ABSTRACT

In
this essay I want to discuss how internet and social media are used as organic
methods of communication that enhance the resilience capacity of urban dwellers
living in areas of violence and conflict. I take the long-running drug war in
Monterrey as a case study to discuss how the residents of this city have been practicing
resilience “online” to cope with this “man-made disaster” that struck the city
and made its people vulnerable.

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Since
2006, Monterrey, as many other Mexican cities, has been recording the highest homicide
rates in the world because of the war between the drug cartels and the state
and the cartels themselves (Martel, 2014). When mainstream media and government
emergency units failed to keep the citizens updated about and safe from the
events of violence, people were obliged to follow hashtags and specific
accounts on twitter to find the news they needed to move and commute freely in
the city (De Choudhury et al., 2014). This essay is trying to illustrate
that when the drug war caused the people of Monterrey to be vulnerable, what helped
them to be resilient was the “informal” exchange of online information on
twitter, which proved to be more efficient than the “formal” mode of
communication provided by the state and mainstream media. I begin my essay by theoretically
introducing the concepts of resilience, risk and vulnerability, then I present
a literature review on the use of social media during disasters before moving into
analyzing the specificities of the Monterrey case to support my claims.

METHODS

The
main method of writing this essay is based on reviewing three sets of
literatures and drawing relationships between them to argue for my claims. The
first set literature are the readings provided by the compendium of the Urban
Resilience course. I used these readings to discuss the concepts of resilience,
risk and vulnerability. The second set of literature are top academic papers found
on google scholar by using “disaster”, “internet”, and “social media” as
keywords. I used these papers to understand the important use of social media in
communication during disasters. The third set of literature are different
papers and articles on the use of twitter during the drug war in Monterrey and
they are provided by Frederic Martel, a French journalist who went to Monterrey
in 2014 and interviewed different journalists, bloggers and tweeters. Martel
published a book on this topic and his bibliography is available online and
completely free for journalists, researchers and academics.

INTRODUCTION ON RESILIENCE, RISK AND VULNERABILITY

The concept
of urban resilience has been prominently discussed in recent years by academics
and professionals who work in the field of planning and policy (Meerow et al., 2016). The word “resilience” has been recently
used as a main moto for many urban initiatives and organizations (Sanderson and Sharma, 2016). This contemporary focus on “urban resilience”
comes from the fact that on the one hand, most of the world’s population is
moving into cities because of economic opportunities, and on the other hand, these
cities are witnessing segregation, inequality and extreme vulnerability to climate
change since many of them port on oceans and rivers (Cohen, 2017).

Regardless
of how often it has been in use, the word “resilience” can still be vague when
it alone (Kelman, 2018). One should go back to explore the basics
of the word and what it means exactly in different contexts to understand its
notions. Hence, a glimpse on the history of human society and how it evolved in
the framework of resilience, risk and vulnerability is needed here.

In
human society, people are always at risk because of different kinds of hazards that
can always cause them to be vulnerable (Kelman et al., 2016). However, because humans are smart
creatures, they always seek to reduce their vulnerability, not only by
responding to disasters when they happen, but also by building resilience and preventing
disasters from occurring in the first place (Kelman et al., 2016). In fact, this behavior represent a
basic idea in classic liberal economics, which is the belief that humans can
only prosper by investing now for better results in the future (Smith, 1776). Humans
work hard and handle temporal suffering to reach plausible ends that will make
them prosper (Smith, 1776). For example, when diseases
threatened human life, humans did not only invent ways to cure the patients,
but they also put a lot of time and energy into inventing vaccines that prevented
diseases from happening in the first place (Kelman, 2018).

