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Colombia: networks of dissent and power

Catalina Holguín
4 February 2008

A new Facebook group called "A Million Voices Against FARC" has been making headlines in Colombia in the first weeks of 2008. The group was created by Colombian engineer Óscar Morales, out of indignation over the conditions of hostages held by the paramilitary Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia / Farc). Its staggering growth-rate - it gathered some 3,000 supporters in the first twenty-four hours, and at the time of writing has 261,236 virtual members - sufficed to encourage Morales to back up this cyber-protest with physical ones on 4 February 2008. This is taking place simultaneously in forty-five Colombian cities and towns, and rallies in solidarity are also scheduled in 115 cities worldwide (sixty in the Americas, forty in Europe, and fifteen in Asia and Oceania).

Catalina Holguín is a journalist. She has two degrees in English literature, and contributes regularly to Colombian magazines

The English version of the manifesto, posted on the organisers' webpage and their Facebook group reads:

"NO MORE KIDNAPPING!

NO MORE LIES!

NO MORE MURDER!

NO MORE FARC!

Let's commit ourselves to join a million voices in this group so we can make a difference, and let the entire world know that we don't need that ‘People's Army' here in Colombia; that FARC is a terrorist group, led by murderers and enemies of the Colombian and World's People. This is a cause beyond all political interests or colors. It's a humanitarian cause, encouraged by a simple sense of solidarity, for the sake and welfare of our citizens."

The group's backing - as the real-world, 4 February demonstrations indicate - has extended far beyond the virtual. Its supporters include Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, and El Tiempo, the country's most influential newspaper. The latter's opinion-column advocacy is supplemented by widespread and favourable news coverage, and a "countdown" clock on its website to remind readers of the approaching event.

The virtual turnout of this protest is already staggering, as is the publicity it has received in the Colombian media. This scale of response is worthy of attention both in itself and as the impressive "trigger" of collective social mobilisation on the streets (regardless of how many people actually attend the protests). But this mode of net-generated (or net-facilitated) activism also raises two questions about the new interplay of technology and politics that it reveals.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Adam Isacson, "The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)

First, is this form of protest an example of what Paul Rogers - in "The New Atlantic Century" [24 January 2008] - calls "‘new generation' media outlets" and their capacity to "challenge" establishment perspectives; or is it nearer almost-effortless "slacktivism" than the dedicated, patient work that successful activism requires? Second, how is the character of such protests influenced by the political context in which they occur - in this case, a Colombia riven by political violence?

A formless politics

The way that the Facebook group achieved such great and near-instant popularity highlights the fact that these two questions are linked. That is, the group clearly benefited both from the ability of capacity networks such as Facebook rapidly to disseminate and multiply information (especially in the form of simplistic messages); and from a moment of political tension and frustration surrounding the fate of the civilian hostages in the hands of the Farc (a handful of whom were released on 10 January; see Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives", 21 January 2008).

But the web's combination of instantaneity and "formlessness" can be double-edged, in that it makes protest of this kind also vulnerable to co-option by those with a far more elaborate and power-driven political agenda: in this case, Álvaro Uribe's government and significant media players.

It is true that the Facebook group's initial lack of defined political "colour" made it sound - especially to the media - exciting and novel. At the same time, the group's accompanying statement reveals a degree of political naiveté (or worse) that leaves it open to such external manipulation. For example, it describes Farc as a "plague" that has waged a dirty war against Colombians for the past forty years. The problem with such characterisations - one very familiar to internet-based activism - is that in the interests of arousing sympathy and inciting the viewer/reader to action, they greatly simplify and flatten a complex history.

In this sentence, the organisers erase some of the important landmarks of the Farc's history - including the movement's original political motivations; the annihilation of all members of the Unión Patriótica (the Farc's political party, born out of the 1985 peace process); and the group's involvement in drug-trafficking, which has had such a transformative effect. The effect of this erasure is both to dim the historical awareness that is essential to real progress in Colombia, and to reinforce the Colombian state's refusal to take its own share of responsibility for the present situation.

In addition, this apparently apolitical protest in fact represents an intervention in a delicate political context - one where Álvaro Uribe is seeking a military solution to the conflict; where Uribe's astounding popularity rates (80%-plus in many polls) are based in part on his advocacy of the military extermination of the Farc; and where Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has demanded that Farc no longer be described as "terrorist". In such circumstances, the Facebook protest and its simplifying message is bound to be seen as accommodating Bogotá's preferred policy.

Some indeed have voiced their concern about the 4 February 2008 activities. They include Polo Democrático (the opposition, leftwing political party); family members of Farc hostages; journalists and human-rights activists; and even another Facebook group called "No More Protests, No More Hypocrisy". These critics argue that the simplicity of the march's message ("No more FARC, No more Terrorism") presents a distorted view of the Colombian armed conflict. The journalist María Jimena Dussán says that it excludes the victims of the (rightwing) "paramilitary holocaust" who are still waiting for promised "truth, justice, and reparations". The activist Klaudia Girón echoes this view, questions the march's selective focus, and affirms the principle that "all armed parties, legal and illegal, violate the principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants, thus affecting the life and dignity of the civilian population... Colombians have been getting used to assimilating the official side of the story and naturalising the violence and abuses of the state's ‘legitimate force'."

It is clear from this controversy that the Facebook protest and the events which it has spawned have come to be ensnared in (rather than reach beyond) the alarming polarisation of political opinion in Colombia (of which one-sided and distorted narratives of the country's armed conflict are but one symptom). Facebook postings written by march supporters show how deeply rooted is the view of the Farc as a plague that must be eliminated; in turn, critics focus on ideas such as the humanitarian release and exchange of hostages, peace negotiations with rebels, and the investigation of links between the paramilitaries and the government.

The net's two faces

The Facebook-sparked protest and 4 February demonstrations in Colombia make an interesting test-case of the burgeoning power of unorthodox media outlets and their potential to rally great numbers of people in a short period of time. The initial spontaneity and synergy are a paradigm example of how technology can spawn transnational political forms; in this the phenomenon both belongs to the past decade of net-based activism and highlights the potential of social networks to make this type of organising even more inventive and sophisticated in the future.

At the same time, this particular protest (and this form of mobilisation) exclude the many who do not belong to the technological and transnational elites which they favour. Moreover, by avoiding the classic approaches of civil-society work - including the formation of alliances with NGOs, political parties, human-rights groups, and trade unions - the march organisers disregard traditional forms and institutions of democratic action. In doing so, they privilege a fragmented and highly individualised perspective of reality over one that embodies shared, public action for social improvement.

In this sense, the Facebook-started protest and the 4 February events are both impressive technologically and troubling politically - a duality that in turn reflects the two-sided political potential of the internet, new-media and social-network outlets.

These media champion their own originating conditions of fragmentation and disaggregation, which allow them to bypass traditional political institutions and agencies. The result is the open discussion, communal ingathering, and networked dissent which such "netizens" regard as their unique and privileged escape-route from the conformity of the "old" politics.

So the Facebook group which sparked the Colombia marches has a "discussion" section, a "wall" where people post messages, and a "news" section where users upload clippings and podcasts. But this only accentuates the problem. The very success of this group is based on the radical simplicity of its message; for how can its political platform be read and interpreted coherently when its members share nothing and communicate nothing but a common "wall" with some 26,000 messages and 1,450 discussion threads?

The answer is that it can: but often by centres of power that seek to put the message of such a group (in itself so easily consumed and forgotten) in the service of their own agenda. The Colombian experience may be distinct in its details, but the question it poses to net-based political activism is universal: how can such "dissent" avoid becoming just another medium of conformity, manipulation and power?

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