In the first episode of our second season, The Response travels to Mexico City and puts the focus on the 2017 Puebla Earthquake — a magnitude 7.1 quake that toppled over forty buildings and killed over 350 people. Specifically, we explore the significance of information flows by telling the story of a very unique initiative that arose in the wake of the earthquake.

In the aftermath of a disaster, information can mean the difference between life and death. After the earthquake hit in Mexico City, it wasn’t just buildings that collapsed, the normal lines of communication that connect the city did as well. It was in this dangerous state of confusion and chaos that a group of friends using WhatsApp to share information ended up creating what later became known as Verificado19s, a spontaneous, grassroots initiative that consisted of a vast network of volunteers that traveled throughout the city to gather and verify information.

The episode tells the story from the perspective of several Verificado19s volunteers: Volunteer Ana Givaudan, found herself working with official rescue workers and the Navy in the heart of the “zero zones,” the areas that were mostly heavily devastated by the quake. Daniel Montañoa bicycle volunteer, biked around the city as fast as he could to verify whether or not certain reports were accurate. Sandra Patargo is the person who started the original WhatsApp group and who also helped coordinate elaborate spreadsheets and a real time disaster map to be made available to the public.

What can we learn from the efforts of Verificado19s? Are there replicable models and strategies that could be applied to future disasters? How can communities come together to respond to and challenge the spread of misinformation both in the context of acute disasters and also more generally? These are just some of the questions we explore in this episode of The Response.

Episode Credits:

  • Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
  • Senior producer, technical director, and script writer: Robert Raymond
  • Field producer (and voice over): Fernando Hernandez

Music by:

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For a full list of episodes, resources to cultivate resilience in your community, or to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, visit www.theresponsepodcast.org.

Below is a transcript of the “Fighting misinformation in the aftermath of the Mexico City earthquake” podcast, modified for your reading pleasure.

Narrator: It’s September 19, 2017, and a massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake has just hit Mexico City, toppling a private elementary school in the borough of Tlalpan. The country’s largest television news network, Televisa, has just reported that there’s a 12-year old child trapped in the rubble.

According to a rescuer’s account, the little girl had been found using a thermal scanner. There are also reports of moving fingers sticking out from the rubble, and even of a faint voice crying for help and calling out that her name is Frida Sofia.

Now, government officials begin verifying the story. Rescue workers are working frantically to get the child out. Volunteers are lined up to help, some traveling from neighboring Mexican states. Search and rescue crews have arrived from as far away as Japan, Israel, and Germany. #FridaSofia is trending on Twitter, as the nation’s eyes are glued to their TVs…

The only thing is: Frida Sofia never existed.

I’m Tom Llewellyn, and you’re listening to The Response — a podcast and documentary series exploring the remarkable communities that arise in the aftermath of disasters.

Today’s episode? Information flows. In the aftermath of a disaster, information can mean the difference between life and death. But what happens when the normal lines of communication that we rely on collapse? The Frida Sofia story started off with unverified accounts by rescuers that were picked up by reporters and later by the Navy. Where did the story come from? Were Frida Sofia’s fingers actually the hand of an already deceased 58-year-old woman that was later pulled from the rubble? Did the fact that the military had a rescue dog on site named Frida, add to the confusion? How did rescuers hear the cries of a little girl who simply did not exist? Was the story deliberately spread by the school’s owner to distract the public from focusing on building code violations as she fled the city? Whatever it was, the game of telephone resulted in an astonishing amount of unnecessary attention and misallocated resources. How can post-disaster communities ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again — that rumors don’t turn into facts, and that information is verified

Well, we’re going to spend this episode in — you guessed it — Mexico City, exploring how what began as a group of friends using WhatsApp to share information during the earthquake turned into a vast network of information gatherers and verifiers that became known as Verificado19s.

Narrator: This is what Mexico City’s main avenue, Paseo de la Reforma, sounds like on a regular day. But on September 19, 2017, when the Cocos tectonic plate (that lies beneath Mexico City) collided with the Pacific plate, the city sounded very different.

Daniel Montaño: On September 19, when the Earthquake hit, I was at work in the Juarez Neighborhood.

Narrator: This is Daniel Montaño.

Daniel Montaño: I was the last one to leave the building because I had my headphones on. I was writing, and I only realized because the coffee mug on my desk started shaking. I took off my headphones and heard the alarm, and the screams and—despite being on the first floor, it took me a long time to get out because the ground was wobbly. You couldn’t walk—you’d stumble. I went through the parking lot and saw the cars moving back and forth, as if they didn’t have hand breaks, and the water pouring out of pipes. It was a sign, like completely apocalyptic.

