By Beatrice Loayza
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Electronic media — that is, anything that ranges from independent online news publications to social media platforms such as Twitter — are taking Mexico by storm.
As younger, tech-savvy generations champion the global technology revolution, Mexican society and political culture has seen a fundamental, qualitative change in the way people communicate, coordinate, and learn about the developments around them and elsewhere around the world.
Citizens armed with Smartphones and other modern technologies can quickly divulge the latest scandals and political happenings, leaving corrupt politicians and privileged class elites vulnerable to the whims of powerful dissemination tactics, such as Twitter’s “hashtag” and “retweet” functions.
Electronic media has also empowered the everyday Mexican citizen to fill the gaps left by journalists and lawmen in areas where drug cartels reign supreme, or in situations where the government limits the freedom of the press.
Furthermore, given the explosion of interactive and innovative political outlets surrounding the #YoSoy132 movement in 2011, Mexican political discourse has undergone a process of pivotal democratization. Traditional, hierarchical media are being increasingly displaced by hybridized, horizontal news sources that encourage interaction with the public.
Such changes in electronic media are crucial for the development of an interactive, informed civil society in Mexico. Despite some challenges posed by the country’s limited technological infrastructure and the government’s troublesome control of the media, the incorporation of electronic media into social and political life is giving new authority to the voiceless of Mexican society.
Bringing Social Injustices to Light
In September of 2011, two highly intoxicated women physically and verbally attacked a police officer in Polanco, a posh area of Mexico City. Enraged at being pulled over, the two women abused the police officer and drove away free of penalties.
In the following days, however, the infamous “Ladies de Polanco” made national headlines when a bystander’s video of the scene was posted on YouTube. Far from the publicity they might have hoped to achieve, the “Ladies” provoked widespread public outrage.
The scandal represented something beyond the conventional money bribes used to avoid speeding tickets; it showed a pervasive hierarchical culture that allows Mexican elites to conduct themselves in a way that is vulgar and belittling to others.
On Twitter, the “Ladies” (and “Gentlemen”) hash tag has become a means, still in use today, of branding Mexican elites. Earlier this year, Andrea Benítez, daughter of Humberto Benítez, the former head of the Mexican consumer protection agency, Profeco, caused a major national scandal when she demanded that her father’s subordinates shut down a restaurant at which she had been denied a table.
When her demands were adhered to, Twitter hash tags branding her as “LadyProfeco” spread like wildfire with outraged responses and demands for Mr. Benítez to be dismissed.
Social media outlets provide a glimpse into the glamorous and privileged life of the upper class — namely the politicians, celebrities, and other class elites of Mexican society. Moreover, the rapid expansion of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube unveils corruption to the public at an unprecedented rate, resulting in a populace that is becoming increasingly fed up with the conduct of the entitled few.
Now, unlike ever before, the revelations by social media of unseemly elite behavior are creating new mechanisms of accountability. Politicians and other members of the upper class are forced to answer to the public and, oftentimes, face serious consequences.
These include dismissal from public office, which was the case for Mr. Benítez, and hefty fines and court hearings, which was the case for the “Ladies.”
In a nation that maintains one of the highest income gaps in the world, the use of social media as a means of bringing the unjustifiable extravagance and social allowances of elites to the public eye is an essential step forward in uprooting the corrupt practices that underlie Mexican society.
A Network of Solidarity
Violent crimes and ruthless killings by drug cartels are a staple of life in Mexico, and growing numbers of civilians have been killed. Thousands of citizens have been caught in the crossfire of turf wars between the cartels and a war against the government, ever since former president Felipe Calderon deployed the Mexican military to fight the cartels in 2006.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 60,000 people were killed in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. Fortunately, electronic media platforms are providing the average civilian with tools that inform, and even manage to protect, against the life-threatening conditions posed by drug cartel activity.
In cities particularly affected by violence, such as Monterrey, Reynoso, Saltillo, and Veracruz, Twitter keeps civilians alerted as to what locations may be dangerous. According to Microsoft.com analysts, approximately half a dozen Twitter accounts have been identified as vital sources that track drug war activity.
These accounts, which also come in the form of Facebook pages (Valor por Tamaulipas) and independent blogs (Blog del Narco), have become much-needed contributions to the popular struggle against drug cartel violence.
Perhaps the service these media outlets provide can in part account for the drop in the murder rate between 2011 and 2012. This is particularly true in Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico’s most violence-ridden cities, where the rate saw an unprecedented 60 percent decrease that year.
