By Ben Barber

Fake news is not just an accusation made by the White House and U.S. politicians against each other – it circles the globe on the Internet and has emerged as an unlikely barrier to fixing up the state of Morelos in central Mexico, after a 7.1 quake hit last month, killing 74 and injuring 2,000.

Reports say that distribution of aid has been stymied by the spread of fake news on social media.

In Morelos, in the days after the devastating earthquake a mob of enraged quake survivors sacked a warehouse filled with supplies. They were angry because of fake news reports circulating on Facebook and Twitter that the aid was being siphoned off by leaders of one political party. They were also upset because media and relief attention was focused on toppled buildings in Mexico City, where fewer people died than in Morelos.

Rumors of abuse and corruption are widely spread in a variety of instances such as elections, trials and police abuse. There is a region-wide suspicion that corruption is tolerated by those in power, undercutting trust needed to distribute aid, assess damage and get people to work together in the wake of disasters.

In Nicaragua, for example, after a 1972 quake leveled the center of the capital Managua, relief aid that flowed into the country was reportedly stolen, leading a few years later to support for overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. Unfortunately, it was replaced by the socialist Sandinistas who set up their own corrupt system.

Politics are at play in Morelos’ aid distribution woes. As noted by NPR, “Unlike the capital city where thousands of volunteers are helping to rescue survivors, there is far less help in Morelos and far more dead.”

NPR met with survivors in Morelos state but found people had little hope of getting cash to rebuild their historic, centuries-old adobe brick houses that made it a tourist attraction and housed many businesses and families.

The British newspaper the Guardian reported that “in the state of Morelos, one of the regions closest to the quake’s epicenter, Catholic bishop Ramón Castro accused the state government of diverting aid packages so that it could claim credit for the supplies.” Castro is a prominent political opponent of the state’s progressive governor and a close ally of the conservative Enrique Peña Nieto.

Morelos’s governor and police commissioner have denied the allegations, and volunteers on the ground have spoken out repeatedly about the effective distribution of aid.

Many recalled the catastrophic Mexico City earthquake of 1985. Thousands died but survivors were abandoned by an inept federal government response.

The spread of viral videos alleging corruption has contributed to this state of affairs.

Governor Ramirez, for example, is a leader in the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Nieto, the current president of Mexico and a political opponent of Ramirez’s, is the leader of the right-leaning Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Social media videos claimed that Ramirez’s state government was withholding aid in return for political support. But many of these accusations seem to have come from opponents of the PRD, including Bishop Castro.

Fake news had already gotten attention following the earthquake. Rumors that children were trapped inside a collapsed school in Mexico City led to a week-long search that found no evidence – other than rumors online – that any survivors were trapped inside.

There are also reports that relief aid was only given to backers of political parties.

One rumor claimed that the wife of Governor Ramirez was diverting trucks full of supplies for non-humanitarian purposes. That set off an attack by a mob that ransacked a warehouse full of earthquake recovery supplies. Police flatly denied the false rumors, but the damage was done.

The Morelos police commissioner and representative of the Army and the Red Cross said in a press conference that aid would be guaranteed safe passage through government channels to reach the people who needed it most.

Some in Morelos said aid is being delivered in their communities, but their comments have gone largely unreported. Major media outlets have focused on the initial claims of corruption on social media.The Morelos government voiced concern that “malicious misinformation” might slow the delivery of aid and volunteers to the state when they need it most.

Several international aid organizations on the ground in Morelos pledged to carry out fair distribution of supplies and assistance.

Mexicans have an “increasingly grim” view of the direction of their country, according to recent polling from Pew, and allegations of corruption, even those lacking proof, often capture widespread attention on social media.

Ramirez is a likely candidate for next year’s presidential election; allegations of misuse of aid could harm his chances and, in turn, boost Nieto’s.

Coverage of the disaster response in Morelos has been overwhelming negative, particularly by outlets seen as allied with the Nieto Administration.In covering the Morelos aid distribution rumors, Televisa, long viewed as friendly to Nieto after a mid-2000s scandal which found that the TV station sold favorable coverage to Nieto when he was governor of the state of Mexico, has interviewed political opponents of the governor, giving a platform to the rumors.

It’s unclear if or when the fake news epidemic will abate. Until it does, survivors of natural disasters will continue to be the victims of misinformation.

Ben Barber is a journalist and communications consultant, covering international affairs for nearly 40 years.

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