The uneven convergence of digital freedom activism and popular protest
To cite: Postill, J. 2013. The uneven convergence of digital freedom activism and popular protest: a global theory of the new protest movements. Melbourne: RMIT University. Available at: http://rmit.academia.edu/JohnPostill
Photo credit: Carlos Delclós and Raimundo Viejo, ROAR Mag
The existing literature on the recent global wave of social protest ranges from theories that regard new media as ‘game-changers’, to those that stress the centrality of global communication networks or of online/offline articulations in the occupied squares, to those that seek explanations not in new media but in the protracted crisis of financial capitalism. This article proposes an alternative theory of the new protest movements centred on the growing convergence of the global movement for digital freedom with local forms of social unrest. Eschewing vague references to undifferentiated ‘digital natives’ or young indignants as the driving force behind the protests, the proposed theory highlights the importance of a global techno-libertarian vanguard led by three types of digital freedom specialist, namely hackers, lawyers and journalists. In some national contexts but not others, these politicised technology ‘nerds’ succeeded in joining forces with a heterogeneous front made up of both tech and non-tech specialists (artists, designers, social activists, intellectuals, teachers, students, etc.), blending their techno-libertarianism with popular demands for freedom and social justice. The proposed term for this novel formula is 3MP (3 techno-libertarian types + an activist miscellany + the general population). The empirical evidence for this theory is drawn from my anthropological research among Spain’s indignados as well as from the secondary comparative literature both from countries where the powerful 3MP convergence took place (e.g. Iceland, Tunisia, the US, Mexico) and from those where it failed to do so (e.g. the Netherlands).
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social movements, protests, digital activism, internet freedom, free culture, Anonymous, Wikileaks, Arab Spring, indignados, Occupy, Spain, 3MP
In October 2010 I was conducting anthropological fieldwork into digital media and activism in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain). This research took me to the Free Culture Forum, an annual global gathering of hackers, geeks, lawyers, bloggers, sociologists, and others interested in issues of internet freedom and new forms of P2P cultural production. During one of the breaks I struck up a conversation with Smári McCarthy, a hacker and information activist from Iceland. Smári and I had a cordial exchange about the contrasting ways in which anthropologists and hackers understand social and political systems (see Kelty 2008). I explained that many anthropologists today are averse to notions such as structure or system and prefer to think of sociocultural life in terms of social practices, a stance that I find problematic (Postill 2010). For Smári, by contrast, political systems are no different from any other system; they can be collaboratively studied, modified and improved – in other words, they can be hacked (Brooke 2011).
A few weeks after this conversation, in November 2010, the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks released over 250,000 US diplomatic cables in partnership with leading international newspapers such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, and El Pais. Suddenly my chosen research topic of digital freedom activism – until then a rather obscure choice in need of justification – had taken global centre stage, with Wikileaks, Anonymous, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning becoming household names. When the US government pressurised MasterCard and PayPal into blocking donations towards the legal fees of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, the online network Anonymous mobilised huge number of internet users who attacked and disabled their servers (Coleman and Ralph 2011). Soon thereafter, Anonymous became embroiled in the fledgling Arab uprisings and in the wave of protests that swept through Spain, Mexico, the United States, Britain and many other countries throughout 2011.
While researching these events, I found a Swedish TV documentary on WikiLeaks in which Smári, the Icelandic hacktivist I met in Barcelona, was one of the talking heads. He explained the ‘information famine’ that had befallen Iceland after the implosion of its banking system in 2008. Wikileaks had obtained documentation that laid bare the tight grip of cronyism on the country’s financial system. When the bankers realised that this documentation had been posted online, they forced the Icelandic judiciary to impose a gag order on the news media for the first time in the country’s history. Undeterred, the state TV news anchor Kristinn Hrafnsson circumvented this order by simply directing viewers to the WikiLeaks website. This incident not only made WikiLeaks an instant phenomenon in Iceland but also led, following a high-profile visit by Assange and months of lobbying by Smári and other Icelandic information activists, to the unanimous passing of legislation aimed at transforming Iceland into ‘a new haven for free speech’ (Brooke 2011: 122).
This ethnographic tale of entry captures a strong cultural current that is still poorly understood, namely the uneven global convergence of digital freedom activism and popular protest. What is the relationship between the recent rise of information/digital freedom activism and the international waves of social protest that we experienced in 2011 and 2013? What part are digital freedom advocates playing in the new protest movements? With what consequences? In the fast-moving, seemingly chaotic unfolding of protest, does it make sense to analytically distinguish among techno-political specialists (geeks, hackers, journalists, lawyers, etc.) and their unique contributions to the struggle? If so, how may we go about conceptualising such differences?
The existing literature on the recent global wave of social protest ranges from theories that regard new media as ‘game-changers’ (Tufekci 2011), to those that stress the centrality of global communication networks or of online/offline articulations in the occupied squares (Castells 2012), to those that seek explanations not in new media but in the protracted crisis of financial capitalism (Mason 2012, Tejerina et al 2013). In this article I propose an alternative theory of the new protest movements centred on the growing convergence of the global movement for digital freedom with local forms of social unrest. Eschewing vague references to undifferentiated ‘digital natives’ or young indignants as the driving force behind the protests, the proposed theory highlights the importance of a global techno-libertarian vanguard led by three types of digital freedom specialist, namely hackers, lawyers and journalists. In some national contexts but not others, these politicised technology ‘nerds’ succeeded in joining forces with a heterogeneous front made up of both tech and non-tech specialists (artists, designers, social activists, intellectuals, teachers, students, etc.), blending their techno-libertarianism with popular demands for freedom and social justice. The proposed term for this novel formula is 3MP (3 techno-libertarian types + an activist miscellany + the general population). The empirical evidence for this theory is drawn from my own anthropological research in Spain in 2010-2011 as well from the secondary comparative literature both from countries where the powerful 3MP convergence took place (e.g. Iceland, Tunisia, Mexico, the US) and from those where it failed to do so (e.g. the Netherlands).
