Drug cartels and gangs are fans of social media. At first, this might seem odd, even counter-intuitive. After all, organized crime thrives in the shadows, away from the public gaze. Traditionally, they invested heavily in reducing their public profile. The Internet is changing all that.
In fact, some of the world's most ruthless narco-cartels are active users of various digital platforms. Mexico's Sinaloa cartel's Twitter account has more than 34,000 followers. A gang called the Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, has over 40,000 likes on Facebook and communicates with its members across the Americas online.
The content of their sites is sadly predictable. It tends to be a combination of girls, guns and gore. They glorify narco-cultura with its trappings of fast cars, tigers, and gold-plated assault rifles. They use the net to threaten rivals, sell their product, communicate instructions, and recruit new members.
While cartels and gangs have been around for generations, they are expanding their power, prestige and profits in cyberspace. In the process, violence is going virtual, with some groups targeting bloggers, snitches and competitors. There's also been an uptick in kidnappings of software engineers and programmers as organized crime groups reinforce their digital capabilities.
The explosion of online activity by cartels and gangs is not just resulting in more killings. It is also undermining basic freedoms, including the independence of the press. They are generating a chilling or self-censoring effect on news media from across Mexico as well as Central and South America. More than 50 journalists were assassinated in Mexico over the past decade, with citizen journalists prominently among them.
More positively, citizens are also fighting back online and off. They are using their networks to curate and disseminate information to protect themselves. A good example of this are so-called narco-tweets: new research suggests that about 1.5% of all Mexicans have tweeted about the drug war – or almost 5% of the country´s online population.
Likewise, self-defense groups are also rising up against cartels and their associates. Entities such as the militia organization Valor por Michoacan, for example, have targeted another narco cartel group called the Knights Templar. Valor had over 184,000 followers on Facebook before being taken offline (though retains an active Twitter account).
So what do all these developments tell us? For one, they are a reminder of the ways in which social media are being absorbed into the battlefield. They also reveal how citizens are fighting back and using social media to improve their decision-making, organize themselves, and even strike back against those who would do them harm.
Citizen journalists and digital collectives are heavily outgunned. The tech sector can and should help create ways to empower the voiceless to speak out and communicate without fear and intimidation. This means creating safe spaces to share verified information anonymously. Doing this well is a design challenge that itself generates new challenges about free speech, rights of expression, and personal protection in the digital ecosystem.