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Classism, Accountability, and Social Media

April 29th, 2013 by andresmh

Even before YouTube and Twitter, incidents like the videotaping and public release of Rodney King’s case of police brutality gave a glimpse of what is now a common occurrence with social media: increased visibility of major societal issues. Examples of such issues are racism and bullying that come to light via particular incidents that gain a lot of attention due to increased access to communication channels. These issues are not necessarily new but the ability for large numbers of people to track them and to collectively reflect and react to them has become more common and at a much faster response rate.

Countries like Mexico, where deep-seated classism and abuse of power are part of everyday life, are seeing these societal issues surface through social networks. For example, in 2011, one of the first incidents of this type emerged via a YouTube video.The video showed two seemingly intoxicated young upper class women in Polanco, a posh neighborhood of Mexico City, verbally abusing some police officers–insulting them by calling them “salary men”–while the officers did not do much to defend themselves. Had it not been Polanco or those women, the situation might have been very different for the average Mexican accustomed to police abuse and corruption. The video caused indignation on social media because it highlighted the classism and impunity that is rampant in Mexican society. The event got a lot of attention on Twitter and it became a popular trending topic under the hashtag #LadiesDePolanco. The use of the English word “ladies” was a clear commentary on classism. Upper class Mexican speech often tends to replace Spanish words for English ones (for example, expensive private schools often ask their students to refer to their teachers as “Miss” and “Mister”).

In 2012, another incident with the same features surfaced on social media. This time it was a YouTube video of a middle-aged man beating a concierge at an apartment building in yet another upscale neighborhood of Mexico City called “Las Lomas.” The incident was known as the #GentelmanDeLasLomas. The same year, the daughter of then presidential candidate, Peña Nieto, was involved in a similar incident after retweeting a friend’s message using the word “prole” (from proletariat and a commonly used epithet for poor people) to attack her father’s critics. The incident was perhaps the first major incident in Peña’s campaign.

This weekend yet another incident of this kind came out on social media. This time it involved the daughter of a government official in charge of consumer protection at the Attorney General’s office. Apparently, the young woman used her influence to have inspectors visit and close a restaurant after not having received the treatment she expected. The issue exploded in social media with the hashtag #LadyProfeco (Profeco is the name of the government office her father presides). The young woman and her father were publicly criticized on Twitter, receiving more than 12,000 and 15,000 messages, respectively, on a single day on Twitter. There were more than 42,000 tweets with the hashtag #LadyProfeco.

The government official and his daughter have now publicly apologized; however, the case touches upon another thorny issue in Mexican society: government accountability.  It is unclear whether the case will go any further but it does give give hope that an empowered citizenry might at least make some government officials feel like they are being watched by the people they are supposed to serve, much like what Chinese citizens have begun to exercise their ability to hold officials accountable  through websites like Weibo.

Two main issues remain, however. The first is that the demographics of Twitter, especially in Mexico, are biased towards a more affluent population who already tend to be empowered. The second is that, even when cases like this one occur, they have rarely materialized in formal investigations that have led to structural changes.

Twitter mentions per hour for government official @HumbertoBeniTre

12,000 messages mentioning @HubertoBeniTre

Tweets with #LadyProfeco

42,000 messages mentioning #LadyProfeco

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