. There have been several major events that are worth noting which serve to paint a general picture of the role of social media in Mexico during this time of crisis. I will also discuss how the social movements against the cartels and the cartels themselves fit into Jennifer Earl’s Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes. Finally, I will look at some possibilities for more effective action by the social movements in Mexico.

Drug cartels have been present in Mexico for several decades, but it wasn’t until President Felipe Calderón, who vowed to wage a war against the cartels, took office in 2006, that the violence became commonplace around the country. There is some debate as to exactly why drug violence rose dramatically during the Calderón years, but most people believe that Calderon’s strategy of eliminating high-ranking cartel members created a power struggle– for control over the organization or over territory–among the different cartels that caused the cartels to become considerably more aggressive. Of course, much of the violence and it’s spilling onto the streets also resulted from the mere fact of sending in thousands of armed forces into cities and towns to wage a war against powerful criminal organizations.

For the first couple of years, traditional news sources such as newspapers would follow the quotidian routine of reporting the horrendous violence on the streets. However, journalists remained unprotected, and the cartels started threatening, and even killing, reporters who wrote about the violence or who tried to expose information the cartels wished to keep secret (a full report on killed or missing journalists is available from the Center to Protect Journalists). Newspapers started to self-censor. In September, 2010, El Diario de Juárez, the largest newspaper from the most violent city, published an op-ed declaring that it had decided to self-censor after the killing of two of it’s journalists. “We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.” the op-ed read. And the trend continued; journalists were threatened or killed, newspapers self-censored, and sometimes even newspaper offices were attacked.

Density Plot of Reporters Killed/Disappeared During the Mexican Drug War

It seems there has been a decline since 2010. Could it be there is less threat to reporters because less reporters are reporting about the violence?

The bloggers started early on (Twitter had not caught on yet). It’s difficult to trace these blogs since some don’t exist anymore, but others are still around. The “first” Blog Del Narco was hosted on Blogspot and started in May, 2008 and remained very active (publishing 1,500+ posts) for about 2.5 years. Just as this blog’s activity began dwindling* (see footnote), the now famous Blog del Narco (BDN) appeared (same name, not related).  Although it’s hard to confirm their motivations since most bloggers remain anonymous, it is believed that these blogs were a response to the media’s self-censorship. Last month, the blogger for BDN agreed to an interview by The Guardian and the Texas Observer, in which she revealed she was a woman in her mid-20’s living somewhere north Mexico. Lucy (as she has nicknamed herself), with the help from a colleague who handles the tech, has posted more than 7,800 posts about the cartels during her 3-year blogging career. She has received multiple death threats from the cartels and has also been accused of spreading the cartel’s message and is therefore also wanted by the police. BDN has since acquired a huge following (3M hits/month) and has become indispensable reading when it comes to narco-news. Lucy sees herself and her work as necessary to fill the void left by the censored media. “If it wasn’t for the blog often bodies wouldn’t be identified”, she says.

But it hasn’t been easy for the bloggers. In 2011, the Zeta cartel started cracking down on those who reported the group’s activities. On September of that year, two people were disemboweled and hung from a bridge by the Zetas with a message warning anyone who decided to blog about their activities. Days later, another blogger was decapitated and left with a similar message. A month later, a fourth blogger. Years later in her interview, Lucy would reveal that some of those bloggers were regular contributors. Since those four killings, there hasn’t been much news about dead bloggers, but the threats nonetheless continue.

Then came the interesting case of Anonymous. I want to add a caveat that there is no way to know if all of this information is 100% true, but this is the widely accepted story of how things went down. During the summer of 2011, the Mexican faction of the loose hacktivist collective Anonymous launched Operation PaperStorm. Anonymous believed that the Veracruz state government was protecting the Zetas while prosecuting those who tweeted about kidnappings (more on this later). After (or perhaps in response to) PaperStorm, a member of Anonymous was kidnapped by the Zetas. Anonymous responded by threatening to release vital information concerning the Zetas cartel if the victim was not released by November 5th. In response, unconfirmed reports suggest that the Zetas recruited computer specialists to try to identify the Anonymous members behind the threat. This digital standoff could’ve been devastating to both groups. The release of such information could have potentially been dangerous to the Zetas cartel, especially in the hands of rival cartels, while the lives of the Anonymous members were at stake if their identities were revealed. As a result of the deadly threat, many Anonymous members denied involvement and disassociated themselves with those who wanted to go forward with the threat. On November 4th, the kidnapped victim was released and the Zetas threatened to kill 10 people for every name released by Anonymous. Both parties backed down.