The new protest movements
The academic literature on the new waves of protest that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread to other Arab countries, southern Europe, North America and beyond throughout 2011 is vast and cannot be fully surveyed here. We can, however, distinguish two broad approaches. First, there is a rapidly expanding sub-literature devoted to one or two specific aspects of the protests, often within a given national context. Second, there is a much smaller set of works that seek to explain the global wave as a whole. I will briefly discuss these two approaches in turn, paying particular attention to the more ambitious attempts at comparative theorisation.
Within the first sub-literature six key areas of interest stand out. A first area is the holistic study of the protests in relation to the new ‘media ecologies’ (Tufekci and Wilson 2012), ‘information ecologies’ (Trere 2012) or ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick 2013) in which activists, protesters, governments, the news media and other political agents are now said to operate. Researchers working within this framework have highlighted different aspects of the new media landscapes, such as the virality of social and mobile media (Caren and Gaby 2011, Gaby and Caren 2012, Juris 2012, Kanavaugh et al 2011, Postill in press, Starbird and Palen 2012, Theocharis 2013), with special reference in some studies to protest or information/action ‘cascades’ (Hussain and Howard 2012, Tufekci 2011) or to the articulation of online and offline protest practices that result in ‘augmented reality’ in the occupied squares (Jurgenson 2012 ).
Another subset of studies concerns itself with news media coverage of the protests and their aftermath, e.g. how the Egyptian uprising was covered by Arabic state-run media versus independent and social media (Hamdy and Gomaa 2012), Western and Arab media (Loudon and Mazumdar 2013) or the New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter (Harlow and Johnson 2011). Boyle and McLeod (2012) found that the tactics of a movement were more important than its goals in shaping news coverage (cf. Juris 2005). Other scholars have researched the part played by social media in shaping political debate in the Arab uprisings (Bhuiyan 2011, Hussain and Howard 2012) or the multiple media framings of the Occupy movement (DeLuca et al 2012).
A third research stream has focussed on the relationship between activists’ social capital and their use of social media platforms to mobilise (or not) their ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973). Walgrave and Bennett (2011) found that contemporary activists ‘manage weak ties with diverse protest and movement communities’, whilst Valenzuela et al (2013) argue that Facebook usage by young Chilean activists is predictive of street protests whereas Twitter’s impact was felt later, at the height of the movement. Mercea (2013) also compared Facebook and Twitter, in this case in the context of bridging vs. bonding capital amongst Occupy the Netherlands activists.
A growing number of scholars have questioned the claim that these are leaderless movements – a claim often heard within the movements themselves. Garrido and Mouly (2013) point at Egypt as challenging this notion, whilst Howard and Hussain (2011) argue that the Arab uprisings were led by ‘young tech savvy activists’. Breuer (2012) similarly contends that in Tunisia social media allowed a ‘digital elite’ to bypass governmental control and link up with foreign media (see below). For Papic and Noonan (2011), protest leaders are important but do not always make effective use of the new digital technologies, whilst Hussain and Howard (2013) enquire into the views of civil society leaders and autocrats about the emancipatory potential of such technologies.
Others have highlighted the often overlooked social identity (class, gender, ethnicity, race, etc.) of protesters, e.g. how women used social media during the Arab Spring (Newsom and Lengel 2012), the problematic idea of ‘the 99%’ as ‘class-consciousness without classes’ (Wittkower 2012) or the paradoxical race and class ‘erasures’ within Occupy Canada’s ‘99%’ (Kilibarda 2012). Finally, and specifically within an Arab context, a number of authors have explored the question of martyrdom especially in connection to popular narrative genres (Halverston and Ruston 2013), visual and/or social media (Khashman 2012, Olesen 2013), and grassroots mobilisation (Khamis and Vaughn 2013).
Although all these strands of specialist research merit careful appraisal in their own right, it is the more general explanatory accounts that are of more germane to my aim of developing a new theory of the new protest movements. Four main theories have been proposed to date. These can be summed up as follows:
- New media are ‘game-changers’, for they allow citizens to circumvent government/media censorship and mobilise at great speed (Tufekci and Wilson 2012).
- The protests were the result of post-2008 ‘networks of outrage’ that morphed into ‘networks of hope’ in a globalised self-communication order (Castells 2012)
- Protest networks don’t operate in a leaderless cybervoid – the conscious orchestration of digital and physical forms of information/action was crucial to the impact of the occupied squares (Gerbaudo 2012)
- A political economy perspective is required in order to understand the protests as the latest manifestation of the protracted crisis of global capitalism (Tejerina et al 2013, Mason 2012).
The first theory was put forth by Tufekci (2011a, 2011b) in the context of the Arab Spring. For this author, the proliferation of mobile and online technologies after 2009 combined with the politicised TV network Al Jazeera reconfigured the media landscape in ways that the region’s autocratic regimes found increasingly difficult to counter. In the past, these regimes had succeeded in ‘quarantining’ popular resistance by making selective use of force. This ensured that local outbreaks did not spread widely. Yet with the explosive growth of new personal media, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region found themselves unable to stifle ‘simultaneous and multi-channel uprisings which spread rapidly and “virally”’ (see also Starbird and Palen, 2012).
A competing theory is proposed by Castells in his book Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012). Drawing from his previous work on the ‘network society’, Castells sees the protests as a global struggle over the control of networks of power and wealth. This struggle is played out in the domain of communication, with indignados, Occupiers and other protesters seeking to ‘subvert the practice of communication as usual by occupying the medium and creating the message’ through the internet and other digital networks (2012: 9). The collective journey from outrage to hope was one in which emotions played a fundamental role in lending the movements their force and momentum. In Barassi’s (2013) apt summary, for Castells ‘Internet networks have become the material support of a new type of political participation, a participation that is based on horizontal networks, on political autonomy, leaderless organisation, and groundless solidarity’.
