Chumel Torres is an engineer, a comic book fan, and more recently a comedian who has emerged as the “most trusted name in news” in the mind of many of Mexico’s millennials. His fake news YouTube show, El Pulso de la República, recently reached one million subscribers. Self-consciously walking in footsteps of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the host of El Pulso is beginning to show his clout. Torres is, perhaps worryingly, quoted as a reliable analyst by real news outfits. The internet is coming of age in Mexico. In many ways it looks quite a lot like in the United States or Europe. Hispters take pictures of their food on Instagram, and politicians seem to spend more time on Twitter than off it.
In other ways the internet in Mexico is much darker. More than half of Mexicans are connected to the internet. All of them pay the erstwhile richest-man-in-the-world Carlos Slim’s Telmex for the privilege. Despite slight improvements since 2013, the country’s internet is one of the most expensive and slowest in the OECD. Even so, it has spawned a myriad of influential sites thanks to the existence of another national monopoly; television (in actual fact a duopoly, but the companies Televisa and TV Azteca act as a media cartel). Public television’s homogeneity, bad quality, and lack of open dissent has driven many independents online. Torres himself was offered a slot on television, only to realise he would have much more editorial freedom broadcasting on the internet. Alongside El Pulso stand serious news organizations like Aristegui Noticias.
Online diversity has turned Mexico’s internet into a political battlefield. It feels like every other day the President or one of his staff provide internet users with viral gaffe after viral gaffe. The examples are endless, most recently the web was incensed by a video of a state governor slapping an aide in the face, and the President being caught by a rouge microphone asking why his audience wasn’t cheering him. Political parties respond with bots and trolls who flood online with positive comments, and sinisterly, bringing down opposing trending topics to prevent mass mobilisation. Even in 2012, an estimated 50% of Mexico’s Twitter content came from 3% of the country’s users.
Beyond high politics, the internet is turning Mexico’s hierarchy on its head. Videos of corrupt policemen or the Mexican elite peddling their connections to bully parking attendants and policemen into submission are met with public vitriol and stigmatisation. A government official was forced to resign due to his daughter’s pretentious shenanigans. Most find it viscerally satisfying to see people so used to impunity face a digital lynch mob. Corruption and the abuse of authority is not new to Mexico, but the internet and widespread use of video technology is bringing the phenomenon to light at all levels of society.
Unsurprisingly, the exceptions are the drug-trafficking cartels. Individual Twitter users or the collective online hive-mind have been silenced by organised crime. Either by threats, like those made against Anonymous hackers after their #OpCartel attempted to unmask members of the US-trained Los Zetas gang. Or otherwise, as in the case of Felina, a Twitter activist who tweeted about the cartels in the virtually censored state of Tamaulipas only for her account to subsequently post “my life has come to an end” with pictures of her lifeless body alongside. In the land of lawlessness, anonymity and numbers do not mean safety.
The narrative of the documentary CitizenFour was vindicated at the Oscars last Sunday presenting us with a picture of an omnipresent state. The state of the internet in Mexico shows us almost the opposite. One sees a state so absent or corrupt that anyone with enough power, be it a television station, cartel or the digital lynch mob, can reach through the screen and touch the real, physical lives of people, sometimes with lethal consequences. The political ecology of the Mexican internet reveals the deeply ingrained mistrust towards authority. It is a world that allows people like Chumel Torres to have better ratings than many television newscasters have with only a webcam and internet access.