The emergence of electronic media platforms as a source of crime reporting is particularly important because the traditional media has for the most part stopped reporting on organized crime.
According to Duncan Woods, Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center (a think tank based in Washington, D.C.), “the electronic media plays a big role in getting an image of what the state of things are like in [certain areas]. It is crucial that somebody is out there doing that because any such formal coverage is lacking.”
Journalists are often too frightened to report on organized crime activity because of the frequent threats, scare tactics, and increasingly, the public executions used by cartel members against crime reporters. Yet intimidation is not only used by drug cartel criminals, but also by corrupt law-enforcement officials.
In a Vice interview with Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, the Proceso and Reporte Indigo writer spoke about the various threats she received from the corrupt officials whose pasts she had been investigating.
Since 2011, Hernández has had pistols pointed at her daughters’ heads, and her sources of information have been tortured and killed in attempts to silence her and her pen. Due to these experiences, she has sought the protection of Mexico’s Journalist Protection Program, the Secretary of the Interior, and the district attorney’s office in Mexico City.
Hernández notes that the only real benefit she has received from any Mexican ministry is a 24-hour bodyguard service, which was suspended this June. For Hernández, efforts to defend freedom of expression in Mexico are best exemplified by the practices of the Journalist Protection Program, which in her words, “are nothing more than the appearance of concern” and a “means to save face internationally.”
Given the inability of the Mexican government to protect its traditional journalists from violent censorship, the distinct quality of new media to disseminate information anonymously has allowed electronic sources to replace traditional journalistic practices, carving a new role for independent, often amateur journalism.
According to Genaro Lozano, Director of Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, and moderator of SinFiltro TV, a Mexican political program, new media reports can be more accountable and accurate than official news sources because of the ability for users “on-the-ground” to corroborate information.
In particular, I remember one case in the state of Veracruz last year. A Twitter user started a rumor saying that a drug gang was attacking an elementary school in Veracruz. The rumor went viral on Twitter and some traditional media reported it as a fact in their websites.
A few hours later, some Twitter users who were next to the school posted pictures saying that nothing was going on and the rumor quickly ceased. The same goes for activists who have been reported as disappeared but then, by using Facebook or Twitter, their whereabouts were known.
In Mexico, where reporting is stunted by both criminal and political forces, electronic media has become a unique informant for community security and civil society, as well as a transformative element of information dissemination today.
A New Electronic Civil Society
Since the late 1990’s, when Zapatista sympathizers used websites, email lists, and “hacktivism” (tactics used to clog servers and websites) in order to expand the global support network and fundraise for the otherwise geographically marginalized resistance group, electronic media has continued to play a positive role for grassroots political action in Mexico.
In the lead up to the 2012 presidential elections, a movement spearheaded by Mexico’s youth and student body emerged and sparked a popular upheaval calling for media accountability in politics.
This campaign, referred to as the #YoSoy132 movement, culminated in the first ever democratically-organized presidential debate—a historic two-hour event broadcast on YouTube that drew in approximately 112,000 viewers.
Though many critics dismissed #YoSoy132 as a crusade against current President Enrique Peña Nieto (who, coincidentally, was the only candidate at the time not to attend the debate), at a more fundamental level, the movement arose in response to the traditional media’s biased election coverage.
Ultimately, its efforts have left a legacy for the use of electronic media as a legitimate political platform. Electronic media has facilitated the rise of independent news sources such as Animal Político, and other tools for the education of Mexico’s civil society such as Arena Electoral, a web-based resource that provides unbiased information about the election campaign.
Moreover, the increased use of electronic media, and its rapid rate of diffusion, has transformed political discourse and culture by bringing a broader, more informed audience into the arena, particularly by rejuvenating youth interest in Mexican politics.
Of the various media offshoots surrounding the Yo Soy 132 movement, Arena Electoral and México Evalúa are two particularly important developments in political information dissemination.
Arena Electoral, a project created with money from the National Endowment for Democracy, provided an online resource available about a year before the 2012 elections, to which people could go to learn and access reliable information about each individual candidate, their campaigns, and policy platforms.
In order to guide users, Arena Electoral also includes rankings for each candidate’s policies in different areas like foreign policy, education, and state reform that are determined by a group of experts and professors in each respective field.
México Evalúa is an interactive think tank focused on evaluating and monitoring government operations and policies. What sets it apart from other research agencies, however, is its use of live-streaming, video, and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as a means of informing its audience.