A third theory is offered by Gerbaudo in his volume Tweets and the Streets (2012). This author is critical of claims about the leaderless nature of the new movements, and argues that the rise of social media goes hand in hand with the emergence of ‘new forms of soft leadership’ (quoted in Jadaliyya 2013) whereby leading activists are able to orchestrate collective action both online and offline. Gerbaudo (2012: 29) points out that authors such as Castells, Hardt and Negri prefer metaphors of swarms and networks to the ‘imaginary of the crowd or the mass’. This makes them overlook the centrality of the occupied squares as sites where collective action is displayed for all to see – and to join. Tongue in cheek, Gerbaudo concludes that ‘while honey-bees fly across great distances they also need a fixed place to return to, and some comrade bees to remain there to keep the hive in place’ (2012: 28).
The fourth and final theory calls for a political economy approach that can trace the common roots of the various protest movements to the increasing social and economic inequality brought about by global financial capitalism. Tejerina et al (2013: 377) distinguish two ‘streams of mobilisation’ – one in North Africa and the Middle East and the other in Europe and North America – that are both equally ‘manifestations of a new international cycle of contention’ over greater social justice and democratic participation. Although new media networks were important channels for the spread of slogans and news of impending collective action, it was only in the physical public spaces that protesters found one another (2013: 383) – a point that resonates with Gerbaudo’s theory.
All four theories contain insights that can help us shade light on some of the global-local articulations of recent periods of turmoil. However, none of them pays careful heed to the uneven convergence of digital freedom activism and new forms of protest that we have witnessed since the Icelandic and Tunisian revolts in 2009 and 2010. It is to this missing link that the following section is devoted.
The 3MP formula
My theory of the new protest movements can be summed up with the acronym 3MP. The numeral ‘3’ stands for the three leading categories of technology expert that I suggest are spearheading the global struggle for greater digital and democratic freedoms, namely (1) geeks and hackers, (2) copyleft lawyers and (3) technology journalists. Despite their obvious differences, these specialists all share a passion for the emancipatory potential of new and emergent digital technologies. These ‘techno-libertarians’ (Gerbaudo 2013), or politicised tech ‘nerds’, have reached the conclusion that the only way to defend the internet from abusive governments and corporations is to change the world’s existing political systems, including the US Congress (Fuster 2012). Critics such as Morozov (2011, 2013) may dismiss them as deluded techno-idealists, but the cultural and political consequences of their secular faith are proving to be far-reaching, as we shall see shortly in the Spanish example.
The letter ‘M’ refers to the miscellaneous (or motley) crew of other knowledge specialists that at precise times and places (e.g. Iceland in January 2009, Tunisia in December 2010, Egypt in January 2011, Spain in May 2011, Brazil in June 2013) joined the struggle, playing a crucial role as mediators (or translators) between the global and the local, the tech and non-tech sectors of the nascent movements. These new mediators include artists, designers, photographers, teachers, philosophers and a long tail of other knowledge workers, including anthropologists – their exact composition, size and internal power dynamics varying greatly from one national struggle and protest phase to the next (see below).
Finally, the letter ‘P’ stands for the citizenry or general population of a country undergoing a period of social turmoil and protest. The point to make here is that the geographical spread of the 2011 and 2013 waves of protest was highly uneven, with only a handful of countries undergoing a revolution or regime change, a much larger set experiencing protest but no regime change, and an even larger number of countries where the social unrest was minimal or non-existent. In many of the latter, e.g. in the Netherlands (see below), Germany or Indonesia, local 3M vanguards were formed but did not become 3MP multitudes. The reasons for these aborted processes would require further comparative research beyond the scope of this article, but my working assumption is that the economic situation in those countries was far less critical than in nations such as Iceland, Tunisia or Spain. In sum, while the struggle for digital and democratic freedoms is global, its entanglements with local political struggles are far from universal.
At this point, some historical background on the rise of the three main types of techno-libertarian that I am identifying is required, starting with the geeks and hackers. According to Coleman (2011: 512):
Computer hackers tend to be skilled programmers, security researchers, hardware builders, and system administrators, and they often self-identify as such. They are generally motivated by some version of information freedom and participate in “hacker” events and institutions like the Computer Chaos Club, ShmooCon, and free software projects.
In contradistinction, computer geeks are generally not ‘as technically skilled’ as hackers, but ‘they are literate in digital media and have skills, for example, in video editing and design and enough technical know-how to be able to use the tools, like Internet Relay Chat, where many geeks and hackers congregate’ (Coleman 2011: 512-513).
Despite their differences, geeks and hackers share their ‘closeness to the machine’ and an undying faith in individual freedom in the face of authoritarian governments and corporations (Coleman 2011). Whether we choose to call them geeks or hackers, Brooke (2011) has noted the centrality of ‘hackerspaces’ to the endeavours of internet freedom activists such as Julian Assange and his associates. These are horizontal, democratic physical spaces devoted to ‘playfully creative problem solving’ (i.e. hacking) shaped by their users’ pragmatism and anti-authoritarianism (2011: 23). In his ethnohistorical study of the free software movement, Kelty (2008) argues that geeks/hackers argue both about and through technology. Mixing in their politics operating systems sand social systems, free software developers view the internet not as something static but as a flexible ‘standardised infrastructure’ that sustains ‘geekdom’ (2008: nnn). For these specialists, the distinction between ‘free beer’ and ‘free speech’ is crucial. Freedom signifies ‘expression, learning, and modification, not the mere absence of a price tag’ (Coleman 2013: 36).