Narrator: After the shaking finally stopped, Daniel did the first thing many of us would probably do: he tried to call his parents. But the earthquake had knocked out many the phone lines and cell networks, and he couldn’t get through to them. So instead, he grabbed his bike.

Daniel Montaño: It was about a 20-25 minute ride, not a lot, but it took me longer because I needed to cross Reforma Avenue, and it was impassable because the whole street and sidewalks were taken up by people, thousands and thousands of people. Paseo de la Reforma is the main street of the city, along with Insurgentes Avenue. These streets connect the city. People were everywhere in the street, everyone looking upwards, and if you looked up, you saw the broken windows of these huge buildings. Some of the biggest buildings in the city are on Reforma Avenue. It was then that I started to realize how serious this was.

Narrator: The Puebla earthquake hit on September 19, which has now become an almost unbelievably ill-fated date for Mexico. It’s the exact date that the catastrophic 1985 Mexico City earthquake struck, exactly 32 years earlier — an event etched into the city’s collective memory. It’s difficult to imagine the shock and bewilderment of those in Mexico City as the 2017 earthquake hit. The ground was shaking again, on the exact same date.

The magnitude 7.1 Puebla quake left the city devastated. Over 350 people were killed and thousands more injured. Forty buildings collapsed. Some were trapped under the rubble for days. And although the shaking might have lasted for just three minutes, the memories have lasted far longer.

Ana Givaudan: When the earthquake hit I was on a plane ready to move to a new life in Guatemala and my plane never took off. We were stuck there for close to four hours.

Narrator: This is Ana Givaudan.

Ana Givaudan: So it took me a while to realize that it was an earthquake because when you’re in a plane let’s say it feels different. It felt more like turbulence but we were still on land, so it was weird. So I thought it was some sort of strong wind or something until I realized that it was actually an earthquake. But as an instinct my first move was to just reach out to my family, my parents and my brother, and luckily they all answered very quickly because I was stuck in the airplane for four hours so if they hadn’t they answered, I think I would have been very worried and  anxious because during those four hours, all the information, chaos started…like people sending videos and all sorts of stuff that made you realize that it wasn’t just a regular earthquake like the ones we’re used to here. It wasn’t routine. We realized it was something much bigger that we hadn’t — I don’t think our generation had experienced.

Narrator: Ana was on her way to Guatemala to begin a new job, but her plane never took off, so she’d decided to spend the night at the airport and to take the first flight to Guatemala the next day. At least that was her plan.

Ana Givaudan: It was just impossible to stay put and just sit down and watch the news. Like it felt very frustrating and helpless. So I called my mom at 5:00 a.m. and I told her like this is gonna be impossible I cannot just stay here and see things just happen. Please come pick me up. And the next day, let’s say that my involvement with the relief efforts started.

Narrator: In her groundbreaking book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” Rebecca Solnit wrote that: “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, and urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them.”

As Ana sat in the airport hotel and watched images of her community suffering, she heard the call to respond. And, like so many others, not just in Mexico City, but around the whole country, and around the world, she dove in.

The next day she went to a university which had been transformed into a donation hub where people could bring supplies that were then taken to what became known as “zero zones” — the hardest hit places where rescue efforts were ongoing. It didn’t take much time for her to land right in the middle of things.

Ana Givaudan: I ended up going to one of the remote places that were affected and everything was very chaotic, unorganized, hectic. Everything happened so fast. You don’t have time to really learn, you just have to do and wish that your decision is the right one. Because when this kind of dynamics happen where the government might be overwhelmed in their response and that civilians and volunteers kind of take over operations, basically. We don’t have the training, we don’t know protocols, we don’t have safety guidelines to take care of us or the process that should happen inside a zero zone, right? So it’s just basically improvising.

Narrator: What Ana saw was a whole lot of people with the desire to help — but not enough guidance or information available to channel this desire in an effective way. And Daniel, who had been biking around the city, trying to help with the relief efforts, was seeing a similar kind of thing happening.

