The Great Mexico Quake: A Tale of Heroes and Trolls
More than 200 people died and many are still missing after Tuesday’s powerful earthquake. Social media brought the country together, then trolls tried to tear it apart.
Many in Mexico didn’t sleep.
Those who could worked tirelessly through the night, searching for the living under piles of rubble, following the 7.1-magnitude quake that devastated central and southern Mexico on Tuesday.
Others rushed about the city, gathering supplies—water, medicine, generators, shovels, gloves—to bring to the hundreds of volunteers and security forces attempting to rescue those trapped under dozens of collapsed buildings in the capital. Still others reacted on social media—watching from afar, retweeting news about the latest updates, lists of buildings in need of supplies, the names of those being pulled out alive, and information on the whereabouts of the few lucky people in Mexico City who, though trapped under tons of debris, were rescued after managing to make contact with the outside world using their cellphones.
Throughout the night and into the early Wednesday hours, as the death toll climbed to at least 225 across multiple states—Mexico City, 94; Morelos, 71; Puebla, 43; Mexico State, 12; Guerrero, 4; Oaxaca, 1—Mexicans showed the sort of unity and solidarity not seen since exactly 32 years before, on September 19, 1985, the day of a magnitude 8.0 quake that devastated the capital and killed at least 10,000.
On Tuesday morning, just before the latest tragedy hit, the number one trend on Mexican social media was “earthquake drill” as thousands took part in a city-wide exercise meant to mark the anniversary of the devastating ‘85 tremor. But mere hours later, it was replaced by #Sismo—the Spanish word for earthquake—as parts of the country were shaken violently.
Within hours, #MexicoUnido or “Mexico, united” began trending as the country’s people did what they could for their neighbors.Across Mexico, scenes of hope shared on social media broke the monotonous horror—people clinging to life carried away from buildings as onlookers applauded and cheered the rescue workers, a smiling labrador lifted out from the rubble by rescue workers being passed along a line of volunteers to safety, crying children in uniform coaxed out from underneath their elementary school by volunteers.
Mexicans expressed heartache at news delivered by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that at least 22 children were dead following the destruction at just one elementary school. Dozens more were reported missing in Mexico on Tuesday.
In Mexico City’s hardest hit areas, which included the upmarket Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, news of survivors making contact from under the rubble offered glimpses of hope and added to the urgency of the rescue operation, which began Tuesday afternoon and has continued through the night and into Wednesday.
Hundreds in Mexico offered to open their homes to passersby in need of help. Hundreds more rushed home to open up their wifi networks in affected areas, or tweeted out the usernames and passwords of common wifi networks in the hopes that could be the key to reuniting more families. The logic tweeted by users: “If someone is trapped under rubble, your open wifi network could save their life.” Others gathered the phone numbers of those still missing and added credit to their phones from local mini-markets, hoping they may be able to contact their loved ones.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto expressed his gratitude on Tuesday “for the thousands of citizens using social media to report damaged buildings and people in need of help.” He noted the authorities were monitoring social media reports, “which is why it’s important to update constantly.”
Yet, as is typical in moments of chaos, misinformation reigned.
“Dr. Elena Orozco is asking for help on her cellphone. She is trapped at Medellin 153 in Colonia Roma,” social media users and news outlets tweeted. At that same building, social media users tweeted, “THERE IS NO ONE HELPING; whoever is nearby, bring GLOVES, LAMPS.”
But Elena Orozco wrote on Facebook: “Hey, I’m not under the rubble! … Verify everything! That’s the problem with this social media shit! Medellin Street needs help because the building where I work collapsed and colleagues are trapped, not me!”
Most of the false reports came as a result of chaos, good intentions, and the frantic information sharing that comes with the impotence of being unable to help on the ground with shovels, picks, and buckets, while having access to other tools like Twitter and Facebook.
But unfortunately not all came from kindheartedness. In the hours leading up to the quake, and in the hours following the devastation, a flurry of fake news made the rounds.
Hours before and after the quake, many in Mexico received a chain-message via WhatsApp—a Facebook-owned chat app popular in Latin America—which read: “The U.N. has issued an alert about a mega-quake in Mexico and the United States in the next 48 hours … The head of the Department of Seismology at Harvard’s Geophysics Institute, Clin Roberts, alerted the U.S. and Mexican governments to prepare for the arrival of a mega-quake that will affect both countries.”
Though the message was false, and posted to coincide with the commemoration of the ‘85 quake, the timing still seemed remarkably accurate.
“On social media rumors of another great earthquake are being propagated,” Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong tweeted on Tuesday evening. “Though there could be aftershocks, earthquakes CANNOT be predicted.”