A watershed moment for geeks and hackers worldwide was reached in November 2010 after the release by Wikileaks via the Guardian, the New York Times and other international newspapers of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables, which in turned led to the mobilisation and instant media fame of the Anonymous network:
The AnonOps network grew exponentially in December 2010 when system administrators, hackers, activists, and many more people, too numerous to fully disaggregate and classify, joined the pre-existing group of operators and activists (who had originally formed in September 2010) to pound and disable the PayPal and MasterCard servers. These corporate pay portals became an Anon target after it appeared they had bowed to governmental pressure to stop accepting donations for the legal fees of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, then suddenly (in)famous for publishing and providing unrestricted access to scores [of thousands] of diplomatic cables (Coleman and Ralph 2011).
Anonymous soon went on to become directly involved in 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, Spain, the US and elsewhere, including Occupy Wall Street where it carried out ‘IT work for the various encampments and helped publicize instances of police brutality against the movement’ (Fell Brown 2013). Thus when the Tunisian government banned Wikileaks in late 2010, Anonymous stepped in to denounce the country’s repressive regime, attracting the attention of the international media by bringing down official Tunisian websites through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks (Cadwalladr 2012, Cluley 2011). As one hacktivist put it:
When Tunisia filtered off its internet from the world, it was the Tunisians who came online using dial-up and literally allowed us to use their connections to tunnel through to re-deface the prime minister’s websites. It was the most impressive thing I’ve seen: a revolution coinciding both physically and online. It was the first time I had proof that what Anonymous was doing was real and it was working.
Moving on now to my second category of techno-libertarian, namely copyleft lawyers, I am using this label to refer to those legal scholars and practising lawyers who are heavily invested in internet and copyright issues. One influential legal scholar and free culture guru is Yohai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Wealth of Networks (2006). In this often cited work, Benkler explores the potential for new forms of voluntary collaboration and wealth creation offered by networked technologies, as seen, for instance, with Wikipedia or Creative Commons. Although tech lawyers are as passionate as hackers about individual freedoms, they balance this outlook with a form of collectivism built around the idea of the ‘digital commons’:
The digital commons are defined as information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favour use and reuse, rather than to [be] exchange[d] as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources (Fuster 2010: 5).
Another leading figure in the free culture movement is Lawrence Lessig, who like Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and the author of Free Culture (2004) and other books on technological, legal and political questions. If the politicisation watershed for hacktivists was the US diplomatic cables aftermath of December 2010 and subsequent online interventions in Tunisia, for free culture proponents one key moment was arguably Lessig’s announcement in 2007 that he would refocus his attention from copyright-related matters to political corruption. Teaming up with the political consultant Joe Trippi, Lessig launched the internet project Change Congress, aimed at developing technological tools so that US voters ‘could use to hold their representatives accountable and reduce the influence of money on politics’ (Wikipedia 2013, Fuster 2012).
My third key domain is the field of journalism, and particularly its more tech-minded practitioners. We saw in the introduction how the Icelandic TV news anchor Kristinn Hrafnsson directed viewers to the WikiLeaks website when a court injunction prevented him from exercising his legal right to inform viewers about the country’s financial debacle. In terms of our 3MP model, this instance captures a moment of intense politicisation for Iceland’s journalistic field, whose practitioners found they could not remain aloof from the chasm that had opened between the country’s political class and its citizenry.
An Anglo-Saxon example is the London-based American journalist and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke who has described the present era as one pitting individualism against authoritarianism in a global ‘Information War’ (2011: 235). For Brooke, the US diplomatic cables showed ‘how poorly most political systems are built, allowing the ruling classes to raid public resources for public gain and use the security services as a tool to maintain and expand their power’ (2011: 234-235). Although Brooke argues that ‘we should all be hacktivists now’ (2012), she, like Lessig, who calls himself a ‘constitutionalist’, does not believe that DDoS attacks are the answer. Rather she favours a reformist strand of hacktivism that seeks to work within the existing systems in order to change the system from within (see also Wolf 2012).
Until recently, journalists covering the information freedom movement had remained largely hidden from the limelight, but this changed in June 2013 when the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald was accused by a New York Times writer of aiding the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Taibbi 2013). Two months later, Greenwald’s Brazilian partner and courier was reportedly harassed by British police as he stopped over at Heathrow, an event Greenwald (2013) interpreted as a blatant form of intimidation. These developments signal, I would argue, a growing divide within the field of global journalism between techno-libertarians and their opponents that is analogous to divides within the fields of computing and law. Some of the key global sites where these struggles are being played out include the Guardian newspaper and its competitor the New York Times, the TV station Al Jazeera, the digital commons Wikipedia, and the hacktivist networks Anonymous and Wikileaks.
At the national level, other sites of struggle include the streets, squares, TV studios and websites of countries where the 3MP formula has been put to the test through spectacular displays of popular dissent and indignation. For instance, Breuer (2012) argues that the Tunisian uprising of December 2010 and January 2011 was only possible because of the ‘complex threefold interaction between individual, non-elite protesters, motivated and strategically oriented digital activists, and international broadcasters’. This tripartite configuration ensured that news of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the resulting protests reached a majority of the Tunisian population. Citing a Tunisian study of Twitter by Lotan et al (2011), Breuer (2012) concludes that ‘cyber activists served as key information brokers for the mainstream media, with journalists heavily retweeting the posts of activists’. It is important to point out, however, that Breuer understands the notion of cyber activist broadly to include veteran tech-savvy lawyers such as Riadh Guerfali, a constitutional lawyer who in 2004 co-founded the collective blog Nawaat (Breuer 2012: 15). We should also bear in mind the foundational part played by Dhafer Salhi, a local lawyer who witnessed Bouazizi’s death. As reported by Al Jazeera:
“I told [the head of police] that if you don’t get [the Bouazizi family] in, the country will be burned,” Salhi said. “He refused, by arrogance and ignorance.” Frustrated by the lack of accountability by officials, Salhi became an active participant in the protests. The lawyer used Facebook to organise protests, sending out invites to his friends. He was one of the web activists targeted by the Tunisian authorities in the phishing operation. They managed to hijack his Facebook account, but Salhi simply created a new account (Ryan 2011).