Daniel Montaño: On that first day I noticed features of an anarchist society emerging. As if there was no vertical structure, everything was horizontal and improvised, but it worked somehow. This overcrowding of help is part of what I’m talking about: a lot of people reacted to this guilt by trying to help, and that is good, it’s very good, but this help concentrated on certain areas — especially in Roma and Condesa. And I think this is because of a social issue — those are affluent neighborhoods. And, I don’t know, but I think that that sells more in terms of going viral on social media or morbid fascination. And also because the videos of collapsed buildings in Condesa and Roma were the ones that were shared the most on social media. So, yeah, the day after the tragedy I arrived to Roma and Condesa in the morning, and in the España Park I came across a lot of people doing nothing. They all had their shiny new vests, helmets and brand new shovels from home depot, but they were doing nothing, just waiting for someone to tell them “go and do this or that”, but they were just in the way really.

Narrator: Daniel was starting to notice that there was a need for information to be verified in real time. Just because there were social media images of collapsed buildings in the Condesa or Roma neighborhoods didn’t necessarily mean that help was needed there at that moment.

Daniel Montaño: I was taking a break at the Cineteca — a state operated movie theater — that was operating both as a shelter and a collection center. They would give you coffee and sandwiches, and you could lay down on the lawn. I was there resting a little bit when I overheard that there, at the Cineteca, they had a van with volunteers and rescue gear which was being sent to places in need, and they got the report that a building had fallen at the Narvarte neighborhood. But by then there were lots of rumors spreading, lots of fake news about buildings that hadn’t collapsed completely, but alarmists were saying that they had. And this is bad, because you’re sending help to places where they don’t need it at that time, while you could redirect the aid to where they actually do need it. So these guys were wondering whether or not the rumor they’d become aware of was real. So they needed someone to verify it. And there I was, the lazy cyclist chilling. So I told them “Hey I can ride over there. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you what it’s like once I get there.” So I head really fast to that street, which was like 20 minutes away, give or take.

Daniel Montaño: And I remember that on my way there, my heart was pounding at full speed. And my mind was like “If the building did fall, the longer it takes me to get there, the longer it takes for help to arrive and aid these people that are probably dying.” Or the other way around: the building could’ve not have collapsed, and we could be redirecting this help elsewhere where people need it, etcetera. But I arrive and the neighbors have the situation under control. They had already abandoned the building, which had not collapsed, and the street had been cordoned off. So I call the Cineteca people and explain the situation—I tell them not to worry, that everything is alright, everything is in order.

Narrator: It wasn’t just headline grabbing examples like Frida Sofia that arose out of the chaos. If the game of telephone between on-the-ground rescuers, Mexican officials, and the media could fabricate an entire 12-year-old girl, it’s not hard to imagine that there were probably hundreds, if not thousands, of less visible miscommunications taking place in Mexico City after the quake.

What Daniel and Ana were seeing on the ground suggested to them that one of the most crucial elements of the relief work that needed to be done was to efficiently organize and coordinate the massive outpouring of help and generosity that they were seeing. Neither of them knew yet about the existence of Verificado19s, the organization that had spontaneously emerged out of the ocean of uncertainty that had washed over Mexico City. But soon, they would both become absorbed within its vast network of volunteers who were gathering and verifying information.

At the time, Ana was working mostly in the zero zones, which were highly restricted areas that most people could not get inside.

Ana Givaudan: No one that shouldn’t be there can get in. I got in because I talked to the right persons offering help that they really needed. So they agreed. But first you get to the first filter and it’s the police, and then the second filter is just Marines or soldiers. And then there’s another third filter with more soldiers until you get to the actual zero zone and the surroundings. Zero zones are a very hectic place. I always compare it to what I think, like a set for the Walking Dead or apocalypse would look like.

Narrator: A lot of the groups on the ground at the time had started using the free messaging app WhatsApp to coordinate information. The goal was to allocate volunteers and resources to the zero zones in a number of different neighborhoods. There were a few different WhatsApp groups, but Ana had noticed that the information in most of them wasn’t always accurate. But there was one group that stood out.

Ana Givaudan: I ended up being on the field and coordinating a lot of logistics. And I was made part of just this group in WhatsApp. And I kept going to different zero zones and I realized that this one group was very efficient in getting me the stuff that I needed. They made my life so much easier. Because with the other groups I had to invest more time in the coordination part and with this group,  I just said, “I need 300 shovels, I need 20 helmets, I need blah blah blah blah,” and they just got it without questioning and they just coordinating it. And they just send me the contact of the person that was gonna deliver it to me.

Narrator: This was the WhatsApp group that was being coordinated by Verifcado19s.

Ana Givaudan: I was the information source because I was on the field. So, of course my job in the field trying to get everything rescuers needed wouldn’t have happened without the coordination that I had, let’s say at the headquarters of Verificado19. However they wouldn’t have anything to coordinate or verify information without people onsite. So both parts were equally needed.

