Research connects drug war violence in Mexico with desensitization in social media

Mar 04, 2014

Amid times of crisis, citizens often turn to social media as a method to share information, make observations and vent. But as a Georgia Tech professor's research into social media use amid the Mexican drug war shows, posts can reveal growing numbness, or desensitization, during times of protracted violence and stress.

Munmun De Choudhury, formerly of Microsoft Research and now an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, led the research. Her team's paper, "'Narco' Emotions: Affect and Desensitization in Social Media during the Mexican Drug War," will be presented at CHI 2014, the leading conference on human-computer interaction. The presentation of the paper, which also earned Best Paper honors, comes soon after the capture of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, considered to be the world's most powerful drug lord, in Mexico.

The researchers declined to infer an actual causal relationship between drug war violence and social media numbness. But De Choudhury said the results do show a significant correlation between exposure to violence due to the ongoing urban warfare in Mexico and anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms gleaned from social media.

"General psychological research has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to violence, whether directly or word of mouth or through media reports, can have lasting and detrimental impacts including emotional numbness or desensitization," said De Choudhury. "And our research finds that this holds true with social media. Strong psychological markers of desensitization followed rises of violence in the Mexican drug war."

For the research, the team focused on four cities: Monterrey, Reynosa, Saltillo and Veracruz. The team used official homicide statistics as well as unofficial data from social media and a prominent "narco" blog to establish patterns of ongoing violence in those cities. Using Twitter's Firehouse stream, they gathered all Spanish-language postings with hashtagged mentions of these cities, disregarding retweets and non-drug related posts.

The team employed data from Twitter, because of that medium's considerable use in Mexico. At the time of the research, about 35 percent of Mexicans were online, of which 82 percent used social media. Of the Mexican users, 58 percent used Twitter.

"In Mexico, Twitter has acted as a unique platform allowing affected people to express their emotions, be it their frustrations or grievances or anger, about their circumstances as well as feelings of terror," De Choudhury said. "This not only expands the narrative of how citizens are dealing with the drug war, but our findings can also help researchers build theories about socio-psychological responses to crises."

After a period of chronic exposure to drug-related violence, the researchers found lowered affective responses in Twitter posts of citizens experiencing the . While the number of posts may have remained stable or increased, the levels of negative affect, which measures the level of displeasure of an emotion, decreased significantly.

Explore further: Carnegie Mellon's Paul Eiss analyzes how social media shaped the 'drug war' in Mexico

More information: "'Narco' Emotions: Affect and Desensitization in Social Media during the Mexican Drug War," research.microsoft.com/apps/pubs/?id=208580

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mexicans turn to social media to report on drug war

Jun 26, 2013

They tweet and blog about street gunfights and murders in Mexican regions plagued by the drug war, keeping people informed about gangland crimes which local newspapers are too afraid to report on.

New mums shun Twitter and stick to baby-friendly Facebook

Feb 07, 2014

Although it might sometimes seem that your Facebook feed is overrun with chatter about babies, research from Microsoft has suggested that mums actually spend less time on the site after they have had children. And w ...

Recommended for you

A Closer Look: Your (online) life after death

15 hours ago

Sure, you have a lot to do today—laundry, bills, dinner—but it's never too early to start planning for your digital afterlife, the fate of your numerous online accounts once you shed this mortal coil.

Web filter lifts block on gay sites

15 hours ago

A popular online safe-search filter is ending its practice of blocking links to mainstream gay and lesbian advocacy groups for users hoping to avoid obscene sites.

Protecting infrastructure with smarter CPS

22 hours ago

Security of IT networks is continually being improved to protect against malicious hackers. Yet when IT networks interface with infrastructures such as water and electric systems to provide monitoring and control capabilities, ...

Apple helps iTunes users delete free U2 album

Sep 15, 2014

Apple on Monday began helping people boot U2 off their iTunes accounts after a cacophony of complaints about not wanting the automatically downloaded free album by the Irish rock band.

Habitual Facebook users: Suckers for social media scams?

Sep 15, 2014

A new study finds that habitual use of Facebook makes individuals susceptible to social media phishing attacks by criminals, likely because they automatically respond to requests without considering how they are connected ...

User comments : 0