In sum, we must pay closer attention to the part played not only by high-profile hacktivists such as Julian Assange but also to the work of journalists, lawyers and other digital freedom advocates working within and across specialist fields such as the news media, academia, the arts or health. It is to these varied contributions and cross-field collaborations that I now turn in the context of Spain’s rich techno-political experience of recent years.
From internauts to indignados
The wave of protest and indignation that swept through Spain in May 2011 was the product of six converging factors: 1) a failed economy, 2) a discredited political class, 3) a large pool of jobless with a surplus of free time to protest, 4) widely available personal media, 5) the precedent set by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and 6) a strong digital freedom scene.
Both Spanish and foreign commentators concur that the 15 May demonstrators were long overdue. Spain’s housing market ‘bubble’ had burst in 2008, leaving almost half of the country’s young people unemployed and millions more citizens in a precarious situation. Meanwhile a series of high-profile corruption scandals had discredited its political class, along with an electoral law seen as perpetuating a two-party system (Corsin and Estalella 2011, López and Rodríguez 2011). The vast pool of qualified young (and not so young) middle-class Spaniards unable to find a job or further their careers enjoyed a surplus of free time whilst still living ‘at home’. Many were therefore in an ideal position to join the fledgling movement. This was also a period of rapid growth in the uptake of social and mobile media in Spain, with a dramatic increase (65%) in mobile internet between 2010 and 2011 (Monterde and Postill in press). With the precedent of popular revolts in nearby Tunisia and Egypt fresh in people’s minds, the scene was set for a Spring of discontent. Lastly, Spain had a proud history of internet activism whose personnel, ideals and practices were not dissimilar to those that had been used in North Africa to great effect – or so was the perception of Spanish activists with direct or indirect links to the Arab uprisings.
The connections and overlaps between Spain’s digital freedom scene and its indignados (or 15M) movement are too numerous to be recounted here. Indeed for a number of influential 15M activists and researchers, the free culture movement played a crucial role in the movement’s conception, gestation, birth and growth (e.g. Fuster 2012, Toret 2012). In this section I will concentrate on the first stages of this process, leaving the latter stages for the next section.
Spain has had an active netizen (in Spanish, internauta) scene since the 1990s, with its still active Asociacion de Internautas being constituted in 1998. During the 2004 and 2008 legislatures, Spain’s internautas mobilised against a new digital canon (Haro Barba and Sampedro 2011: 163). In December 2009, a manifesto in defence of fundamental digital rights was published in opposition to the so-called ‘Ley Sinde’, a proposed bill aimed at curtailing ‘internet piracy’. Over 24,000 signatures were gathered in 24 hours. Other protest methods included DDoS attacks, Twitter trending topics and offline actions (Fuster and Subirats 2012, Sanchez Almeida 2012).
In December 2010, a group of tech lawyers and other digital activists launched a successful online mobilisation against the bill, now jocosely renamed ‘Ley Biden-Sinde’ in honour of the US Vice President Joe Biden. This renaming came after WikiLeaks confirmed that the bill was drafted under pressure from the US government and its culture industry lobby (Sutton 2012). The mobilisation was supported by Anonymous, Hacktivistas.net and other hacker formations (Sanchez Almeida 2012). It was widely covered by both mainstream media such as RTVE (which relied heavily on Twitter and blogs for its live reporting) and by alternative news media. The tech lawyer and leading anti-Sinde activist, Carlos Sanchez Almeida (2012), singles out four interest groups in this struggle. On one side of the asymmetrical conflict stood most artists/authors, the organisations representing them, and the culture industry lobbies seeking to influence the government to pass restrictive laws. Opposing them were cyberactivists and internet entrepreneurs in favour of new distribution models and against any restrictions on content circulation. For hacktivists such as Margarita Padilla, the Ley Sinde struggle brought together networked ‘swarms’ such as Anonymous and more traditional social movements, creating ‘monstrous alliances’ that presaged the indignados movement (quoted in Moreno-Caballud 2013).
Disregarding the netizen outcry, on 15 February 2011 Spain’s ruling socialist (PSOE) government, backed by Spain’s other major parties, passed the bill. Very shortly thereafter, Sanchez Almeida and fellow techno-libertarians who had led the anti-Sinde resistance created No Les Votes, an online formation that called on Spaniards to respond to this betrayal by not voting for any of the major parties in the coming municipal and regional elections. With hindsight, No Les Votes marked a radical break, a schism, between Spain’s netizens and its political class that would shape subsequent events (Postill in press).
No Les Votes soon joined forces with Anonymous, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), Democracia Real Ya (DRY) and other online and grassroots platforms to call for mass demonstrations across Spain on 15 May 2011 under the slogan ‘Real democracy now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’. In the event, the marches were well attended but they did not achieve the mainstream media visibility protesters had hoped for. However, a small group of protesters in Madrid decided to spend the night at Puerta del Sol, the city’s main square as well as the symbolic centre of Spanish state. The 3M sector of the struggle was well represented amongst these ‘first 40’ campers, including the ‘anon’ who had broken into the Goya award-winning ceremony earlier that year, a copyleft lawyer formerly employed by a leading law firm, and a member of the hacktivist collective Isaac Hacksimov who described the occupation as ‘a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (Sanchez 2011).
By 17 May the number of occupiers had grown to 200 and by 20 May nearly 30,000 people had taken the square in full view of the national and international media. In terms of my tripartite model, the protests had now gone into full 3MP mode.
This demographic explosion was mirrored online as countless Twitter threads, Facebook conversations and blog posts were hastily produced and shared. Dozens of other cities around Spain followed suit, and the nascent indignados/15M movement was now a global media event. Soon it would inspire, like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt before it, similar developments around the world, including the Occupy Wall Street movement later in the year (Postill in press).
