Twitter Users Face Prison Time for Terrorism Rumors

Liz De La Torre

Sure, social networking sites crave attention. But on Aug. 25, a different set of circumstances made Twitter a popular headline.

“My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school” is just one of the false tweets that could send Gilberto Martinez Vera and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola on their way to prison for at least 30 years on charges of sabotage and terrorism. Gilberto Martinez Vera, who works as a Math tutor, later tweeted, “They mowed down six kids between 13 and 15 in the Hidalgo neighborhood.” Additional tweets cited drug gangs abducting children with bomb threats and helicopters targeting elementary schools in Veracruz and Boca del Rio. Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, a radio commentator, also made similar claims and retweeted Vera’s original messages. Both Vera and Pagola insisted that they were simply passing along information that they thought was true. “How can they possibly do this to me, for re-tweeting a message? I mean, it’s 140 characters. It’s not logical.”

The Twitter blast sent shockwaves and panic all through Mexico. In fact, interior secretary of Veracruz State Gerardo Buganza elaborated: “Here, there were 26 car accidents, or people left their cars in the middle of the streets to run and pick up their children, because they thought these things were occurring at their kids’ schools.” Another witness noted that “there were women crying, children crying, the people ran past from one way to another, a woman at the corner started vomiting from the stress.” Moreover, emergency phone lines were being jammed because of the influx of calls generated by the false rumors.

Petitions calling for Vera’s and Pagola’s release  maintain the charges are too excessive and that their arrest is a violation of free speech. Amnesty International said that people use sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate local acts of violence and are willing to trust any information they are given because of fear, especially in crime-ridden areas: “The lack of safety creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which rumors that circulate on social networks are part of people’s efforts to protect themselves, since there is very little trustworthy information.” Raul Trejo, an expert on media and violence at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added, “If these lies grew, it is not so much because they propagated them, but because in Veracruz as in most of the rest of the country, the government doesn’t make clear what is happening.”

Now, sources are saying that the hysteria had started at least two hours prior to these tweets even being published and having people wonder whether it was really Vera and Pagola who had incited this frenzy. According to Imagen newspaper online, by 9:00 a.m., parents were already at Luis Pasteur primary school to pick up their kids after hearing of campus abductions. Nearly two hours later, Vera was “confirming” an attack on a school he had identified as Alfonso Arroyo. Anita Vera, Martinez Vera’s mother, said her son “told me Mom, I didn’t start any of this; I just transmitted what I was told.” However, the newspaper that included this information is also said to have Pagola as a featured columnist, and the Veracruz government says that the newspaper was just trying to defend her.

Asked whether he believed the charges were fair, Gov. Javier Duarte had this to say: “I am a Tweeter by heart. I am in favor of freedom of speech, but I also defend our right to live in tranquility and peace.” The case is scheduled to be reviewed by a federal judge no later than Sept. 23.