‘We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers’: Social media and the 15M movement

Ruth Sanz Sabido is a doctoral researcher at De Montfort University. Her current research is a historical analysis of the media representations of terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the British press. She is also conducting research on the indignados movement and this week in her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM addresses the use of social media in the 15M movement.

The 15M movement, also known as the indignados movement, evolved from the activities promoted by groups such as Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) and Jóvenes sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future) at the beginning of 2011. They called on young people, the unemployed, the poorly paid and anyone affected by the crisis, to take the streets on 15 May 2011 in Spain. On that day, some people gathering in Puerta del Sol (Madrid) decided to camp there until the forthcoming local elections that were scheduled to take place seven days later. In the following days, hundreds of people replicated the initiative and camped in the main squares of several towns and cities in Spain. The purpose was to protest against the political and financial system, or what they called the ‘dictatorship of the markets’.

Like in other European countries, the movement is broadly defined in terms of its opposition to neoliberalism and its socio-political consequences. In Spain, the rising unemployment rates (as of January 2013, there are nearly six million unemployed people in the country, that is, over twenty-six percent of the working population), the privatisation of the health system, the unwanted bailouts by the EU, the cuts to research funds and subsequent brain drain, and the reforms to the education system and employment law, are only some of the causes that motivate the Spanish people to protest against government policies and attitudes. Recently, various citizens have resorted to committing or attempting to commit suicide as their only remaining solution to the threat of being evicted from their homes (No Byline, 2012; No Byline, 2012b). Very serious cases of corruption have also been uncovered in the past weeks and months, making the already strained population become even angrier at those who were meant to represent them and improve the unbearable conditions of millions of Spanish citizens (No Byline, 2012c; Rucinski, 2013).

In October 2012, nearly 1.8 million families had all its members out of work, and fifty-five percent of those younger than 25 are unemployed (No Byline, 2013). Generally, millions have become dependent on their parents and grandparents to (try to) make ends meet, and many are choosing to seek better opportunities abroad, leaving their homes, families and plans for their future behind. Political discourse and attitudes do not help either, for example, when politicians state that the reason why people are leaving the country is because they are seeking adventure (Sada, 2012), and when ministers struggle to contain their laughter while talking about the unbearable conditions of those who have lost everything (Huffpost, 2013).

The 15M movement accuses politicians of failing to do the job that they had been entrusted to do within the boundaries of the existing electoral system as per the Spanish Constitution. It denounces the failures of the representative system, condemns the effects of the neoliberalist model on the political system, and it defends the creation of a participatory democracy based on a more inclusive participation of citizens on every social and political level. Thus, a ‘good’ democracy encourages the participation of citizens, and it does not seek to restrict it.

Within this context, the role of social media has become quite significant. Indeed, social media are generally considered to be democratic tools which allow anyone with online access to communicate, express opinions, and organise and promote protests, and they have facilitated the sharing of information and material which might have otherwise remained unknown to the public. Most notably, videos recorded by citizens during demonstrations have exposed numerous cases of police brutality and abuse of authority (Tremlett, 2012). The Spanish police have been recorded indiscriminately beating citizens whose crimes were to stand or sit down in public places. Images of policemen inappropriately subduing young women and systematically injuring anyone who stands in their way have infuriated citizens in the past few months (No Byline, 2012d).

However, despite the fact that social media and, more generally, new media technology have, to some extent, contributed to the democratisation of the processes of production and distribution of information, we must also question their effectiveness. In October 2012, the Spanish government amended the Penal Code to penalise passive resistance and any acts or threats of violence against security forces, as well as causing public disorder and distributing messages inciting others to engage in any of these acts (Govan, 2012; Hedgecoe, 2012). These amendments to the Penal Code were motivated by the participation of millions of citizens in demonstrations all over the country, and by the use of social media to organise and promote protests. These activities can now be considered serious disturbances and criminal behaviour (Govan, 2012b).  The Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, defined these actions as ‘new crimes’ when these reforms were announced in April 2012 (Muñiz, 2012). Consequently, the 15M movement is criminalised and activities such as sitting down in the streets or using social media to encourage others to participate in demonstrations can potentially be seen as ‘violent actions’.

Administrators of social media sites play a crucial role in the attempt to counteract the effects of these changes to the law, in order to ensure that citizens are not put off from participating in demonstrations. In this respect, administrators post material to clarify which actions are legal, and they regularly inform of the free legal advice that is available during demonstrations in case anyone gets arrested. In addition to the government’s restrictions to what can and cannot be done, we must not forget that social media are also tools for surveillance and control. In effect, the democratic role of social media is curtailed by the online (and offline) infiltration of security forces in the movement, which monitor the activities that are being planned and allegedly initiate violent actions during demonstrations with the double purpose of de-legitimising the movement and justifying the intervention of security forces.