The Zetas cartel operates as a clandestine operation. Their attacks on bloggers and news media reveal a strategy to control information in order to remain unidentified to ensure the group can continue to operate with impunity. This control of information runs counter to the beliefs of Anonymous, which believes information should be free and decentralized. It was only a matter of time before these two groups collided. The threat of having information about the cartel released posed a great threat to the Zetas’ operations (the information supposedly contained names of members, bribed officials, and messengers). Since Anon operates as a loose collective, a lot of its members were able to disassociate from the attack, leaving Anonymous more susceptible to the Zetas. The fact that these two non-state actors can operate illicitly on the internet is also interesting. Since both groups operate outside of the law, the Mexican government had no choice but to sit back and watch the whole duel unfold. This presents a relatively new dynamic where private actors coerce against each other while remaining relatively undisturbed by a state actor. This confrontation reveals, at least in Mexico, the inability of the government to control their cyberspace and the inability of the government to protect its netizens. Much of these ideas I have presented about the Anon-Zetas standoff come from an article written by Paul Rexton Kan for the Yale Journal of International Affairs. It is extremely interesting, and I suggest you read it.

In his article, Kan presents several interesting and unanswered questions that result from this incident. Kan asks if either groups are aware of a scenario of mutually assured destruction (MAD), where they could both inflict an unacceptable amount of damage to each other. If they are both aware of this MAD scenario, would this deter them from attacking each other again? Since Anonymous is a loose collective, could there be a case where a small faction of the group dissents and decides to attack the Zetas again? With the Zetas gaining technical know-how, will they be able to uncover the identities of Anon? One sure take-away from this conflict is that this type of cyber war undermines the legitimacy of the Mexican government’s authority in cyberspace (and in the offline world as well).

As blogging became increasingly dangerous and more time-intensive, the rest of the netizens took to Twitter. Instead of focusing on denouncing cartel activities, people began using Twitter as a platform to warn people of dangerous situations. The shootouts among cartels and Mexican forces that were so commonplace in Mexico became known as “Risk Situations” (SDR, Situación de Riesgo). Over time people adopted a system of reporting that included city-specific hashtags. If you wanted to monitor SDR’s in Monterrey, you would follow #MTYfollow. Or #ReynosaFollow for Reynosa, etc. Eventually, “social media curators” became beacons for warnings of SDR’s. Andres Monroy-Hernandez, et al. at Microsoft Research has written a great paper on the emergence of these curators, which spend long hours of the day monitoring hashtags and receiving information about SDR’s so that they can relay important information to their followers. Just like the bloggers, these curators say they have stepped up to the plate to be part of the “citizen network to protect and provide tips about civic safety, to avoid becoming victims of crime.”

Facebook pages, such as Valor Por Tamaulipas (VXT), with similar functions as the Twitter curators have sprung up as well. However, just like some blogs, VXT has been threatened. A few months ago, an unknown criminal group posted a $49,000 reward to any information leading to the identity of the VXT admin. Despite the threats, the admin has decided to continue posting. While bloggers and Facebook page admins receive threats, Twitter seems to have been relatively unfazed by the cartels threats. As long as the cartels (or any criminal group) can identify a single person responsible for reporting, they can threaten that person’s life. Since there are hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, the cartels have no way of effectively threatening the Twitter community. This might indicate that in order to launch a relatively safe social media strategy against the cartels, you would need the power of numbers. As one blogger said, “They can’t kill us all.” So far, Twitter information is mostly used to warn about risk situations and not so much to report specific activities from cartels, which might also explain the general disinterest of the cartels towards the use of Twitter. Unfortunately, Twitter is not always as great as it is hyped up to be. In August, 2011 a Twitter user from the state of Veracruz wrote “#verfollow I confirm that in the school ‘Jorge Arroyo’ in the Carranza neighborhood 5 kids were kidnapped, armed group, panic in the zone”. Almost immediately, there was panic all over the city. As a result, the state government tried to prosecute those who tweeted false information (one of the reasons Anon launched Operation PaperStorm). The whole debacle ended making the state government look ridiculous for attempting to label Twitter users as terrorists. This incident does illustrates how difficult it is to trust information from Twitter. The larger and the more anonymous that your network of reporters gets, the less reliable your information becomes. This has been one of the main problems of reporting drug war violence through Twitter almost since its inception. Because people’s reputation is not at stake like it is for a news organization like the New York Times, people have weak motivations to ensure they are providing accurate information. This seems to be the trade-off: a safe and large network with a high incidence of unverifiable and uncurated information, or a small, vulnerable network (often a network of one or two curators) with more reliable information.

In Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes, Jennifer Earl refines the theory of repression to include a larger set of variables that have been left out in previous repression studies. She uses three dimensions of repression: the identity of the repressive agent, the repressive action, and whether the action is observable. In our case, we could treat the cartels as the repressive agent and the social media movements or organizations–let’s call them concerned netizens– as the repressed. Under Earl’s ‘Dimensions of Repression‘ (Earl’s terms italicized), the cartels are private agents, who through observable action use coercion. I argue that the cartels’ actions are observable because while we may not know the perpetrator (an unidentifiable agent), the actions are highly visible as exemplified by the accompaniment of written messages with dead bodies, usually as a warning to enemies, and in this case, to the concerned netizens. Earl then argues that some of the combinations to these three dimensions need to be addressed by future research. Research on the threat of observed coercion by private agents, according to Earl, is insufficient.

Yet it’s not that research on the dynamic between the cartels and the concerned netizens is insufficient, our case simply does not fit into any of her approaches to repression. In short, her approaches to repression describe how a private or state actor would react towards a movement depending on certain characteristics of the movement. For example, movements that are weak and threatening will be major targets of repression. The problem is that the cartels simply do not share the same concerns as a state or regular private actor would, mainly because the cartels operate outside of the law and they do not have to be accountable to any constituents. Any threat to the cartels will be met with coercion. The cartels do not need to worry about political opportunities, timing issues, or law-enforcement characteristics, they are free to act as they wish and remain mostly undisturbed by consequences.

I wanted to conclude by providing few ideas (borrowed from Beautiful Trouble) to reflect on. However, when going through the book, I found that most of the tactics, principles, and theories could not be applied to the cartels. The main problem can be exemplified by a short phrase I found in the book: “accountability is what gives democracy it’s bite”. Unfortunately, we’re not dealing with a force that responds to a democratic system, much less a force that has any accountability whatsoever to anyone except its own members, so how can you encourage collective action against such a violent force when the cost of participating is so high? I realize that the class is called “Political Uses of Social Media” and not “Uses of Social Media Against the Cartels”, but it is worth looking at how the theories we have seen in class might apply to this situation. Yet I think the best thing to do is to direct action toward the government. I am not suggesting that people stop blogging or tweeting about crime. Making information public is a way of showing the government’s inability to overpower criminal organizations and a way of holding the government accountable for their deficiencies.  The risk of engaging against the cartels–as Anonymous did–is just too high. The Mexican government is the institution which can be held accountable, and they are the only force large enough to stop this other tremendous force (I use ‘force’ loosely, not advocating for more war). By acting against the government, all the models and theories we have learned in class make sense. We can apply a wide range of tactics to demand change from the government. After all protesting and demanding change is what Mexicans do best.



* stopped posting on Sept. 2010. After a long hiatus, this blogger finally posted again on April 4, 2013: “I wasn’t dead, I was partying. Say what you want, this is the original Blog del Narco”. The timing with the release of ‘Lucy’s’ interview suggests this post was a reaction to ‘Lucy’s” new fame.

Mexican Gov’t Tries to Buy $10M App, Coders Respond by Building It For Free

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

A few weeks ago, Grupo Reforma reported* the Mexican Chamber of Deputies had signed a contract with an external consulting firm, Pulso Legislativo, to develop a mobile application that would allow Representatives to monitor and publish up-to-date legislative information from their mobile devices for the outrageous sum of about $10 million dollars ($115 million pesos). Making matters worse, was the fact that the Chamber of Deputies wanted to develop this app despite the fact that they already have four main agencies that generate the app’s information, five research centers, and three offices in charge of documentation.

How did the members of the Mexican tech community respond? They created a week-long hackathon and got coders to build an open-source version of the app, for free. The group Codeando Mexico responded to this ludicrous news by setting up the #app115 challenge to which over 160 coders signed up to participate. Tomorrow, Codeando Mexico will present five app submissions at the Legislative Palace of San Lázaro, the same building where the Deputies hold their sessions. For information on tomorrow’s event click here.

Other than ridiculing the Chamber of Deputies who thinks it can get away with trying to buy a $10 million dollar app (not sure if that was actually their intention), Codeando México is trying to highlight the importance of civic participation. It is unfortunate that the government has not yet realized the importance of engaging its citizenry, an effort which might help bridge the gap between the citizens and their representatives (and potentially save a lot of money). Hopefully initiatives like Codeando Mexico will gather more attention in the near future. I would love to see more coders getting together on a Saturday night and coding “over some tequilas”.

 *Linked to different article, Grupo Reform has a paywall.

Update: To read more about this, Eric Tecayehuatl, has covered this on Gizmodo (In Spanish).