Two people who carried out an “Orson Wells” style Twitter stir could face up to 30 years in prison.
A former teacher turned radio commentator and a maths tutor who lives with his mum have been charged with terrorism and sabotage.
According to AP, Gilberto Martinez Vera and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola have both been charged after a panic reminiscent of a grim and real, modern day equivalent to Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
Prosecutors say the defendants helped cause a chaos of 26 car crashes and panic as parents in the Mexican city of Veracruz rushed to save their children because of false reports that gunmen were attacking schools. The emergency services “totally collapsed because people were terrified.”
After weeks of coppers having gunbattles with drug traffickers, Gilberto Martinez Vera, who works as a tutor at several private schools, sent out messages that gunmen were taking children from schools.
While there had been no kidnappings that day, Martinez later told coppers that the rumours had already started and he was just relaying what others told him.
He also tweeted that, three days earlier, “they mowed down six kids between 13 and 15 in the Hidalgo neighborhood”. It was true that a similar attack occurred, but it did not involve kids.
Prosecutors claim the rumours were also sent by Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, who is a radio commentator. She said she was just relaying such messages to her own Twitter followers.
She claims that it is illogical for her to be banged up for retweeting a message.
Pagola is known on the radio and social networks as “Maruchi”. She has changed her Facebook page which now features the Twitter logo, a little bluebird, blindfolded and standing in front of the scales of justice, with the slogan “I too am a TwitTerrorist”.
Both have been locked up and online petitions are circulating to demand their release, while human rights groups are saying the charges are exaggerated.
Amnesty International points out that not only are officials violating freedom of expression, the panic was more to do with the fact that Mexico is in the middle of a drugs war in which more than 35,000 people have died over the past five years.
The fact that the government is not able to provide any degree of safety creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which rumours that circulate on social networks are part of people’s efforts to protect themselves.