Sandra Patargo: My experience working in Verificado19s was very interesting. I think it was very powerful being able to see how civil society can organize in such a way.

Narrator: This is Sandra Patargo, who was working on what you might call the intelligence side of Verificado19s — helping to coordinate the flow of information coming from people in the field, like Ana, and making it publicly available. Sandra was one of the people who got the original Verificado19s WhatsApp group going.

Sandra Patargo: We had a WhatsApp group that we started—a group of friends — a couple of years before the earthquake,to organize a protest actually. We became friends from the student movement in 2012 “Yo Soy 132”. We were a group of friends, but also a network of people that were constantly in contact with each other whenever something relevant happened or needed to happen.

Narrator: When the earthquake hit, Sandra and her friends decided that they could use their WhatsApp network to help break some of the paralysis that had overtaken the city.

Sandra Patargo: Someone in the chat, a friend put in the in the group, like, why don’t we start making a spreadsheet with all the different affected areas and just try to understand what’s going on in each place? So we literally opened a spreadsheet that was shareable. It was a Google drive and we started putting one tab that said it was shelters and the other one was affected buildings. So we started getting information with people that we knew that were going to these places. So we started calling our friends and saying, like, “where are you? Oh, I am in this shelter in Cibeles. So what do you need there?” They need water. Okay. So we put it in the spreadsheet.

Narrator: But it was more than just spreadsheets. With support from Google Mexico, they actually created a real time digital map of damaged buildings. They also quickly developed a mastery over social media — a space which we might not generally associate as a bastion of accurate information. One very simple yet successful strategy they implemented was the design and digital distribution of informational postcards that used data from spreadsheets. One of the most important postcards laid out a set of procedures that field volunteers had to follow in order for their data to be accepted as being accurate.

Sandra Patargo: We actually made a postcard that we kept sharing and sharing, asking people to be very thorough with the verification process. So we were asking them to have two sources — so you have to see it with your own eyes. It couldn’t be just like, ‘my aunt told me,’ or, you know, ‘there’s a rumor’. No, no. We needed to have like verified information. So that’s why we asked two sources and people to have actually seen whatever they were saying they saw.

Narrator: As they gained more attention, the group quickly grew from just a few friends to a network of hundreds; utilizing relief workers, cyclists, and social media to make sense of a landscape in disarray.

Sandra Patargo: When we’re thinking about the needs, for example, I’m thinking about Multifamiliares — a building where a lot of people were trapped. I remember being at 4 a.m. trying to get hard tools to that specific building and not being able to get an answer from the authorities. You know, like, tools that it’s not common for normal citizens to have in their houses. So it was 4:00 a.m. The authorities were not responding. We knew people were alive and it was just civil society going with a bike, trying to get as SD cards because they needed SD cards to do the monitoring of the sound. And it was all people that we didn’t know each other. We were just trusting each other and giving things for free. You know, like some people would be like, hey, you need a specific tool that cost a lot, but I’m an architect. I’ll give it to you. It doesn’t matter if I’m gonna get it back, you know? And I remember that night being like, where are the authorities? Are they actually asleep? Because no one else is responding. You know, there were people verifying information in these building saying there’s no one there. Authorities are not here. Authorities are here just to preserve the law and order. But there’s no one actually bringing the things that we need. It’s civil society. So I think it’s very inspiring to see what something so terrible as a natural disaster — the impact it can have in a society and how people can leave everything behind just to focus their attention in trying rescue people.

Narrator: Mexican authorities have been sharply criticized not just for their response to the earthquake — but also for the corrupt practices which led to so many deaths in the first place. City officials were implicated in a number of scandals involving shady deals with private developers who were allowed to skip building code regulations. It was this corruption between politicians, city officials, and private developers that directly led to so many buildings collapsing.

And when it comes to the city’s response to the earthquake, there have been all sorts of criticisms, ranging from more specific accusations that authorities were prioritizing relief in wealthier neighborhoods, to more general criticisms of overall mismanagement and ineptitude.

Sandra Patargo: So I remember asking the — not particularly me, but some people that were with me — trying to get different resources from the Mexico City government and just going through a lot of bureaucracy to be able to get that. But I also remember — which is actually quite a funny story — I remember that government authorities eventually started contacting us. Because they just realized that we were more coordinated — so they were asking questions to us. So that was hilarious because I just realized that a bunch of, I don’t know, thirty-something people were just responsible of getting a lot of the things that were needed for the for their emergency response. So it was crazy. I remember just sitting with my friends and saying, like, “I’m getting a WhatsApp from this government official, and they’re asking me, like, ‘what do we need?’ and ‘what can they do?’” And I’m just like, this is crazy.

