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What does anthropology have to say about social media and activism?

November 26, 2014

This is an early draft of a short invited piece for Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century, 3rd ed. E. Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem. Oxford University Press. The remit was to write a jargon-free personal narrative.

In the Spring of 2011 I took a short break from anthropological fieldwork among internet activists in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) to visit friends and family in Madrid, where I was raised. In a bar near the centre, over cold beers and tapas, I was introduced to a group of middle-aged, bookish people. When they learned I was living in Barcelona, the unavoidable subject of Catalonia’s national aspirations, which most Madrileños adamantly oppose, was raised.

Thankfully the subject soon changed to my research. Although I tried my best to explain what I was doing, I felt I was not getting through. When I reported, for instance, about the marches calling for ‘Real democracy now!’ to be held across Spain that coming 15 May, I only got blank stares. The same happened when I explained how organisers were heavy users of social media, or when I talked about the close link between the planned marches and earlier online protests to defend the rights of internet users.

There was one exception: a man in his 50s with an IT background did ‘get’ what I was talking about. He had followed events closely via social media and knew about the #15M demonstrations and their internet activism roots. This man spoke my language. Not the language of Madrid’s mainstream media, but rather the language of Spain’s (including Catalonia’s) online activism scene.

Then it struck me. For the past nine months I had been so fully immersed in the world of internet activism that my take on current affairs was coming from a small corner of Spain’s media landscape. More importantly, so was that of my research participants. We were all living in what I call a ‘viral reality’, the hybrid making and sharing of news by media professionals and amateurs via social media.

This experience got me thinking about the need for a more anthropological, i.e. more holistic, understanding of present-day media, one in which we question the assumption that ‘new’ media are replacing ‘old’ media. As a number of media scholars have argued, instead of replacement we have the co-existence and uneven mixing of countless media formats. The challenge for activists and academics alike is how to grasp this dynamic, rapidly changing complexity.

What can the anthropology of media offer towards this collaborative effort? First, we can offer firsthand experiences of immersion in small media worlds followed by ‘aha’ moments of realising their inescapable specificity, like the one I had in Madrid. Second, we can ‘follow’ hybrid media actors such as Spain’s Ada Colau or Malaysia’s Jeff Ooi, both activists turned politicians who have learned how to work across media platforms to reach new publics. Third, anthropologists have studied dynamic political systems for many decades in places as diverse as Highland Burma, urban Zambia and rural Mexico. We now need to connect this rich tradition to the study of digitally mediated political conflict instead of jumping on the latest bandwagon. Finally, we need to get politically involved. As Spain’s 15M (indignados) protesters are wont to say, this is only the beginning. There is far more techno-political change in the making than mainstream news of the rise and fall of protest movements from Wall Street to Hong Kong would suggest.











10. Freedom technologists series: a first recap (part 2)

November 20, 2014


This post completes the first recap of the ongoing freedom technologists series through a brief theoretical exercise, namely applying field theory to the empirical materials gathered so far. I do this via a new concept: ‘fields of civic action’. The intention is not to impose a rigid theoretical framework on the series but rather to try out some conceptual ideas in an open-ended, exploratory spirit, with the field concepts marked in bold.  

In this entry I wish to suggest that freedom technologists – those geeks, hackers, tech lawyers, bloggers, online journalists and other tech-minded specialists who actively use digital media to pursue democratic freedoms – are major contributors to the making of contemporary fields of civic action around the world. The discussion takes off from my previous anthropological work on internet activism and field theory (Postill 2011, in press) as well as Fligstein and McAdam’s (2011, 2012) sociological concept of ‘strategic action fields’:

We hold the view that strategic action fields (hereafter, SAFs) are the fundamental units of collective action in society. A strategic action field is a meso-level social order where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), and the field’s rules (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 3).

By contrast, I will provisionally define field of civic action as:

A dynamic domain of social action entangled in a web of other domains and resembling a game in which differently positioned citizens and civic initiatives compete and cooperate over the same rewards, prizes and issue(s), often via digital media.

My working assumption is that freedom technologists’ intimate knowledge of digital media gives them an advantage over other ‘players’ in such fields. But is that really the case? Before we can begin to answer this question, let us break this statement down into its constituent elements.

