Antisocial media?

As Facebook finds itself publicly on the hook for enabling Russian agents to spread divisive propaganda via its platform, be it in the form of fake news, ‘dark ads‘, issue pushing Facebook pages, and even political rallies organized using its Event tools, there’s another side to the story of how tech tools are impacting the democratic process currently playing out in Catalonia, where the regional government has been pushing for independence from Spain.

To some, the Catalan political crisis has been a long time coming. It has its roots in the linguistic and cultural repression suffered by Catalans under the Franco dictatorship, and is also indicative of a political divide between a progressive, cosmopolitan region vs the more conservative forces that currently hold the reins of power in Spain.

To others, the push for independence is an irresponsible, attempted power grab by a minority of smartphone-wielding anti-system radicals in one of Spain’s wealthiest regions that threatens to undermine the rule of law and the cohesiveness of the wider political alliance of the European Union.

One thing is clear: Social media is playing a key role in the events unfolding in Catalonia — not merely in enabling the spread of grassroots political messaging (‘propaganda’ if you prefer), and not merely in drawing international attention to democratic fault-lines in the country, after Spain’s military police were shown in videos on social media beating unarmed civilians. (Not a good look for a Western democracy, to say the least.) But as a catalytic enabler of highly targeted direct action — looping in messaging apps like WhatsApp to accelerate the process of organizing and mobilizing supporters of a political cause.

Social media’s role in facilitating freer speech for people living under oppressive authoritarian regimes has been much discussed, and its impact debated — as regards, for example, the Arab Spring. But arguably rather less attention has been paid to how ubiquitous tech tools are impacting Western democracies — at least until last year’s US presidential election (which now looks like the moment the political penny dropped, so to speak) — i.e. in places where democratically elected governments can’t literally try to ban or shut down these open access tech tools. (Even if some politicians are now calling for regulation.)

In Catalonia, as in the rest of Spain, WhatsApp is by far the most popular messaging app, and is used by people of all ages to message one-to-one and one-to-many. Its ‘Groups’ function is used for many things; groups are typically set up between friends and work colleagues for sending info, news, jokes, memes (sometimes the joke is literally a piece of ‘fake news’ such as a photoshopped photo that looks legit in preview but when clicked on reveals a lurking meme) and of course for organizing actual meet ups.

Temporary WhatsApp groups often pop up ahead of a birthday or a leaving party to help arrange events and fire up excitement. There are also long standing interest groups that can cut across friendship groups by pooling all sorts of people into the same messaging thread around a particular overarching interest, such as football or food. So of course this ubiquitous social tool is also being used for distributing political messages.

And now, with the regional political crisis heightening, WhatsApp is being used more and more for co-ordinating and mobilizing direct actions — as a form of (thus far) peaceful protest aimed at furthering the Catalan independence cause. WhatsApp groups are one of the primary conduits for distributing what can literally be sets of instructions for people to carry out these protest actions. The app is not the only tool being used — email groups and Telegram channels are also used to get the message out, for example. But the popular, Facebook-owned platform is definitely a key tool in the arsenal of independence activists at this point.

On Thursday evening, for example, a message was sent via a WhatsApp group for local cultural organization Ominum, telling people to go to one of five major banks the next morning, between 8:00 and 9:00, and withdraw an unspecified amount of money to protest the arrest of its pro-independence president on charges of sedition. A prior message had primed people in the group to await instructions that evening for a “peaceful direct action” the following morning.

Anyone who happened to be a client of Sabadell or Caixa Bank was also told to express their dissatisfaction directly to staff in the banks that the companies decided to move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia — decisions the companies took in the wake of the independence referendum.

The messages being sent to these WhatsApp groups are clear, structured, specific and replete with emoji…

On Twitter the above instruction morphed into several hashtags, including #155ESP, with €155 becoming the suggested amount to withdraw as a symbolic response to Article 155. (Although in fact the organizers of the direct action had not, at least in the above missive, suggested a specific amount; that was left up to the discretion of supporters.)

And sure enough, on a dull Friday morning, queues of pro-independence supporters formed outside cash points and inside banks in Barcelona and beyond, as people acted en masse to turn a normal activity — withdrawing a bit of cash — into a political protest by doing it simultaneously and at scale.

