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Fake news in the time of Mexican quake

Elsewhere, body-shaming sparks off a storm and authorities pull the plug on Muslim-bashing


The earliest inkling of the severity of the earthquake that struck Mexico on Tuesday emerged first on social media.

Just before the tragedy, the top trend on Mexican social media had been "earthquake drill", as thousands took part in an emergency exercise to mark the anniversary of a terrible tremor which took place in 1985.

But just hours later, after the 7.1 magnitude quake took place, the top trend was #Sismo - the Spanish word for earthquake.

To date, the latest calamity has claimed the lives of more than 200 people and injured almost 2,000 others. Scenes of buildings shaking and gut-wrenching devastation played out on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat even before they made it to the television channels.

Many of the tweets showed people running away from collapsing buildings, and others gave glimpses of people trying to pull out victims from the rubble.

The posts, which spread like wildfire, mobilised the city, and many rushed around through the wee hours gathering supplies like water, medicine and shovels, as well as power generators to light up the night sky.

The hashtags #FuerzaMexico (strength to Mexico) and #MexicoUnido (Mexico united) have been used more than a million times.

People spread instructions on how to help, lists and photos of missing people, and safe havens for those looking for shelter.

Users from afar started retweeting useful news from various sources, including the list of buildings and areas in need of aid.

Amid the horror, netizens also shared stories of how people came together to help. Images and videos of exhausted aid workers, onlookers applauding rescue efforts, and crying students being coaxed out of holes were rife.

But not all the posts were authentic or well-intentioned. Amid the turmoil, trolls also thrived.

Some news outlets, reporting off social media, said a certain Dr Elena Orozco was asking for help on her cellphone. "She is trapped at Medellin 153 in Colonia Roma," they said. "No one is helping. Whoever is nearby, bring gloves and lamps."


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But Dr Orozco was safe and sound. On her Facebook page, she said: "I'm not under the rubble. Verify everything! That's the problem with social media."

Some used Google Person Finder, meant to help people reconnect in the aftermath of natural disasters, to report people they disliked, which took a toll on rescue efforts.

Others began to spread fear over closed networks like WhatsApp, saying the United Nations had issued an alert that another quake would be happening soon.

This prompted a response from Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who pleaded with users not to generate or believe rumours. "Pay attention to information from official accounts and the authorities," he said.

But perhaps the strangest tale to come out of the catastrophe was that of Frida Sofia.The young girl, believed to be trapped under the rubble of a collapsed school, apparently said: "I'm thirsty, I'm okay. Please don't take too long (to rescue me)."

It garnered such traction on social media that it was reported by Mexican newspaper El Universal.

But after journalists scoured the scene and social media users spread emotional messages of support for her, it emerged that she might never have existed. The 12-year-old, as it turns out, was never a student of the school. What made matters worse was that a government official had earlier said that rescue workers had been in touch with the girl.

Mexican sociologist Rodolfo Soriano-Nunez told The Guardian that this episode only served to deepen the mistrust between citizens and government officials.


Twitter user @imleyton sparked off a storm when he posted a photo of two women - Joelle Kayembe and plus-size model Lesego Legobane - side by side, with the caption: "Girls that I like vs girls that like me."

The misogynistic tweet was meant to be a joke. While both women were models and equally beautiful in their own right, Kayembe was decidedly slimmer and less curvy. Needless to say, the body-shaming tweet was met with outrage.

"Don't play his game. Beauty cannot be ranked," said one user.

"He posted a woman's picture without permission just to insult her by negative comparison, assuming he was good enough for her. (He is) obviously not," said another.

But the most savage reply came from Legobane, who simply replied to his post, saying: "I don't like you."

Her post gathered more than a million retweets and likes, earning fans like pop princess Ariana Grande and rapper Nicki Minaj.

It is now reportedly the most liked and retweeted post across Africa. And in a show of solidarity, Kayembe also got in on the action.

She told news outlet Vice that it was "just plain rude to use one woman's picture to body-shame another", and she wanted to make it clear that she did not think the troll did her any favours with his supposed compliment.

She also said she respected Legobane's response. "She handled it with such class. I hope women take her lead on how to handle (people) like him."


Earlier this month, Chinese Internet users bombarded government social media accounts with thousands of anti-Islamic messages, after unverified videos of supposed Muslims rioting surfaced.

They accused the public security bureau of putting the interests of Muslims over those of the majority Han ethnic group.

"How can people ignore the law and police fail to act? What kind of place is this for Han Chinese? It is for minorities only," one user said.

But the days of such vitriol seem to be ending, as the authorities move towards blocking Islamophobic terms on social media to prevent bias against Muslims.

As part of the ban, it was reported that searches for "green religion" and "peaceful religion", often used to indirectly refer to Islam, now show no results on China's Weibo microblog.

These phrases, a Global Times report says, cannot be posted as they violate Weibo's complaints-related rules.

Other social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, as well as Google are blocked by the firewalls.

Unofficial accounts state that China has over 21 million Muslims - mostly the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Hui community in Ningxia province.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Fake news in the time of Mexican quake'. Subscribe