Furthermore, its publications are all accessible to the public, but in reality, only those with access to the Internet. Duncan Wood spoke about the tangible benefits of a political resource such as México Evalúa:
[México Evalúa] provides sources of information which weren’t available before. It was taking the kind of conversation you hear around a dinner table on a Wednesday night in Mexico City with a group of intellectuals, and making it public. And it’s not about having to stay up till midnight to watch some arcane political talk show — everybody can go on [México Evalúa] at any time, because everything is archived, and read it.
Certainly, these new sources of political information are an invaluable contribution to the development of a more educated civil society in Mexico. Ironically, México Evalúa, Arena Electoral, and the enormously popular online and independent news source Animal Politico are quite expensive projects. In the end, electronic and social media initiatives work best when they are substantially backed by money.
Positive Trends Within the Privileged Minority
According to social media tracking companies, 65 percent, or 30.3 million Internet users in Mexico use some sort of social media outlet as of 2012, accounting for a higher percentage of the population than in most other countries with low Internet access.
Yet a major limitation for the expansion of a broader “new media” community is the expensive cost of broadband connectivity and uneven infrastructure across Mexico. As of 2012, 25.6 million of 30.6 million Internet users over the age of 6 live in urban areas, according to the Mexican Internet Association (AMIPCI).
On a broader scale, approximately 36 percent of Mexico’s population of 112 million people has Internet access in the first place. This can be attributed largely to Telmex, Mexico’s dominant telecommunications company. Telmex’s monopoly of the telecommunications sector and its focus on private interests has directed efforts toward providing services to Mexico City and other urban areas — neglecting rural areas with less economic potential.
Since 2009, the Mexican Congress has attempted to address the digital divide and has launched a multi-million dollar initiative to furnish areas considered unprofitable with broadband connection systems. Furthermore, in 2011, the Federal Competition Commission (CFC) sought to curtail the Telmex monopoly and fined the corporate giant $7.9 million USD for denying an offer by a subsidiary telecommunications company to join its network.
Unfortunately, both of these efforts have amounted to little today; the government’s campaign to expand the Internet to rural regions has had marginal results at best. Likewise, the CFC’s bold fine against Telmex was revoked a few months after the initial ruling. Political pressure and low economic incentives trumped the promotion of Internet and communication technologies to areas in need.
This past June, the Mexican Congress signed a sweeping telecommunications reform into law. In response to the widespread criticism of the government’s history of disappointing “solutions,” this new reform follows a stricter two-pronged approach.
The reform aims to (1) improve infrastructure and (2) establish an all-encompassing policy framework for the telecommunications sector and a new regulatory body, the Federal Institute of Telecommunications (IFETEL), to oversee compliance.
Although activism has played a major role in the passage of this new legislation, Animal Político columnist, Gerardo Esquivel, points out that increasing the number of competitors within the telecom market does not necessarily translate into better conditions for competition.
Furthermore, Esquivel notes that the role of IFETEL gives the Mexican government certain political and administrative leverage over the participants entering this newly revamped telecom market — clout that could potentially hinder the development of a more powerful and independent media.
Nevertheless, almost two months into the passage of the supposedly landmark reform, tangible effects are yet to be felt, particularly with regard to its goal of connecting more Mexican citizens to the Internet.
A Worrisome Dependence
As mentioned, even Animal Político, one of the most celebrated news sources, relies on official advertising. According to Genaro Lozano, official advertising or “propaganda of public programs, along with political party advertising,” has been one of the most lucrative sources of advertising revenue for most of Mexico’s media.
This past April, Fundar, a Mexican think tank, and Article 19, an NGO that studies freedom of expression in Mexico, issued their second annual report on government influence over advertisers called “Publicidad Oficial.”
The report reveals that the government has set aside a major part of its budget for official advertising. More disturbingly, the transfer of these funds goes through no transparency or accountability mechanisms.
In short, the government can fund specific media sources without needing to specify or justify its decision, a process that can severely impact the content of news coverage and limit the autonomy of the independent media—both traditional and electronic.
Mexico has long had a severe trust problem. As a result of the enormous corruption within both the government and the traditional media, older generations of conservatives have developed skepticism towards numerous organizations and sources of various sizes and capacities.
Yet the success of projects like Arena Electoral and the increased use of new media platforms such as Twitter as tools against crime and political corruption is indicative of a positive change in Mexican social and political culture.
Considering the preeminence of the youth component, best exemplified by the #YoSoy132 movement, it can be said that the politically conscious and technologically capable new generation is crucial for the democratic expansion of a more informed and active society in Mexico.
Beatrice Loayza is Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. This post originally appeared on the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.