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Dozens of students and faculty members assembled in a conference room on the top floor of Donald Bren Hall last Friday to explore the future of reporting in Mexico’s war torn drug cartel regions. Dr. Andres Monroy–Hernandez is a Mexican born researcher for Microsoft who graduated from Tec de Monterrey, a technical university in Monterrey, Mexico and received his Ph.D from the MIT Media Lab. The research that Hernandez presented dealt with the rise of life-saving independent reporting via Twitter. “Narcotweets: The Rise of Citizen News Reporting in Urban Warfare” shared with the crowd how Twitter is saving lives and is also causing havoc while Mexico is in crisis. It was only three years ago when we heard how social networking sites like Twitter were rallying thousands of people in Egypt and Tunisia. Hashtags helped assemble groups and pictures posted online, showing the world the organizational power of resistance and communication. Social media sites also helped lead the transformative movement against tyrannical governments during the Arab Spring. In Mexico’s hotbeds of cartel violence, Twitter is not a means to fight back, but a method of survival. Using Twitter to detour around conflicts, Tweets act as modern day air raid sirens. Residents living in contested cartel territory follow “curators,” fellow citizens on the ground who post and repost messages to their 30–40 thousand followers about “risky situations,” a code for live gun battles. For some residents of border cities like Nuevo Loredo and Ciudad Juarez, Twitter is like a traffic report in Los Angeles: it does not help prevent the traffic but helps you avoid running into it.

The crowd of students who usually worked on the infrastructure of technology like Twitter was amazed at how sites designed for socializing were saving lives just across the border. Andrew Malton, a computer science graduate student, accidently stumbled on the lecture and stayed after he saw the slides on the violence in Mexico. Malton said that what he enjoyed most about the visit by Dr. Hernandez was that he “describes how technology is actually helping people, because sometimes we get a little tunnel vision when we get busy with our work.”

Dr. Hernandez is working with his colleagues to better mobilize technology by designing a news page that would take the aggregate of curator information from different areas and compile it together for residents to utilize.

The new technical application that is being created by Hernandez is NewsPad, an experimental software for local news reporting by him and J. Nathan Matias, his Microsoft Research Fuse Labs partner. By advancing local news reporting abilities for those living in a war zone, innocent lives can be spared and news can actually be reported.

The corruption in Mexico is so thick that many local and federal law enforcement officers are employed by cartels that have no budgetary constraints, unlike the military whose budget is appropriated by congress. Journalists in those same Mexican localities face constant threats of death for reporting on Narco business. Reminders for journalists to remain silent can be found all over town as hangings and disemboweled bodies litter the city with the bodies of those who defied the orders of the Narcos. With journalists avoiding the war zones, Dr. Hernandez is equipping those living there with the technology to survive and share. With a near media blackout on the carnage and lack of investigative reporting on the Narco violence, putting the power of informatics in the hands of those corresponding with their fellow citizens is how many in these dangerous areas will avoid becoming a victim.

Marcel Pufal is a graduate student in the informatics discipline and was extremely pleased with how Twitter in this situation is “helping to build a positive identity for informatics….This presentation is informing me of the real world applications of what we do and how our technology helps people on the ground.”

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