Based
on this, one can briefly understand that when humans are struck by vulnerability,
they work hard using their ingenuity to invent ways of becoming more resilient.
This way of initiating the discussion on resilience might let one believe that
there is always vulnerability coming from outside which humans must deal with in
a deterministic way, in the same manner how an ecological system responds to
shocks. However, vulnerability often results from actions committed by humans
themselves (Kelman et al., 2016). Since we live in societies and we
share some dependencies on each other, we have to build resilience in a
strategic manner instead of a deterministic one (Caputo et al., 2015). In fact, evolutionary biology
scientists have been giving many reasons to explain why humans are social
animals that benefit from depending on each other and therefore created a
society which has political and social structures (Van Schaik, 1983). In these political and social
structures, our actions can create injustices which can also create
vulnerability (Kelman et al., 2016). For example, even though humans
created the needed technology to build shelters that can resist extreme weather
conditions, there are still many people in the world who cannot afford these
technologies (e.g. slum dwellers). Therefore, when these people are threatened during
an extreme change in weather conditions, it is not the “nature” or the  “change in weather” that caused them to be the
most vulnerable, but rather it is the injustice that is inherent inside the social
and political system that created inequality and made these people unable to afford
an advanced shelter (Gaillard et al., 2012).

This essay builds on the theory of resilience in relationship to the
vulnerability that emerges from human actions and not only natural hazards (Kelman et al., 2016). In my case
study, I move from mainstream examples which mainly focus on vulnerabilities
that are agitated by natural hazards, and I consider that the source of
vulnerability in Monterrey city is the drug war that is caused by social
disorganization in the city (if we take into account the Chicago School theory
of social disorganization) (Browning et al., 2014).

Critics
to the deterministic approach in building resilience have also come from scholars
who adopted the approach of uncertainty in the occurrence of a disaster and believed
that failure always exists because of the inevitability of risks and vulnerabilities
(Ahern, 2011). Based on that, the way we respond
to disaster become unpredictable since the disaster itself is unpredictable. Following
this approach, Twigg and Mosel (2017) argue that when a disaster strikes,
“formal structures” of resilience are often limited and that lead regular
people to always be the first respondents by creating spontaneous, emergent and
voluntary groups that provide “informal structures” of resilience. These
informal structures can be more efficient than the formal and planned ones. Twigg and Mosel (2017) support their argument by referring
to many examples from very known disasters. In 2015 Kathmandu earthquake, local
residents were the first responders (Twigg and Mosel, 2017). “During 1999
Marmara earthquake in Turkey, 34 per cent of earthquake victims said that they
received immediate help from family members and neighbors” (Twigg and Mosel,
2017, pg. 444). “In Southern Italy earthquake in 1980, 90 per cent of the
victims were saved by untrained survivors from their own village” (Twigg and
Mosel, 2017, 448). “After the Kobe, Japan earthquake in 1995, a significant
proportion (estimates vary from 60 to 90 per cent) of people were rescued by
local people before emergency services arrived” (Twigg and Mosel, 2017, pg. 448).
Finally, “during 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China, survivors rescued
approximately half of those trapped in buildings” (Twigg and Mosel, 2017, pg. 448).

Moreover,
Kaufhold and Reuter (2016) studied how social media was used
by emergent volunteers during the 2013 floods in Europe and displayed how important
online communication is for this informal and crucial phenomenon that plays an
important role in resilience and disaster recovery.

My essay also builds on the conclusions drawn by Twigg and Mosel (2017) and Kaufhold and Reuter (2016) about how
during a disaster, the first and most important respondents are voluntary
emergent groups who by self-organizing through social media can build an
“informal” mode of resilience when formal modes of resilience fail or prove to
be limited. Based on that, the different emergent bloggers, online journalists
and all voluntary tweeters during the drug war in Monterrey created an informal
mode of resilience that proved to be more efficient than the formal one led by
the state and mainstream media.

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

Before
moving to my case study analysis, I present a literature review on the
usefulness of internet and social media during disaster events, with a specific
focus on Monterrey and other Mexican cities that are witnessing drug wars.

Internet, Social Media and Disasters

On twitter
notification settings, there is a “crisis and emergency” alert which one can
activate. On Facebook, people mark themselves safe when terrorist attacks hit
cities. In fact, for almost 15 years, “social media has been regularly used during
emergencies” (Kaufhold and Reuter, 2016, pg. 137). “Social media platforms have
emerged as prominent information sharing ecosystems in the context of a variety
of recent crises, ranging from mass emergencies, to wars and political
conflicts” (De Choudhury et al., 2014). Moreover, Alexander (2014) considered the phenomenon of using
social media during crisis to be revolutionizing because people can now share
and filter information between themselves without the need of centralized government
communication methods.