A dynamic domain of social action…

Fields of civic action tend to be much more dynamic, unpredictable and short-lived than the more institutionalised fields we associate today with the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 1996), e.g. the fields of art, sociology or journalism. This lack of institutionalisation means that field agents (both individual and collective) must work a lot harder at anticipating and interpreting other agents’ actions, seeking and maintaining alliances, finding useful ways of exploiting the field affordances of new technologies (i.e. their field potentialities and limitations), and so forth.

entangled in a web of other domains…

Social fields are never insulated from their environment. They are always part of much larger webs of fields – some proximate, others more distant. The following observation about the shifting boundaries of strategic action fields (SAFs) applies equally well to fields of civic action:

The boundaries of SAFs are not fixed, but shift depending on the definition of the situation and the issues at stake. So, for instance, imagine if [the US] Congress were to take up a sweeping reform bill that threatened to change the tax status of all institutions of higher education. [This] conflict would define a new field, comprised of all 2,500 colleges and universities [in the United States], which would probably unite and oppose such legislation. So fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 4, my emphases).

and resembling a game…

Although fields of civic action clearly are not games like chess, tennis or Minecraft, they nonetheless resemble games. For Prior (2008: 305) ‘the field is also a space of competition, the analogy being a game of chess where players enter the game and position themselves according to the powers and moves available to them’. Yet in contrast to a game of chess with its well-defined, unchanging rules, powerful field ‘players’ will also struggle over the definition of what counts as ‘the stakes in the field’ (Prior 2008: 305, quoted in Postill in press: 9). However, not all field players will be equally invested in the game. Some will play for the sake of playing, others out of obligation, or by mistake, or for any number of reasons. In other words, not all actions within a field are strategic. This means that Fligstein and McAdam’s (2011) concept of ‘field of strategic action’, for all its virtues, is problematic. My proposed alternative term, field of civic action, is intended to avoid this problem whilst being more pertinent to the question at hand, namely the contribution of freedom technologists to the new protest movements.

Virtually all social and political games played today go by clock-and-calendar time (Postill 2002, 2006, forthcoming). A crucial distinction to make in this regard is whether or not the fields of civic action being analysed come with an end date. We shall see shortly the significance of this seemingly banal distinction in the context of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. Read more…

9. Freedom technologists series: a first recap (part 1)

November 7, 2014

This is the 9th post in the freedom technologists series, a blog series dedicated to exploring the contribution of tech-minded citizens to new protest movements around the globe. In this instalment I summarise the discussion so far, before moving on to some preliminary anthropological reflections in the next post.

This blog series opened with a Savage Minds post (reblogged here) in which I argued that 2011 was not only ‘The Year of the Protester’, as TIME magazine once famously put it, but also ‘The Year of the Freedom Technologist’. By freedom technologists I meant ‘a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection to national crises’. I then fleshed out this proposition with examples from Tunisia and from my own fieldwork among the indignados (15M) movement in Spain.

This opening allowed me to draw a preliminary sketch of contemporary freedom technologists (to be tested against the evidence as the series progresses). The sketch goes as follows. Not all freedom technologists are techno-libertarians. In fact, they are ideologically highly diverse, ranging from radical revolutionaries on the far left through left-liberal reformists at the centre to free-market libertarians on the extreme right – as anyone who has ever attended a Free Culture Forum event will attest. Freedom technologists nevertheless share ‘a profound mistrust of large governments and corporations, and the conviction that the fate of the Internet and of human freedom are inextricably entwined’. Contrary to the stereotypes spread by certain influential net pundits, most freedom technologists are techno-pragmatists rather than techno-utopians – albeit with a healthy dose of political idealism. Some are techies (geeks, hackers, engineers), others are not (lawyers, journalists, bloggers, artists…); some are women, others are men; some are white, others are not. Their ages range from around 20 to 50 and beyond, and they can be found in cities around the world. Most are urban, educated, middle-class ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ who are well aware of international affairs but tend to focus on issues affecting directly their country of birth or adoption for both pragmatic and affective reasons.

This sketch raised some difficult questions about the actual contribution of freedom technologists (a small minority of the population, after all) to new protest movements in the Arab world, southern Europe, North America and elsewhere, and about the consequences of their collective actions for political change.

Read more…

8. Freedom technologists: revolutionaries or secessionists?

November 6, 2014

By Trent MacDonald

This is an invited post to the freedom technologists series by Trent MacDonald. Trent is a PhD student at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is currently doing research on non-territorial governance, a type of governance that seeks to decouple political units from territories so that multiple jurisdictions can overlap in the same location. His Twitter handle is @trentjmacdonald.

