CitizenGo's "hate bus" in New York. Photo: Erik McGregor/PA Images. All rights reserved.
This month, tourists and beachgoers in Spain will be treated to the sight of a bright orange plane, flying overhead, declaring its opposition to a proposed law against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Among other things, the bill would see businesses and organisations fined for non-compliance. It has been backed by the left-wing Podemos party and activists for LGBT rights.
The plane will carry a banner warning: “they are coming for your children’. Right-wing campaigners planning the stunt say the proposed law is part of an attempt by the “political classes” to “indoctrinate our children” and grant “privileges to certain groups above the rights of all”.
Those wishing to avoid what has already been called “the hate plane” cannot. Exact locations of where it will fly, between Cadiz and Gerona, have been kept under wraps.
The controversial stunt is the latest offline action from CitizenGo, an online hub for conservative campaigners that launched in 2010. It is known for coordinating large-scale e-petitions, including against transgender rights and abortion, and has been described as the right-wing counterpart to sites like MoveOn.org and Change.org.
But the impact this group is looking for is offline – and it is increasingly organising real-world actions. The planned launch of the “hate plane” follows controversy earlier this year after campaigners painted a bus with transphobic slogans like “boys have penises, girls have vulvas, don’t be fooled,” and took it on a tour of cities across Spain.
The “bus of freedom” (as the campaigners called it) prompted high-profile protests and counter-protests. It was eventually forced off the road and banned in Barcelona, Madrid and Pamplona by city authorities. CitizenGo, however, is not slowing down. Rather, its rise and growing reach has alarmed human rights advocates.
At the US thinktank Political Research Associates, LGBT and gender researcher Cole Parke said the growth of groups like CitizenGo contrasts with the beliefs of some “progressive activists...that the opposition is an aging and increasingly irrelevant minority”. Parke said: “the right's online savviness (and expanding political power) suggests that this is not at all the case”.
The rise of CitizenGo
CitizenGo started in Spain, as a project of another controversial organisation called HazteOir. It now claims to have millions of supporters in more than 50 countries.
In the UK, CitizenGo’s articulate volunteer spokesperson Mario Velasco told me: “We are active citizens who think it is possible to live in a society where family and freedom of speech and religion and life is a priority. The internet is providing us with a tool, which is not good or bad. But we have the moral duty to use it for good, and that is our main goal”.
HatzeOir was founded in 2001. Earlier this year, a team of investigators in Spain traced links between the group and “El Yunque”, a mysterious secret society that allegedly has cells across Mexico and the US mobilised to “defend the Catholic religion and fight the forces of Satan though violence or murder”, according to Mexican investigative journalist Alvaro Delgado. Previously, in 2014 a judge dismissed a claim by HazteOir disputing links between the groups.
CitizenGo describes itself as “pro-family” and a defender of life, family, freedom, and dignity. Madrid lawyer Ignacio Arsuaga, reportedly the great-grandson of a general who served the late dictator General Francisco Franco, sits at the helm of both it and HatzeOir.
Pilotando el avión de la libertad, el que va a parar la #DictaduraDeGénero de la #LeyPodemosLGTBI de #Podemos y el establishment político pic.twitter.com/QLuocchves
— Ignacio Arsuaga (@iarsuaga) August 1, 2017
“They have self-consciously modelled themselves on MoveOn.org, Change.org or other petition sites,” activist and human rights lawyer Naureen Shameem told me. She works for the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) and is monitoring the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights, and growing “anti-rights” activism at the UN in particular.
CitizenGo has been on AWID’s radar for some time, as Arsuaga also sits on the board of a group called the World Congress of Families which organises large-scale regional and international conferences to create alliances between “pro-family” groups.
Shameem says these organisations “often speak and try to appropriate the language of human rights to their own ends.” She adds: “the focus of what they do is power orientated. A manipulation of religious arguments to increase power and undermine the universality of rights”.
Power and rights
CitizenGo’s largest campaign to date has been a petition “supporting” the parents of terminally-ill British child Charlie Gard, which gathered more than half a million signatures worldwide. Velasco says the platform decided to get involved in this case because of its opposition to the state, rather than the family, deciding what was in the child’s best interests.
Increasingly conservative and religious right groups are appealing to what they call “parental rights” in their attempts to strengthen their “hierarchical and traditional concept of the family,” according to a report written by Shameem and published earlier this year by the new Observatory on the Universality of Rights.
Mapping anti-rights actors and their connections. Infographic: OURs Initiative.
The internet, Velasco says, is CitizenGo’s main “tool to promote family life and values in western societies”. Many of their petitions focus on rolling back or preventing gains on LGBT rights and women’s access to abortion and contraception. Others have focused on persecuted Christians in the Middle East and calls to close refugee centres in Poland.
There is even a petition thanking Domino's Pizza for its "support" for a Mexico City anti-abortion march. It says: “I’m very happy to know that there are companies that are humanly responsible and committed to the first right, the right to life”.
But, Velasco adds: “We are trying to get people engaged offline as well”. He told me: “We have summer camps for CitizenGo training, we also organise events at the United Nations. We recently sent people to work in Iraq on refugee camps. We have a variety of activities around the world”.
In numerous countries CitizenGo has linked up with other like-minded organisations including grassroots and community-level “pro-family” groups. “They have become much more active at a regional level,” adds Shameem.
The transphobic bus ordered off the streets of Spanish cities also appeared across the Atlantic in the US. Greeted with protests during its appearance in New York, the bus continued to Connecticut, Philadelphia and Baltimore before its final stop in Washington DC.
Utilising the opportunities of social media platforms, Velasco says, is how CitizenGo works across borders. Petitions deemed potential ‘global priorities’ by campaigners are translated into seven languages for maximum reach.
“It’s the internet that helps us understand people’s sufferings all over the world,” says Velasco, rather breathlessly. “We understand that no matter where you are in the world, you can try and change the world. It’s not just about your country, it’s about humanity”.
At Political Research Associates, Parke says it’s crucial to consider and challenge the specific version of humanity being promoted. “CitizenGo's campaigns are unquestionably linked by a shared ideology – one that is explicitly anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion,” they told me. “Additionally, the platform promotes a radical (and dangerous) redefinition of religious freedom”.
Parke said that the concept of religious freedom was "intended to serve as a shield against religious imposition," but that groups like CitizenGo are trying to use it as "a sword of right-wing Christian hegemony" instead.
They described a “standard right-wing equation first birthed in the US: advance an oppressive agenda rooted in the advancement of heterosexism, white supremacy, and Christian hegemony by mobilising resentment against marginalised communities”.
CitizenGo is not the only group that’s used the internet for clicks, self-promotion and attempts at political influence. It also encourages other politically similar organisations to use its website to do the same.
Can the digital realm amplify the views of these groups, to the point of changing offline realities? This is certainly their goal. In Spain, efforts to block the proposed equality law (the focus of CitizenGo’s upcoming “hate plane”) will likely crescendo ahead of the vote in September.
It is expected that the bill will eventually pass – but without the support of the prime minister’s conservative People’s Party. The debates, strategies and tactics advanced by CitizenGo and its allies, however, will continue regardless of the outcome. Human rights activists remain on high alert.