Drama and Danger in the World of Social Media

Drug cartels in MexicoI’ve blogged before about how social media has had a major (positive) impact on political and social movements, such as the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the democracy movement in Moldova. But recent news out of Mexico shows how the same social media can contribute to additional fear and violence in a society that already has more than its share of drama and danger.

In recent weeks, CNN has reported that social media is causing citizens living in the regions of Mexico beset by dangerous drug cartel activity to be injured – or even killed. In the border city of Nuevo Laredo, the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from a highway overpass, with threatening notes nearby promising a similar fate to other so-called “Internet snitches.”

According to the CNN news story, the two people were killed for messages they had posted online pertaining to drug violence in areas of Mexico where the professional news media are no longer able to do their job.

Because drug trafficker threats have essentially silenced reporting activity in these border regions, the local citizens have resorted to filling the information gap by using social media like Twitter and Facebook to convey the latest information to their fellow citizens.

The notes affixed to the dead bodies in Nuevo Laredo appear to have been left by members of two notorious drug cartels that are intimately engaged in the region’s bloody turf wars.

The killings point to a dangerous new front that’s opened up in the drug wars: In the absence of credible news reporting, many residents of the borderlands have turned to social media platforms for learning and sharing information. Using #hashtags that tie Twitter posts together has become an important “sorting” mechanism by which postings from individual Twitter accounts can be bundled into a sort of jerry-rigged news service. Many examples of “news report bundling” exist, such as for cities like Monterrey, Veracruz, Saltillo and Reynosa.

Andrés Monroy-Hernández of MIT’s Media Lab has studied this phenomenon, and declares that these ad hoc news bureaus have been effective.

“Most of the information is reliable, and the information that is not often goes ignored … [these bureaus] serve as curators and do a decent job at it,” the Mexican native asserts. He also points out that about half of the Twitter messages are actually retweets, meaning that people are cooperating with one another in spreading the information.

But the startling events of last week remind us that local residents who are using social media to navigate the chaos of the drug wars are themselves becoming targets in the drama.

Even the Mexican government is in on the action. Recently, it charged two Veracruz citizens with “terrorism and sabotage” for passing along rumors of a pending cartel attack on a school that resulted in an outbreak of panic at the school property.

The Mexican government’s action set off a wave of criticism from all sides. Amnesty International went on record stating that the drug war “creates a climate of distrust in which rumors circulate on social media as people try to protect themselves, because there is no reliable information available.”

The chaos that is enveloping Mexico – and the tragic consequences that stem from it – seem hard to imagine happening so close to the U.S. border. It’s also a reminder that the “brave new world” of social media can harbor grave dangers in addition to great promise.

And in this case, it can even get you killed.

The Most Fascinating Civil War General You’ve Never Heard Of

General Jo Shelby
General Jo Shelby
I’m not a Civil War buff. But when two different people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading a new book on the life of Confederate General Joseph Orville ‘Jo’ Shelby, I decided to get myself a copy.

General Jo Shelby’s March, a just-published book written by Anthony Arthur [ISBN-13: 978-1400068302 — also available in a Kindle edition], is quite a read. It tells the story of how General Shelby, rather than surrender to the Union, led a regiment of soldiers from Arkansas through Texas and into Mexico. In a wild and dangerous journey, they marched all the way to Mexico City, where the soldiers offered themselves up in the service of Emperor Maximilian’s army.

While the Emperor turned down this offer, he did invite the Confederate soldiers to stay on in Mexico and become farmers. The expatriate colonies that sprung up there were not as successful nor as long-lasting as Rio Americana in Brazil, but more than a few of the soldiers ended up settling in Mexico for good.

General Shelby turns out to be one of the Civil War’s most fascinating characters. Born into wealth and position in Kentucky, he struck out as a young man for Missouri, where he found early success in farming and business (hemp and lumber), and before long had built his own white-columned mansion on the banks of the Missouri River in Waverly.

But the cross-border skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri during the 1850s led to the destruction of Shelby’s sawmill operations. Shelby himself gained fame for leading retaliatory raids into Kansas. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, Shelby chose to fight for the Southern cause, even as most of his Kentucky relatives remained Unionists.

[People tend to forget that Midwestern Missouri was for years a state with distinct southern sympathies. Even as late as 1956, when the Republican Eisenhower was handily winning re-election, Missouri joined with only six Deep-South states – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina – in voting against the party of Lincoln.]

Throughout the war, Shelby was to command forces in the so-called Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, even as his wife and children were forced to flee Missouri for Kentucky after their mansion was torched and their lands plundered. For Shelby and many of his men, the decision to run for the Mexican border was easier to make because there was so little to return to at home.

Anthony Arthur’s recounting of the confusion that characterized the western theater of the Civil War, and later the harrowing march through Texas and Mexico, is an exciting and gripping read. Particularly moving is his description of Shelby’s soldiers as they reached Eagle Pass on the Texas-Mexico border. In a ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tattered Confederate flag – one that had been with the regiment through many battles and skirmishes in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – was folded for the last time and placed into the river, the waters enveloping the flag as it disappeared from view.

Once in Mexico, Shelby had his wife and eight children join him, where they lived for several years. But as Emperor Maximilian’s position became ever more untenable and the French army decided to ditch the country, it became increasingly clear that staying in Mexico was not an option. While some of the ex-Confederates decided to migrate to Cuba, Brazil or other foreign lands, Shelby made the decision to return to the United States.

Renouncing his support of slavery and pledging allegiance to America, Shelby now commenced the second part of his life. He took up residence again in Missouri, and was eventually named marshal for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland. This was not a trivial responsibility, as this was the region where the notorious Jesse James Gang and other outlaws roamed.

When the general passed away in 1894, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral and 4,000 joined in the procession to the cemetery. As reported by the Kansas City Star, Bill Hunter, an African American who as a slave boy had been purchased to be Shelby’s manservant, led the general’s riderless horse with its empty saddle, boots and spurs to the burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was a poignant farewell for two men who had remained friends for life.

In the conclusion of his book, Anthony Arthur sums up the General’s life this way:

“Shelby was the model of the gifted, principled man who had fought bravely for a doomed cause, and who ultimately reconciled himself not only to defeat but to the fact that his cause had been fatally flawed by the greatest evil in American life, chattel slavery … in classic American fashion, he reinvented himself and showed the way for others to do the same.”

In the end, not a bad legacy at all.