The underlying message being, if big banks are going to apply economic pressure to political processes, citizen consumers can push back and express their displeasure by wielding their PINs and emptying cash points — in a sort of non-digital, distributed denial of (cash) services attack. (Although the banks have since claimed no liquidity problems resulted from the cash withdrawal protest.)

Catalan media outlets duly turned up to interview participants in the protest — meaning the event was then packaged up and distributed as news via traditional media channels, becoming another round in the info war that both sides on this political divide are waging.

Of course direct action and organized political protest have been around for far, far longer than social media platforms and messaging apps. And without these tech tools the highly engaged Catalan independence movement would undoubtedly create alternative conduits to spread their messages and mobilize supporters (as others have pointed out, the movement’s cohesiveness is founded on neighborhood solidarity and grassroots political structures; tech platforms can’t take credit for the underlying community solidarity which is yielding such a demonstrably high level of political engagement among local people).

But a tool like WhatsApp very clearly takes some of the strain out of organizing political protests and mobilizing people en masse. Arguably, these ubiquitous tech tools are enabling direct action to be more specific and more responsive than might otherwise be possible.

Because if organizers don’t have to worry about their communications reaching enough of their supporters in time for a protest or another type of action to be viable, they likely have more time to plan and craft those actions. And — assuming their supporters are engaged enough — the ability to spark more mass actions within a given period of time.

In Catalonia it’s not just been a one off cash withdrawal protest. In recent weeks there have been multiple co-ordinated direct actions, including protest marches that have brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets at a time. A general strike that closed scores of shops, businesses and public institutions from midnight Sunday until Monday afternoon. Students also took to the streets to march in silent protest against police violence in the wake of the referendum vote. There’s been a candlelit protest over imprisoned Catalan civil society leaders. The list goes on. And it’s only three weeks since the October 1 referendum. Today yet another protest brought thousands back into the streets.

The question is whether social media is having an amplification effect on political events — as it so often apparently can. (By, for example, Facebook’s platform turning a single clickbaity fake news story into a viral sensation that suddenly has major opinion-shifting influence.)

And whether ubiquitous social mobile tools are greasing the pipe for participatory democracy/political protest by making it trivially easy to reach and push many people’s buttons.

For years Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about the company’s mission being to make the world “more open and connected”. He talked rather less about the implications of doing that — as is very evident now the company finds itself on the back foot, firefighting a storm of domestic criticism for being (at very best) extremely naive about how its tools could be (and were being) utilized by malicious actors intent on sewing social division, including seeking to directly interfere in the U.S. elections and the democratic process.

But the point is all these tech tools are there and free for anyone to use. And they can be used to further all sorts of political causes, as events in Catalonia underline. So then, what happens to social cohesiveness when every interest group with a drum to bang works out how to effectively rechannel the power of platform tech to organize and protest — and/or influence and subvert?

It’s a very interesting question.

Maybe social media’s openness actually ends up fostering the opposite of connectedness. Maybe it’s really rather better-suited to fracturing the consensus narratives traditionally used to glue societies and peoples together because it’s so good at isolating and magnifying differing viewpoints — and thus at ripping apart the social fabric along existing fault lines.

Of course Russia trying to sew dissent in the West is not a new story. What’s new is the shiny set of Western-designed tech tools the Kremlin is now able to use to further that divisive mission — with, quite possibly, devastatingly effective impact on U.S. soil.

What the near-ubiquitous, real-time connectedness that’s enabled by our modern mobile networks combined with hugely powerful social platforms actually means for Western democracy and the democratic process is a fascinating question.

And, even with some bona fide Russian Facebook propaganda in front of us, there is no clear answer, yet.

But you can perhaps see glimpses of change coming in the sorts of highly coordinated political actions taking place on the streets of Catalonia with increasing frequency — powered by people fueled by technology.

In the WhatsApp group for Catalan independence supporters, a professionally produced video distributed at the same time as instructions for the cash withdrawal protest uses a series of visual metaphors to push home its message that people acting together have the power to enact large-scale change.

“They will tell you you can do nothing,” it says in Catalan. “They will tell you you are insignificant. But remember. You are not alone. We are many.”

The video ends with another hashtag: #LaForçaDeLaGente

This post was updated to add Telegram channels as another example of distribution channels for distributing info between independence supporters. 

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