The documentary film-maker and 15M activist Stefan Grueso, a firm advocate of creative commons, has recounted his joy at visiting encampments around Spain where ‘I ran into everybody I know from the free culture scene –and I mean everybody’. Grueso describes the indignados movement as a ‘copyleft revolution’:
[I]n the organisation of Acampadasol (Solencampment) I saw many free culture mechanisms being reproduced. It was all very copyleft: the sharing, the community-building. In a lot of free software programming groups are created that work on the basis of two principles: ‘rough consensus’ and ‘running code’ […]. These are collaborative processes and at Acampadasol that’s how it worked to a large extent. It was very moving, I cried like a baby (se me cayó el lagrimón) in the first week when they set up a point of material collection, the archive, where there were people with computers and you turned up with your little card and downloaded it, and there we saw a little sign: ‘Sol archive, creative commons license’. It was sinking in (quoted in Romanos 2012).
Fuster and Subirats (2012) contend that Spain’s free culture movement (FCM) made two main contributions to the indignados genealogy. First, it configured an ‘issue network’ around access to information and ICT regulation. Second, the No Les Votes platform signalled a ‘change of frame from free culture to meta-politics’. This change echoes Lessig’s aforesaid decision in 2007 to shift his focus from the world of free culture to ‘changing Congress’ (Fuster and Subirats 2012: nnn). Fuster (2012: 389-391) develops this idea elsewhere by arguing that the FCM shaped the indignados movement in four fundamental respects, namely in its composition (e.g. No Les Votes, Anonymous), agenda (through its public domain/access policy), frame creation (meta-politics) and organisational logic (networked swarming, horizontality, individual rather than group participation).
Although the role played by hackers and other net freedom fighters in lending the indignados movement its strong free culture character is crucial, it is important not to overlook the part played by both amateur and professional journalists. As I have shown elsewhere, in the indignados discourse we often find a crude portrayal of the mainstream news media as an integral part of a monolithic ‘system’ hostile to the protesters – along with a celebration of ‘citizen journalism’ and other form of ‘horizontal’ and ‘networked’ communication (Postill in press). In fact, without the support of sympathetic journalists and editors from major news organisations, including those close to the government of the day, it is unlikely that the campers would have reached such wide publics during the month-long occupation of Spain’s squares and their aftermath. Take, for instance, the case of Joseba Elola (2011), a journalist with the centre-left daily El Pais, who could barely contain his emotion (or his sympathy with the protesters) when reporting from the Sol encampments. The occupiers were ‘neither ni-nis (slackers) nor violent nor clicktivists (ciudadanos solo a golpe de ratón)’. Instead these were ‘young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change’.
It is telling that it was precisely Elola who managed to secure the participation of El Pais in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables in November 2010, after an arduous process that culminated in a secretive meeting between Elola and Julian Assange in London. In an interview with a British journalism site, Elola reveals how this experience changed his outlook on his profession:
I hope we [El Pais] keep on being a reliable media for any platform; WikiLeaks, OpenLeaks, KanariLeaks, BrusselsLeaks or whatever. […] I really think the media for years have been a little bit asleep and didn’t do their job properly, and I think WikiLeaks brought something really good for journalism and for society.
Other tech-savvy journalists who not only reported the protests but also actively support 15M and related movements in other countries include Leila Nachawati (Global Voices, Al Jazeera), Juanlu Sanchez (Periodismo Humano), Lali Sandiumenge (La Vanguardia, El Periodico, RTVE), Kathy Aunger (Guardian), and many others. For all their differences in age, nationality, and career paths, all these journalists share a sophisticated understanding of the new media environment and a commitment to the furthering of social justice and democratic freedoms, starting with the freedom of information.
In the 3MP model of the new protest movements that I am proposing, we need to develop more granular, differentiated accounts of each protest-field’s unique constellation of tech and non-tech participants that includes those agents who straddle two or more specialist fields, e.g. journalism, hacktivism, law, academia. It is also imperative that we avoid ‘square-centric’ accounts of the protests (ref) and that we ‘follow the conflict’ over time and space, beyond the encampments (Postill 2011, 2012). In this spirit I now turn to the post-encampment phase of Spain’s indignados movement. What became of the movement’s free culture ideals and practices after the encampments were dismantled in June 2011? How did digital freedom fighters adapt to the new circumstances, if at all?
Free culture heartlands
Even more striking that the month-long occupation of Spain’s main squares in May and June 2011, yet far less well known, is the proliferation of free culture and digital commons experiments (or ‘prototypes’, see below) within the 15M movement following the end of the occupations. This is a trend that shows no signs of decline as I write these lines in September 2013, over two years after the encampments. It is paradoxical that a country like Spain that is far from being a global technology leader, currently boasts one of the world’s most dynamic techno-political fields (Postill in press). How did this paradox come about? And what are the implications for our comparative understanding of the new protest movements?
Our story must begin in Spain’s twin free culture heartlands, namely Madrid and Catalonia. In a recent survey of Catalonia’s free culture scene, Fuster and Subirats (2012) analysed 145 initiatives, most of them based in Barcelona, finding widely uneven levels of development and institutionalisation among them. These authors divide up the initiatives into 14 categories, including law firms specialised in digital commons issues, hacker groups such as the world’s largest wifi network (guiffi.net), free software communities, journalistic and blogging initiatives, and publishing houses.
Although, to my knowledge, no similar survey has yet been conducted in Madrid, this city has probably an even more vibrant free culture field than Barcelona, partly a product of the greater institutional support it enjoys (Fuster and Subirats 2012). Madrid’s hackerspaces lend its free culture scene a more contemporary aesthetic, argues Gutierrez (2013a), than that of other European cities such as Berlin with its ‘punk aesthetic and… classic anti-Fascism’. For Corsin and Estalella (2011) the Puerta del Sol encampments
formed part of a long and still-vibrant national tradition of okupaciones (squatter occupations). Indeed, in the case of Madrid, Sol is [within] walking distance from some of the city’s most famous ‘squatter labs’ and ‘urban hack spaces’, such as El Patio Maravillas and La Tabacalera.