I am interested in the notion of ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014) because I think I may have found a variety of freedom technologist in my own research: the cryptoanarchist. Cryptoanarchists are commonly associated with the bitcoin movement and emerging blockchain-based ‘bitcoin 2.0’ projects. According to Techopedia:

Cryptoanarchism is an ideology that espouses the use of cryptography to maintain freedom of speech and prevent government control and regulation of the Internet. The increasing sophistication of cryptographic methods is making it possible for people to communicate over the Internet in a way that is anonymous, untraceable and tamper proof.

This movement is often associated with cypherpunks, who view privacy as a good thing and wish there was more of it. Governments tend to object to totally anonymous interactions online because they can be used by drug dealers, tax evader and those who may pose a threat to national security.

My hypothesis is threefold: (1) cryptoanarchists are freedom technologists; (2) they organise themselves in political innovation commons; and (3) their objective is not to change existing political structures but to subvert them, in the process creating new, non-territorial polities. That is, they are secessionists, not revolutionaries (or reformists). Some working definitions:

  • Freedom technologists: social agents who combine technological and political skills to pursue greater internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined.
  • Innovation commons: an institution in which private agents engage in collective action (i.e. cooperate) to solve the innovation problem by developing rules for the creation and sharing of innovation resources (both material and informational) and for the governance of those resources.
  • Political innovation commons: an institution in which freedom technologists engage in collective action (i.e. cooperate) to solve a political problem by developing rules for the creation and sharing of political resources (both material and informational) and for the governance of those resources.

Clearly the revolutionary and reformist freedom technologists exist and their role in the waves of protest movements and democratisation is important and interesting. But I think another research front could be opened up by studying secessionist freedom technologists.

A reason for the different varieties of freedom technologists and their differing objectives might be the political-economic situations they face in their places of origin (dictatorship vs. democracy, high vs. low development). Secessionist freedom technologists don’t want freedom from dictatorial minorities or to assert their right to govern as a democratic majority. They want freedom from both dictatorial minorities and democratic majorities so they (and others) can personally secede and re-coalesce in new, self-governing polities. Of course, democratisation is not a pressing issue if you already live in an affluent, highly-developed democracy like the US, UK or Australia.

Another difference might simply be ideological: social democrats value voice; anarcho-libertarians value exit. This goes to one of the footnotes in Postill’s (2014) article where he mentions that he originally planned on calling freedom technologists ‘techno-libertarians’ but decided against it on the basis that they were actually “culturally and ideologically highly diverse”, “ranging from radical leftist communitarians to free-market libertarians.” I would posit that revolutionary freedom technologists (social-democratic, protesters) might sit closer to the leftist communitarian end of the spectrum, while secessionist freedom technologists (cryptoanarchistic, subverters) sit at the free-market libertarian end. But that’s just another hypothesis.

In fact, even though they might have different focuses, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was significant overlap between the two groups (making the distinction somewhat moot). For instance, many of the cryptoanarchist coders frequent collectives like Calafou and Cooperativa Integral Catalana in Barcelona, and the ‘G8 squats’ in London.

I think some of the tactics they use for organising are probably similar to the ones described by Postill (2014) — tapping into free culture and making use of ‘squatter labs’ and ‘urban hack spaces’. Jason Potts might call these models ‘innovation commons’ because quite often coders from different projects come together in hack spaces and share resources and knowledge  the three examples of secessionist freedom technologists I present below collaborate, share knowledge, have contributed to, and have even funded each other’s projects and development goals in the past.) Do they share political-ideological knowledge too? Perhaps. But I believe since they are engaged in technological innovation with ostensibly political objectives (that is, they want to effect political subversion), the networks and temporary spaces should qualify as ‘political innovation commons’. But that idea needs work/elaborating.

I’m thinking in particular about three ‘bitcoin 2.0’ or ‘governance 2.0’ start-ups/groups that are worth looking into: UnSystem, Ethereum, and BitNation. I’ll warn you here that much of this is probably going to sound more like ‘techno-utopianism’ than ‘techno-pragmatism’. But having said that, Bitcoin is a very real phenomenon; the people behind UnSystem have a track record of delivery (e.g. Defense Distributed, the first ever 3D-printed firearm) and the beta for their current project has been released; and Ethereum is the second most-funded crowdfunding project in history (over $18 million).

