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The Rising Threat of Organised Crime on Social Media

By Robert Muggah. Originally published by The World Economic Forum.

Even as the digital revolution kicks into gear, there are signs everywhere of governments using new technologies to monitor and repress citizens. The revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) sprawling spying programme are just the start. And it is not just Western governments that are spying on citizens in faraway places – surveillance has become a common practice around the world.

But governments don’t have a monopoly on the use of big data to monitor and anticipate threats. Private investment banks have extensive experience in this space, as have a growing cadre of digital humanitarians who are harnessing satellite and telecommunications data to help disaster victims. And now it seems crime syndicates, cartels and gangs are getting into the game. Some of them are quintessential early adopters; they canvass social media to identify and neutralize competitors, but also to manage public relations.

Crime in the spotlight

The involvement of drug-trafficking organizations online might strike the reader as odd, even counter-intuitive. After all, organized crime traditionally thrives in the shadows, far from the public gaze. Historically, crime groups invest in minimizing their public profile, not amplifying it. The internet is changing all that. Organizations as diverse as the ISIS and the Zeta Cartel are using cyberspace to shape opinion and elicit respect, fear and terror.

Some of the world’s most ruthless drug cartels are voracious users of various digital platforms. Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful crime groups in Mexico, has a Twitter account with more than 34,000 followers. A Twitter feed using the name of the cartel´s recently escaped leader, El Chapo, has almost 400,000 followers and recently threatened Republic Presidential hopeful Donald Trumponline. Further south in Central America, a gang called the Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, have over 40,000 likes on Facebook and communicate with members across the Americas.

The content of their sites is predictable. Most of them feature a combination of girls, guns and gore. They bare the hallmarks narco cultura – the online soundtrack of Mexico`s drug war – replete with fast cars, scantily clad women and gold-plated assault rifles. In some cases they also include narcocorridos with lyrics like “We are blood-thirsty and love to chop off heads”. Since Chapo´s escape, a dozen of them have sprung up celebrating his exploits. Although banned by the Mexican government, these memes often serve a strategic purpose. Mexico´s military intelligence tracks their content at the Defense Secretariat`s Army and Air Force Study Center.

Cartels in cyberspace

Across Latin America, cyberspace is being hijacked by cartels, gangs and other organized-crime syndicates. They use it to threaten rivals, sell products, send instructions and recruit new members. None of this is particularly new. As far back as 2005, law enforcement started detecting the online sharing of so-called narcomensajes. These were typically short texts left on victims’ corpses explaining the motivation for their murder, such as: “This is what happens when you work with such and such a rival cartel.”

Not surprisingly, the spread of text messages has been accompanied by an explosion of what are often called narcovideos. Some of these short clips are snuff films. Others are basically propaganda. Online reviews of some of them show that they vary in content and style with some featuring torture and executions, oratories by cartel leaders and even the occasional goodwill gesture. Some drug-trafficking groups like to tape their members providing relief assistance to victims of natural disasters.

While cartels and gangs have been around for generations, cyberspace is allowing them to expand their power, prestige and profits. They are taking violence into the virtual realm, targeting bloggers, snitches and competitors. Given the volume of people on Facebook in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador or Mexico, it is now possible to extort vast numbers of people at the click of a button. There has also been an uptick in kidnappings of software engineers and programmers as organized crime groups reinforce their digital capabilities.

The end of free speech?

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 the northern triangle countries of Central America and parts of South America. More than 32 journalists were assassinated in Mexico over the past decade, with citizen journalists also publicly slain.

More positively, citizens are fighting back, both online and off. Digital activists are self-organizing in virtual communities and turning to the net as a source of trusted information. They are using their networks to curate and disseminate information to protect themselves. The explosion of the narconet has led to an explosion of online activity, including narco-tweets. 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-defence groups are rising up against cartels and their associates. Militia organizations like the so-called Valor por Michoacan, for example, have targeted the Knights Templar cartel. Valor had more than 184,000 followers on Facebook before being taken offline (though it retains an active Twitter account).

What can the tech sector do?

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 21st-century 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 wish them harm.

Citizen journalists and digital collectives are heavily outgunned online and off. 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 poses further questions about free speech, rights of expression, and personal protection in the global digital ecosystem.

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Author: Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, Director of Research and Policy for the SecDev Foundation and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Conflict and Violence.