Social Protest in the Facebook Age

Residents of Plaza Italia, the traditional gathering place in Santiago for everything from football and election celebrations to protest marches, are having a bad time. The frequency of protests – some tiny, others massive – has increased sharply this year and, according to realtors, rents have dropped by 15 percent or more.

But, the disruption of their daily lives apart, the residents of Plaza Italia are in a privileged position. They have a grandstand view of what some would argue is a shift in the way power is distributed not only in Chile but also around the world.

At first sight, there isn’t much in common between what’s been happening in Plaza Italia and the Arab spring or the indignados movement in Spain. Chilean demonstrators aren’t fighting for democracy or complaining about unemployment.

But there is a common link – technology in the form of social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Communications technology as a catalyst for political change has been a constant throughout history, points out Fernando García, a political scientist at the Diego Portales University. “Every time there’s been a change in the devices we use to relate to each other… the political system has changed too.”

The birth of Latin America’s republics at the beginning of the 19th century was, for example, accompanied by the advent of the first newspapers like Aurora in Chile. “What newspapers did was connect people who weren’t physically in the same place, enabling them to create a shared world,” says García.

To belong to that world, they had, of course, to be able to read. But, then, with radio and television, that changed too.

And, now, with social networking, it is changing again, and more quickly than ever before. Just five years ago, when secondary schoolchildren surprised Chile with the so-called pingüino protests in demand for better state education, they were putting mobile phones to a new use.

But mobile phones were then one-to-one communication and today’s protestors are relating to each other as a network, points out García. “That’s without precedent in history and, if we relate differently, then we also imagine the world and power differently too.”

Chorus, step forward

Social media – a seamless part of the lives of young people in a way that it is difficult for their elders to appreciate – clearly have a practical effect in making it easier to organize demonstrations. Just a few clicks now suffice where once leaflets had to be printed and distributed, and they reach a much larger audience instantaneously.

But where opinions differ is whether they are just a useful tool or far more than that. According to Luis Mariano Rendón, one of the leaders of recent protests against the HidroAysén hydroelectric project, their importance shouldn’t be overestimated. “There were plenty of protests before they existed,” he notes.

But García disagrees. “The support – in this case, the network – conditions the message,” he says.

Signs of the importance of social media are everywhere, even in the traditional media. In its lunchtime news bulletin, CNN Chile now has a section on happenings in the social media, sometimes trivial – like videos of cute kittens posted by their owners on YouTube – but sometimes reflecting how ´real’ events reverberate in these networks.

It is no longer just professional journalists who report on the doings of companies and politicians. Today, anyone – the so-called citizen journalists – can do so through posts on a blog, Facebook or any other number of places.

The result is that companies or politicians who do reprehensible or just merely silly things can no longer rely on the tacit agreements that sometimes exist with traditional media. Even private individuals who behave badly – like the Chilean man whose tantrum with an employee of LAN Airlines was briefly popular on YouTube – risk public exposure.

What has happened was already foreseen in the 1980s by José Nun, an Argentine political scientist, in an article entitled “The Rebellion of the Chorus”. Using the analogy of Greek plays, he predicted that the chorus would step forward to center-stage, the space previously reserved for the heroes, with their supposedly divine source of knowledge, or, in today’s terms, the elected representative to whose wisdom the chorus delegates decisions.

Although some countries, like Egypt in January, have blacked out Internet, it is a desperate measure that attracts even more international attention. And, even in the face of the harshest repression, there are usually ways to get information out of a country. 

Politicians have, of course, tried to use social media to their advantage. Some, like President Barack Obama in his election campaign, have been very successful but, in general, they have found it tricky. Users of social media are highly sensitive to anything that smacks of interference as seen recently in Chile when the government’s plan to monitor social media was interpreted as spying even though the information was already, by definition, public. 

What’s in a hydroelectric project?

Still, many people were surprised earlier this year when the HidroAysén project in Chilean Patagonia “went viral” or, in other words, became the hot topic on social media. Why, they wondered, were so many people worried about a project in a remote part of the country they have never visited and perhaps never will?
And why are they marching about it in Santiago? Why not, say, about the city’s air pollution or other issues closer to home?

The fact that HidroAysén became a ‘cause’ is partly due to an effective campaign by its opponents, says Francisco Javier Díaz, a lawyer and political scientist who was an advisor to Chile’s previous president, Michelle Bachelet. Over the years, with astute and well-financed marketing, the campaign has gradually built up a body of opinion against the project.