There
are many examples about the use of social media as a tool of coordination
during disaster. In 2013 Europe floods, reports indicated that “Twitter,
Facebook, Google Maps and other services were frequently used by affected
citizen and volunteers to coordinate help activities among themselves” (Kauhfold
and Reuter, 2016, pg.137). During Kathmandu earthquake in 2015, survivors used crowdfunding
websites to raise funds for recovery (Twigg and Mosel, 2017). “Floods in Queensland, Australia,
led to extensive use of social media for public interaction and communication,
but not for the mass propagation of false information” (Alexander, 2014, pg.
721). Not only has social media enabled
people to communicate during disaster, but it has also proved, in the case of
L’Aqcuila earthquake in Northern Italy, to enable survivors to “re-create
places of socialization and maintaining social capital in a post-disaster
reconstruction scenario after the disruption of the physical environment that
was once important for the creation and maintenance of these relationships.”
(Tagliacozzo and Arcidiacono, 2015, pg. 1).

Twitter during drug wars in Monterrey and Other Mexican Cities

One
of the most famous cases about the use of social media during urban crisis is
that of Monterrey city in Mexico, where everything started to deteriorate
because of drug trafficking, especially around 2009-2010 (Martel, 2014). People
used the hashtag concept (#) as a confidential tool on twitter to follow the
news of the city and know where they can or cannot go, and hence they built
their “resilience” to the on-going violence in the city (Martel, 2014). The
hashtag #MtyFollow enabled city dwellers to know about troubles in some places and
helped them changing their trips and commutes (Martel, 2014).

Monterrey
was one between many Mexican cities where social media, mainly twitter, was
used extensively to let people communicate during the drug war (Martel, 2014). Between
August 2010 and November 2011, Monroy-Hernández et al. (2015) counted that 596,591 tweets that
contained the hashtags #mtyfollow, #reynosafollow, #saltillofollow, #verfollow
were posted, and in Monterrey there was an average of 724 tweets per day with a
maximum of 7724. In fact, “for many Mexicans, social media has become a fluid
and participatory information platform that augments and often replaces
traditional news media and governmental institutions. Citizens in these
localities are using social media as a resource for alerts and information
dissemination” (Hernandez et. al, 2013, pg.8). In Mexican cities that are
witnessing drug wars, social media is desensitizing communities and increasing
their resilience to violence (Monroy-Hernández et al., 2015). Moreover, “Twitter has more than
four million users in Mexico, according to tracking companies; and among the
more than 30 million people with regular Internet access, 95 percent have
profiles on Facebook” (Cave, 2011, pg.24).

 

CASE STUDY ANALYSIS

Two
questions need to be answered here to support the claims I mentioned in my
essay. First, who were the “emergent” groups that used twitter to keep people
informed during the drug war in Monterrey? And how twitter, as an informal mode
of communication, was more important to building resilience than mainstream
media and government institutions?

During
the drug war in Monterrey, “formal” and traditional mainstream media and state emergency
units failed to keep their citizens informed for reasons that extend from being
threatened by the drug cartels to being complicit with them (Cave, 2011). Not only did the local authority
fail to inform the people, but it was also corrupted and some of its policemen
had ties with the cartels (Martel, 2014). Speaking to Martel (2014, pg. 124),
poet Javier Sicilia from Monterrey says: “Nobody dares to speak of it in the
press. We don’t write about murders. Nobody knows anything. Yet, we need
journalists who are pro-life.”

This
reality drove the hashtag #Mtryfollow to construct a decentralized widespread
dialogue on twitter that enabled journalists, writers, bloggers and even local
artists and professors, who were willing to sacrifice their lives, to
investigate drug trafficking in Monterrey (Martel, 2014). These emergent groups
stood up to help the society protect itself when formal and traditional media
failed to -or did want to- do the task.

Twitter
provided these people with the opportunity to reach millions of their fellow
citizens who are using the platform and yet stay anonymous and independent from
any authority. Following a hashtag on twitter was better than messaging or
making groups on other social media platforms because it makes the dialogue
less traceable. Everybody could read, tweet and retweet without being public
about their identity (Martel 2014). Of course, this is not to say that without twitter
this flow of information and cooperation between emergent informers wouldn’t have
existed, but there is no doubt about the power that this platform could bring
to break the silence that mainstream and formal media created to empower the
citizens.