UnSystem are developers of a crypto platform called ‘Dark Wallet’. Dark Wallet is a bitcoin wallet that includes “extra protections to make sure transactions are secure, anonymous, and hard to trace — including a protocol called “trustless mixing” that combines users’ coins together before encoding it into the ledger.” UnSystem has been described as “self-proclaimed crypto-anarchists” and “a collective of politically radical coders”. They state that: Our goal is not to placate and obey the rules of the people responsible for navigating the world into a permanent financial crisis. With or without their permission, we are going to build a better future out of the ashes of this system”. They sound like freedom technologists to me. Their goal is to take as much economic activity as possible out of the reaches of incumbent states — what’s known as ‘economic secession’ — and they see technology as the facilitator of this reclaiming of liberty.

The second group is called ‘Ethereum’. This group is developing

a platform and a programming language that makes it possible for any developer to build and publish next-generation distributed applications. Ethereum can be used to codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything: voting, domain names, financial exchanges, crowdfunding, company governance, contracts and agreements of most kind, intellectual property, and even smart property thanks to hardware integration.

In plain language, they’re trying to build the economic and legal infrastructure that would underpin a crypto-economy. They’re trying to make it so you can buy more than drugs and guns on the dark web.

The third is called ‘BitNation’ and they very explicitly state: “the blockchain technology is literally the end of the nation state” and: “The purpose of BitNation is to create a full-blown blockchain based government service provider which is easy to use, affordable, non-geographically contingent, voluntary and trustless.” BitNation is described as offering a “full range of services traditionally done by governments” including a cryptographically secure ID system, block chain dispute resolutions, marriages and divorces, land registries, education, mutual insurance, security, diplomacy, and more. What BitNation supposedly aims to provide is “a toolbox for Do-It-Yourself governance”.

To conclude, my main point is that these seem to be freedom technologists of some sort — they combine technological and political skills to pursue greater freedom. But they’re doing it in a very different way to those that use technology for social organisation, occupation, and protest for greater democratic freedom. They want to subvert the whole political apparatus and create parallel systems that people can secede into. And they seem to use innovation-commons-like ‘squatter labs’ and ‘hack spaces’ to develop their ideas and technologies.

But this is just wild speculation at this stage — I think it would make for a great study.


Postill, J. 2014. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

7. Journalists and indignados: the importance of being there

October 8, 2014

07_juanlu-sanchezIn 2011, the young Spanish journalist Juanlu Sánchez (@juanlusanchez) covered the indignados (15M) movement from its very inception, spending many long hours at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square getting to know the occupiers. In this adaptation of an interview with the documentary filmmaker Stephane Grueso (@fanetin) that took place in late 2011, Juanlu reflects on how he and other journalists (independent and mainstream, Spanish and foreign) covered the unfolding events on the ground. His story provides us with some tantalising glimpses into the complex relations that developed between indignados, journalists and media organisations. This is the seventh post in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website (in Spanish, see also the interview transcript here). In the next two posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

My name is Juanlu Sánchez. I am a Spanish journalist specialising in digital contents and new media [1]. I am a co-founder of the online news outlet Periodismo Humano (Human Journalism). We were at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, from the very beginning till the end of the indignados (15M) occupations of May and June 2011. In fact, we had been covering the movement before it was even called 15M.

I am part of a team of journalists who started to realise, some years ago, that the mainstream media were not satisfying our calling as journalists. We set up Periodismo Humano to inform about issues that people are not supposed to care about, such as human rights, civil rights or social justice. We soon began to come into contact with reality, and we let it soak us to the bone. So we started to report on issues like the evictions of people unable to pay their mortgages, the Icelandic and Arab revolts as they unfolded both online and offline, the release of US State Deparment cables by WikiLeaks, and so on. WikiLeaks was a great inspiration because we saw it as changing the existing media landscape, particularly the relationship between journalists and non-journalists.

In other words, we found ourselves caught in a whirlwind of change that led to the 15M movement. When we heard that there were marches planned across Spain for 15 May 2011 to demand ‘real democracy now’ we were convinced something big was coming, so we prepared accordingly. Of course, we couldn’t have known about the subsequent Tahrir-style occupation of Puerta del Sol, but we did know that on 15 May we had to deploy to cities throughout Spain, which is exactly what we did.