In May 2011, these anthropologists found themselves swept into the Sol encampment (acampada) after nearly two years researching the digital art and culture centre Medialab-Prado (MLP). A few weeks after the square was taken, they wrote:
For more than four years, MLP has been convening a ‘commons laboratory’, to which some of the leading voices of the copyleft movement, including intellectual property lawyers and members of La Tabacalera and El Patio Maravillas, have contributed projects. Many of these people have taken an active role in providing #acampadasol with organizational, infrastructural and philosophical equipment. To us, then, the rise of the acampada as a figure in our contemporary imaginary offers a powerfully engaging image with which to think through the intertwining of artistic and academic practices with urban hacktivism, digital-commons movements and relationships in new forms of political wireframing (Corsin and Estalella 2011).
Out of this entanglement of free culture and indignado practices emerges the notion of prototype (prototipo). The tech journalist Bernardo Gutierrez (2013b) defines a prototype as ‘An early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from’. Transposing this idea to the 15M movement, he argues that
[d]igital culture, copyleft processes and the hacker ethic, so pervasive in the lead-up to 15M, all imbued their spirit in this new revolution of the connected crowd. The working prototype, within this new, open, process-based world, replaces any fixed model. And 15M is still churning out prototypes. It has built them collectively, as an open network.
For Estalella prototypes are not only built collectively; communities and prototypes are in fact mutually constitutive:
A prototype is not a fragile contraption that can fail at any time but rather all that which gathers around and is part of it. Perhaps free software is the prototype par excellence: a technology in perpetual development where new versions are published in order to be improved […]. In this permanent openness it sustains around it an entire community. Software is produced while a community is being created; a community that [in turn] creates software.
Gutierrez (2013b) rejects May 1968 utopias such as the ‘ridiculous’ slogan “Beneath the paving stones, the beach”. The 15M movement, he adds, ‘has no use for a utopian model because it already has one, hundreds, thousands, of working prototypes. Micro-utopian prototypes, connected amongst themselves and (almost) in real time’. These prototypes are highly varied: ‘judicial, urban, cultural, economical, technological, communicative, political, affective’. Whilst acknowledging this diversity, I wish to propose a more succinct categorisation of 15M prototypes under three broad, overlapping labels, namely (1) political prototypes (individual freedoms), (2) legal/economic prototypes (free culture), and (3) journalistic prototypes (freedom of information). This scheme has the double advantage of being more parsimonious than Gutierrez’s as well as matching the ‘3’ component of my 3MP model (hackers, lawyers, and journalists), yet without doing violence to the empirical data. Indeed, to my surprise this same division emerged through separate inductive processes out ofboth the global and Spanish materials.
The 15M movement’s political prototypes are numerous and include the encampments and assemblies as well as subsequent social media-aided initiatives such as Toma Los Barrios (Take The Hoods). Toma La Playa (Take The Beach) or Graba Tu Pleno (Record Your Council Meeting) (Gutierrez 2013b, Oliden et al 2013). These and similar initiatives lack gatekeepers and are designed to be freely modified and replicated (Fuster and Subirats 2012). For example, the free software website Oiga.me was designed to mobilise citizens based on the idea of ‘massive support for shared causes’. In principle, any user is entitled to modify the text or arguments of a campaign as they see fit, e.g. the petition to free Herve Falciani, an IT specialist working for the global bank HSBC arrested for leaking data about tax evaders and fraudsters (Oliden et al 2013).
A better known case is the campaign #15MPaRato. In May 2012, this political prototype raised 15,000 euros within 24 hours though a crowdfunding appeal aimed at initiating legal proceedings against Rodrigo Rato, the former chief executive of Bankia. The disgraced bank had requested from the Spanish government a €19 billion bailout (15MPaRato 2013, Oliden et al 2013). As a result of the successful crowdfunding, in December 2012 Rato appeared in court to face a string of charges, including fraud and embezzlement (BBC 2012). The internet scholar Ismael Peña Lopez (2012a) highlights the innovative manner in which this new platform raised public awareness about the issue, set the public agenda, filled a void left by political parties and MPs, and used crowdfunding to pay for the court fees and crowdsourcing to gather evidence against Rato. Why did it succeed? Peña Lopez (2012b) singles out five main factors (which I would suggest capture some of 15M’s free culture strengths more generally), namely:
- 15M’s ‘powerful, versatile brand’ functioning as an ‘umbrella’.
- A ‘concrete, current, short-term objective’
- A highly flexible, agile networked organisation, in which numerous actors define themselves around their actions, not their identities or offices.
- The project was broken down into micro-tasks, an approach inspired by the ‘hacker ethic’ of free software (Benkler 2006, Raymond 1999)
- Intensive use of cheap, user-friendly, decentralised technological infrastructures.
A closely related case is that of the newly created Partido del Futuro (or Partido X), described by its proponents as a ‘methodology’ rather than a conventional political party. This prototype, steeped in Spain’s free/digital culture tradition, ‘forked’ out of 15M to challenge the present two-party system through a participatory ‘citizens’ network’ (red ciudadana). According to Peña Lopez:
[T]here is no governing body [in Partido X]. The Party is a ‘doocracy’, an ‘hacercracia’. Matters are often settled by doing them. Yes, there is debate, there are agreements, and there is a distribution of tasks. But one is the master of one’s own tasks. These are proposed, commented on, approved.. and normally whoever proposed them will lead and take them forward with help from those who find them interesting. And if no one is interested… you either do them yourself or no one else will.