And, according to Rendón, if it wasn’t HidroAysén, it would have been something else. “People aren’t only marching against HidroAysén, they’re marching for a better, different Chile,” he says.

It could, he suggests, have been the proposed Barrancones coal-fired power plant in northern Chile. Two marches against the project, close to a protected marine area, had already taken place, notes Rendón, before being nipped in the bud by President Sebastián Piñera and his controversial decision – which may indirectly have helped to boost anti-HidroAysén protests – to ask its developers, GDF Suez, not to persist with the project even though it had received government environmental approval.

Protests against energy projects are, in any case, nothing new. Back in the 1990s, there were also protests in Santiago against construction of the Ralco hydroelectric plant in southern Chile’s Biobío Region, pointed out Ena von Baer in an interview while still government spokesperson. “The organizations against HidroAysén are basically the same as against Ralco with the difference that they’ve learned a lot since then,” she said.

Nor are recent protests by university students and secondary schoolchildren anything new. They have their root in the wide differences that, despite some recent improvement, exist in pupil attainment between state schools and the private schools preferred by the country’s better-off families.

And, although larger than usual this year – indeed, a march in Santiago on June 30 was reportedly the largest since the return of democracy in 1990 – they have become a regular event in recent years. In fact, they have a clear seasonal pattern, points out Díaz, tending to begin in May or June, after the start of the school and university year in March, and lasting until August or September when year-end exams start to loom.

But there has been a change, admitted von Baer. “People today are clearly more willing to march and I think there’ll continue to be demonstrations all the time, at least for a while, and we’ll have to get used to that.”

Protests tend to come in international cycles, she pointed out, as also occurred, for example, in the 1960s. There are, however, also domestic factors behind the current outbreak in Chile.

In contrast to Spain’s indignados movement, these include strong economic growth. Adult – as opposed to student – demonstrators tend to be from a middle class that, with its basic economic needs resolved, is increasingly turning its attention to qualitative issues like the environment or – the subject of another recent demonstration – gay rights.

And, as in the pingüino demonstrations of 2006, high prices for copper, Chile’s main export, are also a factor, boosting pressure for increased public spending on education. “Copper prices in the sky, education down on the floor,” read one banner outside a recent school sit-in in Santiago.

“What we’re seeing is a country in adolescence,” said von Baer. “Chile is still only middle-income but it has the aspirations of a developed country, much like 15-year-olds dream of being something they aren’t yet.”

Where Chile?

According to Rendón, another key factor in the recent wave of demonstrations is the change of government that occurred in March last year with the election of President Sebastián Piñera, the candidate of the center-right Alianza por Chile coalition. For the previous 20 years, four successive governments of the center-left Concertación coalition had “anesthetized” civil society in Chile, he says.

The protests of the 1980s that culminated in the defeat of General Augusto Pinochet in a referendum in 1988 soon disappeared with reestablishment of democracy. That was partly because many of their leaders took government posts and, in any case, people were tired, but there was also a tacit pact of increased prosperity in exchange for social peace, says Francisco Javier Díaz.

“Now, with the Concertación in opposition, the anesthetist is on strike and some of its politicians are actively fanning the protests,” says Rendón. Although, he adds, they are not necessarily welcome.

The election of Piñera, a former businessman, has also increased the perception that power – business, the traditional media and, now, government – is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group. Or, as one university student put it, “Chile is a mafia controlled by a handful of families”.

That’s not a fair comment, countered von Baer. “Power in Chile is ever less concentrated.”

In the 1960s, two in ten school leavers went on to university, now it’s five in ten, she pointed out. “That’s a tremendous shift within the space of a generation and the increased competition will make reaching a position of power more difficult.”

But people are clearly eager for a greater say in decisions that affect their lives. Michelle Bachelet tapped into that during her election campaign in 2005 by promising a more participative style of government – a promise that was, however, soon abandoned after schoolchildren, taking her at her word, mounted the pingüino protests.

But, helped by the social media, the Greek chorus has since become ever more vociferous. And, cycles of protests apart, it seems likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.

It is, after all, formed predominantly by young people. Often accused of political apathy and, in fact, mostly not registered to vote, they are, nonetheless, increasingly demanding their say, albeit not quite in the way their elders would have anticipated.

They have little faith in traditional channels of expression and, particularly, political parties which they hold in low esteem. But the challenge they pose is, above all, for the political parties – the building blocks of representative democracy as we know it today – and their ability to channel the often chaotic energy of the chorus and choreograph it constructively.  

Ruth Bradley is a freelance journalist based in Santiago and a former editor of bUSiness CHILE.