We are not the indignados

It is one thing to report about the 15M protests. Quite another is to be part of 15M. I agree with a lot of the things that were said at Puerta del Sol during the occupation. However, being part of 15M is not that easy because 15M is not a tangible thing but rather a diagnosis. You can agree about this diagnosis, but each person will have their own solution to the problem.

We journalists who covered the Puerta del Sol encampment would often warn people that we were just doing our jobs, that we were not protesters. To suggest otherwise insults our professional integrity. In fact, 15M participants had a similar reply to hand when asked whether they were leftists. They would say: “Look, you don’t understand. That’s not what this is about”.

How the Spanish media covered 15M

There have been several phases to the media coverage of 15M. The first phase was a time of bafflement, denial and obstruction. Because the mainstream media couldn’t quite make sense of it, they decided they would explain it through the same old frames. So they would ask: “Who of our mainstream politicians benefits most from 15M? Is it Rubalcaba, Rajoy, Chacón, or perhaps Esperanza Aguirre?”. Eventually they began to take it seriously. The social media pressure was so intense that they feared the chants of “You don’t represent us!” – until then reserved for politicians – would soon be aimed at them. They were simply not doing their jobs.

I should add that there were right-wing media that knew exactly what they were doing. These media set out to discredit 15M from the very beginning. They didn’t exactly mince their words. But there were also certain journalists who could have empathised with 15M but got scared and didn’t. Most of these media say that at first they didn’t really understand what was going on, so they didn’t prioritise the protests like they should have done. Here we shouldn’t confuse the media organisations with the reporters. These were at Sol from the outset, from the early hours of 16 May. In fact, at that particular moment there were more journalists than protesters, as many people who had spent the night at Sol had jobs to go to, or had gone home to take a shower and grab something to eat. The journalists did their live reporting and recorded some interviews, and this helped to attract more people to the square in the afternoon. Still, there was far more happening on social media than on the mainstream media.

The second phase began when social media users started setting the news agenda. Some mainstream media had neglected 15M in the early days and weeks but when they realised that there was a great deal of public interest (measured in terms of audience ratings, web traffic, and so on), they went to the other extreme of over-reporting it. As a result, smaller media with limited resources such as Periodismo Humano had to rethink their contribution to the overall coverage. There was no longer any need for us to do live streaming or tweeting from assemblies because other media were now doing it at all hours, come rain or shine.

Read more…

Snowden on winning the alternative Nobel prize

September 25, 2014

Edward Snowdenvia The Guardian

Edward Snowden issues a recorded statement after being awarded Sweden’s Right Livelihood Honorary Award, dubbed the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’. The National Security Agency whistleblower says he accepts the award on behalf of those who risked their lives to help ‘resist unlawful and disproportionate mass surveillance’. He says the award serves as a ‘vindication’ for such efforts.

Any contribution that I have made has been a result of the efforts of some many other people working in journalism, in activism, in the human rights communities, in the civil rights communities, in the technical communities who recognised long before I did what was coming and why it was so important to stop it.

…The list of freedoms that any society enjoys is always equal to those that we are ready to defend.


6. The Mediterranean Spring

September 3, 2014

In this post the Spanish-Syrian blogger and activist Leila Nachawati recounts her participation in Spain’s indignados (15M) movement in the wake of the Arab Spring, as well as her efforts to explain this movement to friends and colleagues in the Arab world and the United States. In doing so, she draws parallels and contrasts between the new protest movements that were born in 2010-2011 on both shores of the Mediterranean. I have abridged, translated and adapted the text below from an interview with Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid towards the end of 2011. This is the sixth instalment in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website (in Spanish, see also the interview transcript here). In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

20_leila-nachawatiMy name is Leila Nachawati. I come from Galicia, a region in northern Spain. I am of Syrian descent on my father’s side. I live and work in Madrid, where I write about human rights, freedom of expression and the social dimension of technology for media such as Global Voices, Al-Jazeera, El Mundo, and [1]

For me, Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement was a collective awakening. I read a Guardian piece that nailed it. The author said something like: “Who cares where we are going? It’s so great to be on the move”. It is a feeling of moving at last after a very long period of stagnation, of paralysis.

I believe in people taking to the streets when they feel strongly about an issue. For instance, at the time of the Iraq protests in 2003 I was living in the US and took part in several marches against the invasion. The mood was gloomy. By contrast, the atmosphere at Spain’s 2011 protests was completely different, it was festive and I felt really happy.

