The Mexican Drug Wars, on Twitter: Using Social Media for Social Action
How can social media be used to promote public safety? When does using media become dangerous? In this lesson, students examine how social media is being used by various factions in the Mexican drug wars and then draw comparisons to other examples where people have used social networks for other causes and actions. They then develop proposals for how digital media can be used to address an issue of concern.
Show students the interactive map “The Reach of Mexico’s Drug Cartels,” which shows where drug organizations operate in Mexico. As a class, briefly read through the descriptions of the drug cartels and the numbers of Mexican citizens that have been murdered at the hands of Mexican drug traffickers.
To familiarize students with how the cartels operate and flourish and the links between illicit drug use in the United States and Mexican drug operations, show the nine-minute “War Without Borders” video package. (Please preview the video, which includes some disturbing images, to determine its appropriateness for your class.)
Elicit student reactions to the video. Then have students write in response to the following prompt: What do you think it must be like to live in an area controlled by violent drug cartels? Imagine you are a resident of a town where drug cartels have threatened, terrorized and perhaps even killed people. How might the violent actions of drug cartels affect your daily life? How would it affect the things you do, what you think about or how you feel? How might you try to keep yourself and the people you love safe?
After a few minutes, have them share what they have written with a neighbor. As a class, discuss the following questions: When living under threat of violence, is it better to withdraw from the community to make yourself less conspicuous or to band together as a community to support each other or fight back? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach? Which is your first instinct? Is either approach risky or dangerous?
The article “As Gangs Move In on Mexico’s Schools, Teachers Say ‘Enough’” examines how drug trafficking cartels are terrorizing and extorting Mexican teachers and other citizens:
• Extortion is a booming industry in Mexico, with reported cases having almost tripled since 2004. To some analysts, it is an unintended consequence of the government’s strategy in the drug war: as the large cartels splinter, armies of street-level thugs schooled in threats and violence have brought their skills to new enterprises.
• But the threat to teachers here in this tarnished tourist resort has taken the practice to a new level. Since the anonymous threats began last month, when students returned to classes after summer break, hundreds of schools have shut down.
• "This isn’t about money, this is about life or death,” Alejandro Estrada, an elementary school teacher, said as he marched in protest with thousands of other teachers down Acapulco’s seafront boulevard last week. “If you don’t pay, you die.”
Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
1. What are “protection fees,” and why are so many Mexican citizens paying them to drug cartels?
2. Why are teachers not “suffering in silence” like so many others who have been terrorized by the drug cartels?
3. Why do some drug cartels think that extortion is bad for business?
4. Security analyst Eduardo Guerrero is quoted as saying “the violence is very difficult to stop once it crosses a threshold.” What does he mean by this? Why do you think this is?
5. One teacher is quoted as saying that those perpetrating the violence are “spreading a psychosis among the population.” What do you think he means by this? What do you imagine this psychosis looks like in communities terrorized by drug cartels? What do you think the students at the schools that have closed are doing now? What will happen to them?
The following activity is mostly focused on how social media has been used by different factions in the Mexican drug wars. If students need more background first, one place to start is the Times Topics page on Mexican Drug Trafficking, which includes a detailed overview of the problem as well as links to many articles and multimedia features.
When students have an adequate understanding of the problem, split the class into pairs and group the pairs into three groups, each of which receives one of the following three articles about how social media is being used in the Mexican drug wars by drug cartels, regular citizens, news media and law enforcement: “Mexico Turns to Twitter and Facebook for Information and Survival,” the Lede blog’s “In Mexico, Social Media Becomes a Battleground in the Drug War” and National Public Radio’s report “Mexican Drug Cartels Now Menace Social Media.”
Depending on class size, several pairs may read the same article. Tell students to read their assigned article, highlighting information about the use of social media in the Mexican drug wars: who is using social networks, how and why are they using them, what information they are disseminating and finding this way and how others have responded to their use of social media.
Have students share what they learned by inviting each pair who read the first article tell the rest of the class a key fact or quotation from the article or a conclusion they drew from reading it. Cycle through the pairs who read the first article until they have shared everything they learned. Then move to the second and third articles, and then discuss as a group, using the following questions to guide discussion:
What examples did you find of social media being used as a tool to help people band together against oppression and threat? What other examples of social media being used this way can you think of?
What examples did you find of social media being used as tool of propaganda and/or intimidation? Can you think of other instances of social media being used this way?
What examples did you find of social media being used as a tool to organize violence? Have you heard of social media being used for this purpose in different contexts?
Recently, social media has been used as a powerful organizing tool across the globe – to spark the Arab Spring, to fuel the London riots, to broadcast arrests of protesters occupying Wall Street, even to track the spread of deadly diseases. How does the way that social media is being used in Mexico compare with other examples like these?
What is promising about crowdsourcing public safety information? What risks and dangers are inherent in using social networks to organize or to crowdsource public safety?
Student notebooks, at least one computer with Internet access and projector.
Teaching and Learning with The New York Times, The Learning Network