Narrator: Of course, if you’ve ever listened to any of our past episodes, you’ll know that it’s not at all uncommon for spontaneous, grassroots initiatives to outperform the efforts of city or state governments when it comes to disaster response. Yet despite all the examples of corruption and mismanagement, including in Mexico City, it’s important not to present criticisms of the government’s relief efforts as a wholesale indictment of government itself. The question is, what can city-wide relief efforts learn from the successes of community-led initiatives like Verificado19s?

Well, after the chaos from the Puebla earthquake subsided and things began to settle down, the next question for Verificado19s was: “what now?” Over the next few months, volunteers got together and began to compile some of the lessons they’d learned throughout their experiences into a website which eventually turned into a set of protocols and manuals that has actually been adopted by almost 60 media outlets, civil society organizations, and universities.

The resources include a set of replicable lessons that articulate best practices for limiting the spread of “fake news” and misinformation, as well as a set of ethical principles aimed at guiding volunteers in their individual and collective work. There’s also a PDF titled “Recommendations for Civil Society,” which Ana helped to author. It outlines how Verificado19s successfully leveraged the use of free digital resources like WhatsApp, Twitter, Google Spreadsheets, and My Maps to mobilize a grassroots army of volunteers.

Ana Givaudan: There elements that made Verificado19s successful. I would say, first, was a previously established network of trust that rapidly grew. And second, it was the fact-checking and verifying information using crowdsourcing. So all this created a trustworthy system with the public and the media. So, this at the same time gave us validation and much more visibility for people to keep contributing. So at the end we were a socially engineered, citizen logistic machinery that complemented the official response.

Sandra Patargo: For me, it’s important to say that Verificado19s was something coming out from the citizenship — from people, you know, not from institutions, corporations and organizations. So right from the start, a lot of us were a little bit reluctant of having big corporations getting involved in this process. So, for example, some of us were never happy with having Google involved in this. You know, and a lot of us actually believe we didn’t need Google involved because, I mean, we were using their spreadsheets, but we were using them for free — we were just using the platforms that we use everyday anyway. So some of us never really understood what the role of Google was in these, for example.

And I’m more of the impression that the relevant part of Verificado19s was the networks, the people, you know, the trust relationships, people being in the streets and trusting people in a computer, you know. And not the things that decorated Verificado19s, the web page or you know… I think that media outlets and other actors were interested about the map and about the web page, and about who the leaders were, you know. And I think a lot of us we weren’t interested in that. And we weren’t really paying attention because we thought that the core of what was happening, it was with the people, you know, that were actually in the streets.

Ana Givaudan: Yeah, in a collective when there’s a crisis, I think especially in Mexico, like we have this weird gene that unites us in two things soccer and disasters, right? For a while we all forget our differences and we unite as Mexicans and that was really nice to see for example.

What emerged as Verificado19s — the thing is it wasn’t the only initiative. It was the one that received the most spotlight because it worked and because people involved in this collective had already platforms to make it be known to the public. But it was just one of I would say hundreds of initiatives that happened.

I think we were all smart enough to know how to take advantage of this already… structures and platforms that a lot of the people involved were in because they were part of the organized civil society right. So it was just a puzzle that fit and that helped. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but what we did worked. And it was efficient. It was very valuable because without the experience in emergency and disaster management we managed to surpass the government’s response that was completely overwhelmed.

Narrator: This episode was written and produced by Robert Raymond, interviews were conducted by field producer Fernando Hernández, and was executive produced and hosted by myself, Tom Llewellyn. A big thanks to Chris Zabri 6skie, Deerhoof, Pele, and Collections of Colonies of Bees for the music.

The Response is a project of Shareable.net — an award-winning nonprofit news, action and connection hub for the sharing transformation. Distribution support comes from Making Contact, and funding was provided by the Threshold, SHIFT, and Guerrilla Foundations.

For episode transcripts, resources for building community resilience, and more, visit TheResponsePodcast.org. We don’t have much of a marketing budget for this project, so if you liked what you heard, please head over to Apple Podcasts and give us a good rating. It might not sound like much, but it’ll make a huge difference.

 

Teaser photo credit: Illustration by Kane Lynch