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As Drug War Rages, Tweets Reveal Mexicans’ Emotional Numbness

Tweets from citizens on the front lines of the country’s conflicts with drug cartels indicate desensitization to the growing violence


War correspondence, in 140 characters or less: This 2007 photo depicts Mexican soldiers detaining cartel suspects in the country's Michoacán State.
Courtesy of Diego Fernández/Agencia de Fotografía AP México, via Wikimedia Common

As Mexican drug cartels have grown in power over the past several years, their ascent has sparked a sharp increase in murders and kidnappings. The physical toll in several areas of the country is staggering: An estimated 100,000 people are dead or missing, caught up in fighting among the cartels, government forces and recently formed paramilitary groups trying to control the drug gangs in regions where local police have proved ineffective. The emotional impact of the prolonged violence is more difficult to quantify, a situation worsened by targeted violence against many of the country’s news outlets reporting on the drug war.
 
A team of researchers seeking to better understand the mental state of Mexicans exposed to the ongoing conflict has turned to social media as an end run around the country’s embattled mainstream media. Their findings indicate a growing level of desensitization to the violence among a certain segment of the population, in this case users of the microblogging service Twitter.
 
Mexicans who wanted to report their experiences initially turned to social media to circumvent a state-imposed media blackout designed to mask the country’s problems to the rest of the world, says Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a researcher in Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs. “I found I was getting more information from Twitter about what was really happening than I was from newspapers and TV news,” he adds.
 
Monroy-Hernández—along with colleagues at Microsoft and the University of California, Irvine—has been covering Twitter’s rise as a reporting tool in war-torn regions of Mexico for the past few years. A 2012 study with fellow Microsoft researchers entitled “Narcotweets: Social Media in Wartime” analyzed Mexican microblogging as an alternative to newspapers and TV stations unwilling or unable to portray actual conditions in the country. A second paper—“The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare”—followed last year and focused on citizen curators who had taken to aggregating and disseminating crucial information to Mexican citizens via social media. They warned locals to avoid certain dangerous areas during daily travel to and from work, for example.
 
Monroy-Hernández and his team will present their latest work— “‘Narco’ Emotions: Affect and Desensitization in Social Media during the Mexican Drug War”—on May 1 at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto. This research covers August 2010 to December 2012 and pays particular attention to specific words included in tweets from purported eyewitnesses of drug-cartel-related violence and its aftermath in four war-torn Mexican towns, including Monterrey, Reynosa, Saltillo and Veracruz.
 
The researchers chose this time frame because it was a two-year period during which violence was on the rise in these areas. They were also able to obtain government data on homicide rates for that period that they could check against the anecdotal information retrieved from numerous Twitter feeds. The researchers used the government data as well as anonymous accounts posted to the “Blog del Narco”—which published graphic details of violence in different Mexican cities—to cross-reference information presented in the tweets they studied. The blog was subsequently shut down when its owner was threatened and forced to flee the country.
 
“Narco Emotions” looks at the use of colloquial “narco language”—words that are either new or repurposed to describe gruesome events. These include “encobijado,” “encajuelado” and “encintado,” names given to those killed in drug-related violence based on how their body was found, whether wrapped in a blanket, stuffed in a car trunk or suffocated in packing tape.
 
The researchers chose three parameters—negative affect, activation and dominance—to identify desensitization among tweeters. Negative affect broadly signifies the degree of an undesirable emotion, with the word “sad,” for example, indicating a higher measure of negative affect than the word “bored.” Activation is a metric for understanding the intensity of an emotion—the word “infuriated” ranks higher in activation than does the word “frustrated.” Dominance, meanwhile, represents the controlling power of an emotion. “Anger” is a dominant negative emotion whereas “fear”—although also negative—is a submissive reaction.
 
The language of the tweets studied expressed outrage and disbelief during the early part of the time period studied (that is, a rise in emotional arousal and dominance in Twitter posts). Over time, however, the language conveyed in these messages became toned down, resembling the way a person would describe more mundane problems, such as traffic, says Monroy-Hernández, a native of one of the regions studied. One tweet included in the study—translated to English—reads: “violent day yesterday in #monterrey leaves 5 executions <url> @milenio.”
 
“It’s scary to see [what’s happening] where I grew up and where my family lives,” Monroy-Hernández says. The researcher adds he has been shocked to learn that people are being hung or drowned in places he’d known and frequented as child.
 
Monroy-Hernández acknowledges several limitations of this most recent study. An estimated 35 percent of Mexicans are online, of which 82 percent use social media and 58 percent of that total use Twitter. Those who typically use Twitter and the mobile devices that access it have more money and higher levels of education and are unlikely to live in the most violent neighborhoods. The researchers also understand that the language used in tweets may simply reflect people adapting to life in a state of armed conflict—expressing themselves in a way that masks their true horror at what’s happening around them.
 
The researchers have since turned their attention to paramilitary groups, studying the emergence and organization of these groups on sites such as Facebook. Some citizens in Mexico’s Michoacán State, for example, have taken up arms and formed a militia to fight off the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, gang. Until recently social media messages have served primarily as an alert network, Monroy-Hernández says. Militias, however, are taking social media in a different direction—using Facebook pages as a call to action and a tool for recruiting new members.

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