PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The man wears a balaclava with a wide, toothy grin on the front — a stark contrast to the angry, threat-laden rant he’s delivering.
“You don’t have to wait for my orders,” Izo says in a video posted this month to tens of thousands of followers on TikTok and Instagram. He won’t show his gun on camera, he says — or his video might be reported to the platforms’ moderators.
The violent armed gangs that control much of Haiti are using social media to expand their reach and tighten their grip on the beleaguered Caribbean nation. Posts aimed at energizing recruits, intimidating rivals and terrorizing the population are challenging the ability of the platforms to police the problematic content. Some here are calling for tighter controls.
“The bandits would never have been as powerful as they are in Haiti without social media,” said Yvens Rumbold of Policité, a policy think tank here. “We always had bandits in Haiti, but without these platforms, they would not be as famous.”
Jimmy Cherizier is a former police officer on whom the United States has imposed sanctions for allegedly leading armed groups in “coordinated, brutal attacks in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods,” the U.S. Treasury said in a release, including a five-day attack in May 2020 in which civilians were slain and houses burned. When Cherizier united warring gangs here into the G9 Family and Allies, he announced the alliance on YouTube. In a Twitter post, an account purporting to belong to him urged backers to “ransack everything.”
As violence between gangs in Port-au-Prince escalated in recent months, gang members posted photos of corpses on WhatsApp, human rights groups say. Izo uses several platforms to threaten and mock rivals, police officers and journalists.
Gangs use social media to promote themselves, push narratives, show their strength, delegitimize state institutions and recruit members. In some posts, gang leaders flash cash, gold chains and blinged-out watches, signifiers of a lifestyle that is far out of reach for the great majority in this impoverished nation.
“Social media is responsible for a lot of the insecurity climate that we have here,” said James Boyard, a political scientist at the State University of Haiti. “Social media has a huge responsibility … to vet their users, to analyze the images on the accounts and to censure them in some instances. They need to do more, frankly.”
Cherizier, in an interview with a sympathizer on YouTube, is asked specifically about the utility of social media.
“I’m thanking those who create these technologies,” he says. “Tech today gives us an opportunity to sell ourselves to the public. I’m not selling lies. I’m who I say I am. I do not do 99 percent of what they said I’ve done. … Technologies gave me an opportunity to defend myself.”
The development troubles some officials here.
In October, Frantz Louis Juste, then Port-au-Prince’s top prosecutor, wrote a letter asking several platforms to “block or delete” the accounts of several individuals, including Cherizier, who he claimed were associated with criminal groups.
“These gangs instill a reign of terror in society,” he told The Washington Post. “They need less widespread publicity.”
The letter was made public but wasn’t sent to the companies that it named.
TikTok’s rules bar terrorist and criminal organizations from using the app. The company removed Izo’s account after The Post asked about it. It said it was reviewing others.
“There’s no place for violent extremism or promotion of violence on TikTok,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “We will remove content and ban accounts that violate our policies as we work to foster a safe and welcoming environment.”
Twitter said it was reviewing accounts and tweets “in line with our rules.” The company has reported receiving one legal request from Haiti to remove content. That was in 2016.
After being questioned by The Post, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, removed from Izo’s Facebook and Instagram accounts the video in which he threatens to kill 30 people. It did not remove his profiles, and the same video appeared on another Instagram account with his name.
“We regularly review organizations to determine if they violate our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy and ban them from our platforms if they do,” the company said in a statement. “We use technology to detect violations and deploy global teams, which include native Creole speakers, to review content.”
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.
Gangs have long had a presence in Haiti, but their power has grown in recent years amid a broader deterioration of democratic institutions and security conditions. Analysts estimate that they control 60 percent of the country and are on the brink of becoming, collectively, a “proto state.”
In recent years, gang kidnappings for ransom have skyrocketed. No one has been immune — victims have included American missionaries, French clergy and Haitians of all ages and backgrounds.
Haiti’s Center for Analysis and Research on Human Rights counted 225 kidnappings in the first quarter of 2022 — up nearly 60 percent from the same period last year.
Since April, armed violence in the capital between 400 Mawozo, the gang implicated in the kidnapping last year of 17 American and Canadian missionaries with an Ohio-based charity, and Chen Mechan, a rival gang, has escalated. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has called the level of violence “unimaginable and intolerable.”
Nearly 17,000 Haitians have been displaced by the clashes, according to the United Nations, and at least 200 have been killed — almost half of them civilians. Deepening insecurity is one factor fueling an exodus of Haitians on rickety boats bound for the United States and elsewhere on sometimes deadly voyages.
Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network reported last month that gang members in the recent battles had raped women and girls, mutilated bodies and taken photos of these “macabre scenes” to post on social media to “maintain terror among the population.”
The nongovernmental group showed photos to The Post that it said were shared by gang members in WhatsApp groups. The images of scattered body parts, decapitated heads and mutilated corpses were forwarded many times on the Meta-owned messaging service.
Analysts said messages from gang members often appear on WhatsApp first and are then spread on other platforms or by mainstream media organizations. WhatsApp’s encrypted chats scramble messages so only the sender and receiver can read them, making it more difficult to detect harmful content unless a user reports it.
Twitter and TikTok said their human content moderators and other tools that detect harmful content cover several languages, but they did not say whether Haitian Creole was among them.
“These social media [companies] need resources affiliated to specific regions and countries,” Rumbold said.
Still, some users are adept at slipping around efforts to block them.
After TikTok removed Izo’s account recently, he posted several Instagram stories to share the news and express his displeasure.
One Instagram story showed a TikTok page — with several of the videos from the deleted one.
“God forbid I had another account,” said the text of the story, with several flexed biceps emoji.