The first few days

After the 15 May 2011 marches across Spain calling for ‘real democracy now’ we all experienced the same “I’m not alone after all” euphoria. We all had the same urge to come out to the streets and share this feeling.

There were some overwhelming episodes, such as the moments of silence. Then, on the eve of the Day of Reflection that preceded the elections, we let out a collective silent cry at Madrid’s central square, Puerta del Sol. A more personal special moment for me was when my mother called me to tell me that she had spent a whole Saturday afternoon discussing local issues with her neighbours in Santiago de Compostela. To realise that what we had started in Madrid had spread to the Santiago street where I grew up was very moving. I could picture my neighbours, men and women of all ages, discussing the issues that most concerned them. It was something that had never happened before, at least not in this way.

I remember the month-long Puerta del Sol occupation as if it was all one enormously long day. I’m not sure what happened when – it has all become a blur. What remains are the sensations: a feeling of happiness, of being out there in the streets, spending time away from your computer, of going from asking for things via the internet or Twitter to having people right there, in the flesh. We had a need to touch one another, to be there physically, sharing the experience. There is an Instagram photo of me taken by my friend Quico. He’s added in a dusky red hue, and that’s how I actually remember that particular moment, even though it was nighttime. You can tell from my face that it’s one of happiest days of my life.

There have been difficult times as well. I would say we reached our lowest point in August 2011, during the Pope’s visit to Spain. I was saddened by some people’s overreactions to the visit, which where used by sectors of the mainstream media to criminalise 15M. This episode left me with a bitter aftertaste.

The Mediterranean Spring

Arab citizens, too, have awoken, in their case from a silent submission to autocratic regimes that had long enjoyed international legitimacy. These dictatorships banked on strong economic, political, diplomatic support from their foreign partners and were handed down from fathers to sons as if they were hereditary monarchies — or rather, hereditary dictatorships. A whole generation had fought them when they came to power but there came a point when that generation thought that change was unattainable. For many years there was no progress. All attempts at overthrowing these regimes had been brutally repressed without even allowing them to evolve.

As a dual Spanish-Syrian national, it was incredible to experience simultaneous mobilisations in both countries. Whilst Syria descended into an orgy of blood, torture and repression, in Spain there was much less repression but the same kind of awakening. The potential consequences of raising your voice in a dictatorship and in a democracy are, of course, radically different. When comparing the two cases, you also begin to value more our achievements here in Spain in the post-Franco era. These should never be glibly dismissed.

In June 2011 I accompanied a group of Tunisians who came to Madrid during one of the final days of the encampment. As they strolled around Puerta del Sol and saw the camping tents, the aesthetics of the posters and street art, the hand gestures, and all the other civic expressions, they were deeply moved. Some even cried or had goose bumps as they heard echoes of what they had lived in Tunisia, where it all started, in a very different cultural setting.

Being of mixed Mediterranean descent, I was thrilled to witness how the Other, the Southerner, was now seen in a new light. For the first time in my life, the images were not about violence, war, illegal migration or poverty but rather about dignity, freedom, and peaceful demands. The Mediterranean South was showing the North how to carry out a peaceful mobilisation.

New ways of participating

The 2011 protests were different from earlier ones in their new forms of participation and communication. In Spain we all saw how the citizens themselves or smaller, more nimble, media such as Periodismo Humano were able to capture events on the ground from the very beginning. Meanwhile both the traditional media and political institutions found it very hard to understand and interpret these events. The citizenry not only made history, but also wrote it, narrated it. The traditional media tapped into these sources for their own coverage.

The situation in Syria is extremely difficult. Most journalists are barred from entering the country. Only handpicked journalists can enter under strict supervision and they are carefully guided to those places that the government wants to show the world. For decades the foreign news media were not allowed in, so they were unable to report on what was really happening. Under such conditions it is hugely significant that citizens can now be not only witnesses but also narrators. They have become aware of the importance of telling their stories to the rest of the world. They know that if they don’t do it, nobody else will. This is a historic development in that it tears down the propaganda walls erected by repressive governments.

The convergence of video platforms such as YouTube and mobile phones has played a crucial role. In the Arab world not everybody has internet access but virtually everybody owns a mobile. At a demonstration, wherever you see more than a few people, you almost see more mobiles than hands. Everybody is busy recording the event. Then they share these contents, sending them to media such as Al Jazeera, uploading them onto their own platforms, or sending them to contacts overseas to do it on their behalf. When you share events in real time, this can attract more people. In Egypt, for example, Twitter was a used very effectively to draw people to demos: “Join us, we’ll all be there at 5 pm!”.