Second, the legal/economic prototypes include the infrastructure initiative Hacksol (later 15hack) – made up of a WordPress multisite for blogs, the N-1cc. platform for internal organisation, over 100 mailing lists, and Mumble chat server –, the collaborative digital library Bookcamping.cc, the documentary 15M.cc, the wiki15Mpedia.cc, and many others experiments in ‘beta’. 15hack projects are self-managed and run on free software via the project’s own servers. This prototype was conceived during the second night of the Sol acampada and soon had to manage a huge number of blogs with millions of visits, as well as commercial social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo. From its humble beginnings as a small technical team in Madrid, it soon expanded to include non-techies from around the country. Gonzalez de Requena (2012: 248), regards 15hack as ‘a recursive public [Kelty 2008] that emerged naturally in an environment preoccupied with ‘free culture’’.
For its part, Bookcamping.cc is a digital library set up by the free culture author and remixer Silvia Nanclares and a programmer friend. Crowdfunded via the site Goteo.org, Nanclares describes it as ‘a publishing research nucleus as well as a free culture political tool’ (quoted in Oliden et al 2013). The ultimate goal is to promote activist, politically aware forms of cultural consumption through innovative digital practices (Nanclares 2013).
Finally, the indignados movement has also spawned a wide range of journalistic prototypes such as live streaming from the occupied squares (by People Witness, SolTV or Toma La Tele), the radio station Radio Agora Sol, the newspaper Madrid 15M, activist video projects such as Indigrafias and Audiovisol, the photographic site Foto Movimiento, Anonymous videos on YouTube, Twitter trending topics and many other productions (Alabao 2012, Gutierrez 2013b, Monterde and Postill in press, Postill in press, Sanchez 2012). The P2P software developer and 15M activist Pablo Soto defines 15M as ‘a copyleft-generating machine […] resulting from the collectivisation of the means of information’ (Conversaciones 15M.cc 201n). Similarly, Alabao (2012) describes the collaborative photographic project Indigrafias, based on the work of 79 photographers with a musical score blended with the protesters’ chants, as an example of how free licenses can bolster activist audiovisual production through the ability of users to modify and share it.
Missing from most of these accounts of 15M prototypes, however, is an adequate discussion of the gap between the rhetoric of ‘horizontal’, ‘networked’ collaboration among peers, and the fact that different actors will bring different professional allegiances, sets of skills, and species of capital (social, political, technological, etc.) to the table. For example, an experienced journalist joining a collaborative photographic project will be in a very different power relation to other participants from that of a young journalism (or law) student with no work experience. This example shows up the limitations of accounts that exaggerate the horizontality of the new protest movements and neglect the continued power of fields to shape both everyday and episodic forms of activist practice and collective action (Postill 2011, forthcoming). Also missing is a nuanced exploration of the multiple occasions in which technologies fail to work, peer-to-peer relations break down, or non-tech members of the public find themselves excluded from supposedly ‘open’ participatory processes (Coleman 2011, Corsin and Estalella 2011, Green et al 2005, Kelty 2008).
I have explored a new way of thinking about the post-2008 waves of protest that broke in Iceland in early 2009, continued in Tunisia in late 2010, rapidly spreading across much of North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, North America and elsewhere throughout 2011. In 2013 we have seen the onset of a second wave of social protest in countries as disparate as Bulgaria, Brazil, Turkey and Peru (Gutierrez 2013c). Whilst much of the academic and media controversy to date has centred on the extent to which these protests may be described as ‘horizontal’, ‘networked’ and ‘leaderless’, I have largely managed to steer clear of this debate and focussed instead on trying to understand the digital freedom dimensions of these conflicts in their practitioners’ own terms – and not those of critics external to them (Gerbaudo 2013, Morozov 2013). This strategy has allowed me to identify three main sectors of the new protest movements, namely (1) a techno-libertarian sector dominated by hackers, lawyers and journalists, (2) a middle sector made up of other knowledge specialists (both tech and non-tech), and (3) the general populations of those countries in which, to use Mason’s (2012) apt phrase, ‘it all kicked off’. As a heuristic device, I summed up this combination of societal forces through the acronym 3MP.
To flesh out this proposition I drew extensively from Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement, doubtless one of the countries in which the 3MP configuration has made a more lasting impact. The empirical materials presented showed the multiple entanglements of Spain’s digital freedom and 15M movements, starting with the prehistory of the movement, i.e. the protracted struggle against the anti-piracy law Ley Sinde, followed by an overview of some of the numerous experiments (or prototypes, to use the emic term) that have been conducted during 15M’s first two years of life. It is worth recalling in this connection that my broad differentiation of techno-libertarian activists into lawyers, hackers and journalists worked equally well at the global level of analysis and at the local (i.e. Spanish) level. By this I am not suggesting that there is a rigid demarcation of digital freedom fighters into three separate groups or guilds, but rather that it is analytically useful to differentiate three main strands of techno-libertarian thought and praxis in today’s protest movements. Writing against the grain of current new social movements theory, I have argued that only by making such distinctions can we really begin to grasp the complex interrelations across specialist domains of cultural life in the making of the new movements. New digital technologies may bring diverse people together to collaborate on specific tasks and actions, but that does not mean that field-specific differences disappear.
Further ethnographic research is required to test whether my 3MP model is applicable to countries other than Spain – research that takes into account the caveats around the celebratory discourse of seamlessly ‘horizontal’ and ‘peer-to-peer’ forms of techno-political participation with which I ended the previous section. There are tantalising signs, for instance, that hackers, tech journalists and lawyers played a prominent role in popular uprisings in Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, the United States, Mexico and other nation-states. By contrast, it appears that 3M participants in many other locales failed to transform their digital struggles into 3MP mobilisations. For example, in the Netherlands the Occupy movement barely managed to attract 2,000 participants in their October 2011 demonstrations, which had been inspired by Occupy Wall Street. By November ‘participant numbers had dropped to a few tens of people at all the visited encampments’ (Mercea, Nixon and Funk 2012: 8).
Therefore the first urgent ask is to establish what made some countries, but not others, attain the 3MP formula, at least for a period of time. Why Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt or Spain but not Indonesia, Ghana or the Netherlands?
See full paper PDF
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