Administrators of social media sites which are supportive of the movement usually promote peaceful protests, and advise users to stay away from trouble and to not engage in violent behaviour. The message is clear: let video footage show that violence is instigated by the police, and not by the citizens. They also emphasize the importance of recording events and sharing them online, in order to spread information and, especially, to expose any cases of police brutality. Today, anyone carrying a mobile phone or other hand-held cameras can easily capture these images and distribute them through various online platforms for others to view and share. The Spanish government is also seeking to control these practices. In October 2012 they announced their intention to make it illegal to record and distribute images of the police during protests. The Law for the Safety of Citizens, as they call it, will protect the ‘privacy’ and ‘honour’ of those policemen who engage in violent acts against citizens (El País, 2012). Ironically, rather than ensuring the safety of citizens, it will give the police the necessary tools to deal with what they define as ‘acts of public disorder’ (Velasco, 2012).

Precisely because social media tend to be seen as open spaces for participation and discussion, the attempts to restrict and control them are dangerously perceived as oppressive measures which are too close to another political system which is not too far in anybody’s memory in Spain. The frail and relatively young Spanish democracy and the living memory of Franco’s dictatorship are usually alluded to by citizens who observe that recent government practices (criminalisation of protests, police brutality, censorship, police infiltrations, austerity measures) constitute a progressive loss of the rights and welfare that they had recovered after Franco’s death (Govan, 2012b; Hauser, 2012). In this vein, Ainger (2012) briefly described these feelings in the Guardian when she stated that the 15M movement “seems to say that democracy is a living being; something you do, not something you have, and that people are here to reclaim it”. This quote refers to the perception of Spanish citizens that democracy is something that has to be defended, because they know that it can be lost.

Based on the Spanish context and the 15M movement, these observations show that, while social media can (and do to some extent) work as democratic tools, their effectiveness is partly limited by the legal steps taken to control them. We may argue that the use of social media help us exercise some of our fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, but only to a certain point, when the line is crossed and citizens’ freedoms are no longer tolerated, creating a false illusion of democracy. In addition to the fact that social media are, first and foremost, commercial sites seeking financial profits, we cannot ignore that, despite the perception of horizontality that these sites tend to inspire (van Dijk, 2012), the vertical structures within and around social media inevitably shape the ways in which they are used and the extent to which they can truly be considered ‘democratic’, open or inclusive.

References

Ainger, K. (2012) “The indignados make change contagious”, Guardian, 8 May,

El País (2012) “Top cop lays out plan to prevent recording of police actions”, El País, 18 October,

Govan, F. (2012) “Spain accused of ‘draconian’ plans to clamp down on protests”, Telegraph, 11 April,

Govan, F. (2012b) “Echoes of Franco as Spain tries to punish tweeters”, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April,

Hauser, J. (2012) “Spanish government slammed for ‘dictatorial’ changes to penal law”, Storyful, 11 April,

Hedgecoe, G. (2012) “Spanish right to protest under threat, activists warn”, Irish Times, 5 October,

Huffpost (2013) “Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría se pone sentimental presentando el Fondo Social de Vivienda”, Huffington Post, 17 January,

Muñiz, A. (2012) “El Código Penal de Gallardón se ceba con los indignados”, Público, 16 October,

No Byline (2012) “Vigil after second home eviction suicide in Spain”, Euronews, 10 November,

No Byline (2012b) “Woman in Málaga commits suicide three days after receiving eviction notice”, Nerja News, 14 December,

No Byline (2012c) “Gurtel: The case that brought down a top judge”, Expatica, 9 February,

No Byline (2012d) “Video: Spanish police brutality at austerity strikes”, The Journal, 16 November,

No Byline (2013) “Spain’s unemployment rate reaches record high”, Aljazeera, 24 January,

Rucinski, T. (2013) “Spanish corruption scandal further dents support for Rajoy government”, Independent, 4 February,

Sada, L. (2012) “Spain: Young Emigrants Have ‘Spirit of Adventure’”, Global Voices, 8 December,

Tremlett, G. (2012) “Spain reels at violent tactics by riot police”, Guardian, 29 September,

Van Dijk, J. (2012) The Network Society. London: Sage.

Velasco, P. (2012) “El Gobierno quiere prohibir la grabación y difusión en Internet de imágenes de la Policía”, Cadena Ser, 18 October,

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