It is the first time in history that demonstrations – or rather, revolutions – follow a schedule, a plan. “On 25 January we have a revolution”. They would phone one another and say: “Let’s meet on Thursday. Let’s put everything else aside because on Thursday we’ve got a revolution!”. Which they actually had. They planned it and spread the word via both traditional and new media. Tools such as Twitter and Facebook were very useful in the first countries to rise up, such as Egypt. In the case of Syria, social media were more about telling the outside world what was happening rather than about mobilising people, which happened via traditional channels.

A decentralised movement

Thanks to the internet, Spain’s 15M was perhaps the most decentralised movement of all. The decentralisation and chaos that were so integral to the organisation of 15M mirrored perfectly the way the internet works. While movements in other countries had specific Twitter hashtags (one per country or event), in Spain these were countless – and constantly changing. That is why people who were not embedded in the movement went mad trying to understand it. It was something that you could only understand from the inside.

So we went from a very broad #SpanishRevolution hashtag to #acampadabcn for the Barcelona encampment, #acampadasevilla for the Seville encampment, to hashtags for smaller towns, almost villages, and so on. This expanded to places outside Spain via tags such as #acampadabuenosaires or #acampadajerusalem, even to countries far away from Spain such as Vietnam where you wouldn’t have expected it. Via the internet, and especially Twitter, you could gauge the reach of this global movement and get a sense of its decentralisation, which made it impossible to follow the various national struggles from the outside.

Freedom from cumbersome tech

15M presented small media like Periodismo Humano with a great opportunity. I am proud to have worked with a news organisation that achieved such superb coverage with very limited resources. It was quite an experience to see colleagues use a simple mobile phone to cover events as they unfolded. I vividly remember, for instance, my colleague Juanlu Sanchez running around trying to find a spare battery for his mobile. He depended on his mobile for his streamings, which were viewed in real time by thousands of people around the world. These viewers relied on Juanlu’s ability to keep his arm raised – and on his battery. Later some of the images he recorded went viral. Millions of people saw them, and they ended up in the New York Times.

That freedom from cumbersome tools allowed us to do a better job. I recall seeing a journalist from one of the traditional media organisations carrying a huge tripod. He was trying to join the event but didn’t know how to, or where the action was, or who to talk to.

15M viewed from afar

I was recently at the annual conference for Arab bloggers held in Tunis. I gave a presentation about Spain’s 15M movement. They had all experienced protests or uprisings in their own countries. Yet I still found it difficult to explain it because you have to have lived in Spain in the past few years to truly understand it, to realise that that kind of citizen participation was truly a novelty. It was particularly hard to talk to people who had lived through atrocious dictatorships and bloody repressions about Spain’s problems and why there, too, there was an urgent need to take to the streets and demand change.

My Arab colleagues saw themselves as the forerunners of Spain’s indignados. They had all internalised what had happened in Tunisia, how it then spread to Egypt, Spain and Wall Street and became a global citizens’ movement. They got very emotional when I played the song “Llegan Voices”, which is about the voices that travel from South to North, and how suddenly the North starts listening to the South.

Sometimes outsiders got the impression that 15M protesters had no concrete proposals. Two questions that cropped up time and again, including among friends in the US, were: “What exactly is it that you want? What are your demands?”. In America that happened before the movement spread to Wall Street. They now find 15M much easier to understand. After all, the demands are quite similar. They have to do with corruption in our institutions, with finding new forms of participation and political representation. With Occupy the meaning and significance of 15M have become a lot clearer.

A civic-minded movement

Thanks to the 15M movement we are no longer apathetic, no longer alone. We now feel that there are things we can do, indeed, that we must do. More than anything, it is a feeling of waking from a long lethargy. Politics has ceased to be a taboo subject or something we should leave to politicians. It affects us all and therefore requires that we get involved.

The movement has probably made a lot of mistakes. But I don’t think you can really expect accountability from such a diverse, leaderless collectivity. I don’t know how we could have done it any better, given that we all have our own unique trajectories, personalities, worldviews, politics and hopes. In the end, 15M was a lesson in civic-mindedness.

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[1] This last sentence is adapted from




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