Residents
of Monterrey knew about killing incidents and dangerous checkpoints by
following trusted twitter accounts that used the hashtag #Mtryfollow. “When
somebody like me has a nineteen-year-old son who goes out to restaurants in the
evening, one is obliged to look at #Mtryfollow”, mentions one interviewee to
Martel (2014, pg. 125). Messages like “There are nine bodies on such and such a
street” (Martel, 2014, pg. 126), “Three bodies are hanging on this bridge” (Martel,
2014, pg. 126), “There are gunmen,” (Cave, 2011, pg. 24), “they’re not soldiers
or marines, their faces are masked” (Cave, 2011, pg. 24) were spread on twitter.

Many
more specific hashtags started to appear such as #mtyalret or #mtyshootings.
Some accounts started to do specific tasks, like focusing on delivering
breaking news and preparing give daily news summaries (Martel, 2014). The
online sharing information duplicated in other Mexican cities that were
witnessing the same phenomenon, and hashtags like #reynosafollow,
#xalapafollow, #veracruzfollow, #juarezfollow started to appear on twitter.

Twitter
was also used by the cartels to propagate false information and scare people by
sharing videos and images of executions (Martel, 2014). This is in fact one of
the main drawbacks of an informal and decentralized mode of communication during
crisis. However, the ability of the flow of information to correct itself on
twitter proved to work in Monterrey especially that twitter systematically
removed reported tweets that tried to falsify information (Martel, 2014).
Martel (2014) writes from some of his interviewees about the confidentiality of
information on the internet:

“Everything
rests upon confidence. We follow sites we believe are true, and if we find out
that we were taken in, then we unsubscribe. There are accounts that have lost
almost all of their ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ at the same time.” (Martel, 2014,
pg. 129)

“Social
networking is autoregulated by the public: misinformation and ‘trolls’ are
immediately identified.” (Martel, 2014, pg. 129)

Indeed,
the idea that false information can propagate on social media was an argument
that corrupt state authorities used to try to control the flow of information (Cave, 2011). Rumors can exist with or without twitter.
Monroy-Hernandez et. al (2015, pg. 4) argue that “although there is weakness
and some “uncontrol” in information flow on social media, this tool is like any
other and it needs time to gain reputation and creditability among users”. News
coming from state agencies and mainstream media can also be falsified or used
to mislead and manipulate and they are much more dangerous than social media in
this case because they are centralized with people who have power, which pf
course is not the case on twitter, a decentralized platform that can be used by
everyone and is not dependent on one person or one group of people. At the end
of the day, one should look at what happens in the real world and in Monterrey
the internet embarrassed the cartels because they could not stop as they
stopped mainstream television, press and radio (Martel, 2014).

In
Monterrey, twitter proved to be the best method of communication to enhance the
resilience capacity of the citizens of the city during the drug war. It provided
a free digital space for emergent journalists, bloggers, academics and artists to
communicate during the disaster and create a confidential chamber of online information.
It is unfortunate that although social media is filling the gap left by the
press and in different regions of Mexico (Cave, 2011), there are examples in this country
where the state is restricting social media use. In Veracruz’s state for
example, the state Assembly made it a crime to use Twitter and other social
networks to undermine public order (Cave, 2011).

 

CONCLUSION

The
use of twitter to fight drug cartels in Monterrey is an example of how the
internet can enhance the resilience capacity of people living in area of
violence and conflict. Such case studies should encourage emergency planners to
think of how communication should be understood in crisis. Do we need centralized
control centers that give commands, or a dynamic form of communication where people
can interact freely to help and rescue themselves? Also, Planners should be
encouraged to question who control communication during crisis and what are the
biases of those who are in charge. Furthermore, if we agree on the crucial role
of being connected to the internet during disasters, doesn’t that make those
who do not use the internet more vulnerable? From here, one can conclude that topics
like internet literacy and internet as a basic service that can make people
more resilient to risks should be discussed more often in urban planning literature.
At the center for digital inclusion in Rio in Brazil , they use the “digital
apartheid” to describe the gap between those who have access and know how to use
the internet and those who do not.

Author