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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Two Mexicans face up to 30 years in prison for 'terrorist' tweets

Two Mexicans face up to 30 years in prison for what are being called some "terrorist" tweets in one of the most serious incidents to face the micro-blogging network Twitter since its launch.

Gilberto Martinez Vera, a maths tutor, and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, a former teacher turned radio commentator, tweeted that armed men were attacking schools, causing widespread panic amongst parents in the violence stricken Mexican city of Veracruz.

Martinez Vera tweeted, "My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school." This was untrue, and yet he subsequently tweeted, "I don't know what time it happened, but it's true."

In addition, he reported that a few days earlier, "They mowed down six kids between 13 and 15 in the Hidalgo neighborhood." An incident did occur in Hidalgo, but did not involve children.

The tweets caused such panic as parents rushed to save their children, who were in no danger, that there were 26 car accidents, cars were left abandoned in the middle of streets, and the emergency numbers collapsed due to the panic about the false warnings, which put genuine emergencies in danger.

According to the Associated Press, the interior secretary for Veracruz state, Gerardo Buganza said the incident was worse than the panic cause by Orson Welle's radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" in 1938, when many listeners believed that there really was an alien invasion.

It's understandable why the people of Veracruz believed the Twitter reports, however, as the city has already been the victim of extensive violence at the hands of drug traffickers.

Both defendants claim that they were only relaying what others had told them. Martinez Vera expressed incredulity at being branded a 'terrorist' over a 140 character message.

This is the biggest issue to face Twitter since the "bomb joke" incident, where Paul Chambers tweeted that he would blow a UK airport sky high if it was not reopened soon after extensive snowfall. Chambers did not intend to act on his threat, but it was immediately picked up by anti-terrorism forces scouring the internet. He was fined £2,000, but gained the support of many celebrities, who subsequently retweeted his comments in defiance of the ruling.

A relatively small fine is nothing compared to 30 years in prison, however, and there are already calls for the charges against these two people to be dropped. Amnesty International said the real problem is the atmosphere of fear and mistrust in the region, where people are likely to believe any reports on Twitter without validating them with genuine news outlets.

The Inquirer