“Please do NOT generate, NOR believe rumors,” he tweeted. “Pay attention to information from official accounts and the authorities.”
Mexico is typically a country that copes with its numerous scandals and crises by unleashing a flood of memes and ill-timed jokes. Snickering in the face of tragedy is commonplace and widespread. One long-time friend in Mexico City posted on Facebook just hours before Tuesday’s quake, on the anniversary of the city’s most devastating natural disaster: “There will be an earthquake at 11. Get ready. Put your stuff away. Grab your documents. NASA said so.”“It’s true,” he joked. “I read it on WhatsApp.”
Then, three hours later, his bizarre comment came true, as at least 29 buildings collapsed into rubble across the city. When asked, he explained he was just trying to scare his roommate.
But others had less innocent intentions.
As explosions rocked the city and gas leaks turned into sky-high balls of fire, and authorities begged city residents to avoid smoking, Twitter trolls poked fun at the horror, asking their followers to light up, as a way “to calm the nerves.”
One prolific Mexican troll tweeted, “Fuck, there was an earthquake, so I raped my secretary real quick,” using the hashtags others had been using to share information on the missing and the rescued.
As Google activated the Google Person Finder, meant to help “people reconnect with friends and loved ones in the aftermath of natural and humanitarian disasters,” trolls began to input fake names and names of those they despise, further adding to the confusion of rescue efforts.
Others took advantage of the chaos to falsely report their favorite targets of harassment as those among the missing, which is a game that has become increasingly common in Mexico in moments of disaster.
They did it for the LOLs, for the likes, and for the favs.
As the devastating earthquake trapped untold hundreds of people and their pets under tons of rubble, some on social media alleged the Mexican government was “sending in heavy machinery to kill poor people,” encouraging fellow trolls and social media users to block ambulances and rescue equipment, as rescue crews encouraged city residents to do the exact opposite—clear the roads to allow ambulances to get through.
As initial news reports and social media users in certain neighborhoods of Mexico City and Puebla warned that some had begun to take advantage of the chaos to steal and loot, and rob pedestrians or vehicles held up in bottleneck traffic, there were the trolls—the same ones who so often glom onto disasters and human rights crises in Mexico to spread misinformation and hatred with zero repercussions. They were encouraging their followers to go out and “let the looting begin.”
“If you see me, say hello ... I’m on my way to the looting, sons of bitches,” wrote one Mexican troll, uploading an image of a man in a car, holding a pistol.
“I hope a lot of people die in the #sismo … especially the poor,” wrote one long-time Twitter nuisance, who had one account briefly suspended earlier this week after threatening to rape several female Twitter users in response to the national outrage over the murder of 19-year-old Mara Castilla—a young woman who was abducted, taken to a hotel, and then found dead and wrapped in a sheet last week after using the Cabify ride-share app.
Twitter responded with a slap on the wrist, by freezing that account for seven days. But like most of Mexico’s trolls, adept at the art of sockpuppetry—using multiple accounts for the purpose of deception—it hardly mattered, as he switched to his backup accounts to spread misinformation and lies about the earthquake.
Though the epicenter was in Puebla, less than five miles from the city of San Juan Raboso and 35 miles from the state capital, the quake was felt by half a dozen nearby states. But the hardest hit will be Mexico City, a city nestled atop a bed of loose sediment that reverberates and magnifies the intensity of earthquakes.
School was canceled citywide in Mexico City and across multiple states including Puebla and Mexico State, and people were encouraged to avoid leaving their homes to avoid congesting the streets.
But, resoundingly, despite the accidental spread of fake news and the intentional seeding of dangerous lies, the overall sentiment in Mexico is that the country will not be torn apart by disaster. The show of unity, neighbors helping neighbors, has thus far been overwhelming.
This latest quake comes on the heels of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Chiapas two weeks ago killing roughly one hundred people across some of Mexico’s most impoverished regions. The president said the latest quake will not deter relief efforts in Oaxaca and Chiapas—two of the states hit hardest by the previous quake, which was followed by hundreds of aftershocks and also felt as far as the Mexican capital.
But already, the outpouring of support for the people of Mexico City has somewhat outshone the devastation felt in some of Mexico’s less populous and affluent regions. President Donald Trump, who took three days to acknowledge the previous quake in Mexico, citing poor reception, tweeted on Tuesday “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.”
He was joined by the likes of Britney Spears, who tweeted, “Sending my love to Mexico. #PrayForMexico,” along with an image of a heart-shaped Mexican flag, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who tweeted “Canada will be ready to help our friends,” as well as hundreds of thousands of people across the world.