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How technology powered the Catalan referendum

One of the real heroes of the referendum was undoubtedly social media.

Emeka Forbes.This month’s vote was a wake up call for Governments around the world, that in an age of technology, silencing the voice of democracy is easier said than done.

The movement for independence in Catalonia is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the first political party to call for a split from the rest of Spain was founded back in the 1930's, but in recent years, those calls have been growing in intensity. With a healthy majority in the Catalan parliament, nationalists acted with authority, if not authorisation, as they announced plans to hold a referendum on independence on October 1. 

Despite efforts to thwart the vote by the Spanish Government, Catalans went to the polls anyway in open defiance of what they perceived to be a Spanish attempt to deny them a democratic voice. Ballot papers were hidden away from the National Police and the Civil Guard, and normal citizens took to the streets around polling stations to defend ballot boxes from confiscation by the police. October 1 was a day for democracy, powered by technology. 

Although there were several factors at play in assuring the vote went ahead, not least the courage of officials who went to great lengths to organise the event, technology played a huge part in the referendum. From social media, to peer to peer encrypted messaging applications, October 1 was a day for democracy, powered by technology. 

In the days leading up to the referendum, the Catalan Government struggled to keep their official website detailing information about where and how to vote online. Citizens would rush to visit official domains only to find sites already blocked by the Spanish Government. In a game of cat and mouse, versions of the official website began to pop up at increasingly unlikely domain addresses, including guardiacivil.sexy, in a clear attempt to satirise the Spanish use of the police [The Guardia Civil] to block a democratic vote. Citizens would rush to visit official domains only to find sites already blocked by the Spanish Government.

In the end, referendum organisers decided to make use of a semi-open source, peer-to-peer messaging application called Telegram founded by two Russian entrepreneurs in 2013. The app gained massive traction after the announcement that Facebook was set to buy WhatsApp in 2014 as users scrambled to find alternative ways to chat.

Unlike WhatsApp however, Telegram supports in-app ‘channels’. This means that users can sign up for updates from other users or organisations and receive instant messages without having to be part of a large group chat. Telegram can therefore be used to quickly communicate key pieces of information to large audiences. Organisers also used the app to create an automated ‘bot’ feature which allowed citizens to input their details and find their local polling station without having to rely on the official referendum website which could be blocked at any point.

lead Emeka Forbes. As Spanish police flooded into Catalonia and successfully closed more than 1000 polling stations on the morning of the vote, Catalan authorities issued a rushed announcement stating that citizens could vote at any polling station if theirs had been closed. This meant that checking voter IDs in order to prevent double voting became essential and in turn, internet access in polling stations was essential.

As most polling stations are situated in schools across Catalonia, blocking internet connections was fairly easy for Spanish Police. Organisers responded by equipping polling stations with mobile hotspots in order to maintain a reliable connection throughout the day. One thing that wasn’t accounted for however, was the sheer weight of demand on 3G and 4G networks during the day, especially around polling stations as citizens gathered to defend them from Spanish police officers constantly rumoured to be ‘on the way’.

With polling stations facing shaky internet connections and struggling to keep the cogs turning, instructions were issued to those on the streets nearby; “turn off your mobile data!”. 

Dateless, citizens would have been completely in the dark on police movements or the safety of their loved ones without another peer to peer messaging app; FireChat. The mobile app first made popular in Iraq in 2014 following Government restrictions on the internet allows users to message each other without any active internet connection.

Instead, it uses short range wifi and Bluetooth signals to create an active connection to nearby devices within 200ft. By lining up other people using the app, signals can be bounced off other devices like relay stations, thus amplifying the range to cover much greater distances. FireChat’s website explains this by describing a mesh effect. The more people using the app in a given location, the stronger and therefore quicker the service as the mesh grows. Without mobile data, FireChat became a useful tool for some citizens to send essential messages in the midst of large crowds. People had nobody to turn to but the rest of the world via live streaming apps like Periscope and Facebook live.

“Some of us were already using FireChat to communicate in the crowd because of the slow internet. When the [referendum] organisers told us to turn off our data, we could still share information” said one citizen who recounted stories of a day spent defending ballot boxes and waiting for the Spanish police to show up at her polling station. 

One of the real heroes of the referendum however was undoubtedly social media. In the midst of police violence on the streets, people had nobody to turn to but the rest of the world via live streaming apps like Periscope and Facebook live on their smartphones. “Of course, if we didn’t film these things, the world wouldn’t know about them. In Madrid, the news is still saying only a handful of people were injured but the police, they say it was a proportional response, but this is a lie (…) now, everybody has a smartphone so we can show the rest of Europe how they [the Spanish Government] are treating us” said Luisa as she stood against a backdrop of Catalan flags during a protest outside Barcelona’s main university campus. The role of microblogging tools like Twitter has also been essential for sharing ‘on the ground’ experiences from ordinary people in an age of citizen journalism. 

Traditional news sources are often seen as a reliable way to sift through information and separate fact from fiction, but many Catalans have a deep distrust of the media.

As I wondered through the middle of another protest trying to understand the Catalan chants, I spoke to Miguel who moved to Barcelona from Andalucia several years ago, but now firmly supports independence. “The news reports are always unfair to us. Sometimes, they show up with their camera at these big protests, and you know when they start filming? Right at the end, as everyone goes home. Then they say it was only a small protest, that we (pro-independence protesters) are a minority. Whenever we see them trying to film, we chant louder, we tell them what we think of them”. 

On sites like Facebook and Twitter, the possibility of going viral creates a perfect breeding ground for political memes. As one student told me, “people think memes are just funny, but actually, they are a way of teaching some things. We make humour out of politics and it becomes something people want to share, and then everyone knows something more about the issue”. 

“I think this vote was about the people, and technology doesn’t change that, but we are against a Government with lots of power, and maybe the way we can use technology gives a little bit of power back to us so we can stand up and make our voice heard”. 

About the author

Emeka Forbes is a freelance journalist and former political advisor. Find him on Twitter @emekaforbes

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