Anti-austerity forces and the digital media in Spain

The experiences of the 15-M and Podemos in Spain demonstrate that by participating in both the traditional mass media and the digital media, we can develop counter-powers at a local, national and international level. Español

Joan Pedro-Carañana
16 June 2016

The 15M movement, Olmo Calvo/WikimediaWhat are the possibilities and limitations of digital media for contesting austerity? What are the options for citizens’ appropriation of digital media to favour an emancipatory use of technologies? Which other instruments could work in synergy with online practices? These questions can be addressed by looking at the experiences of the 15-M, or indignados movement, and the Spanish political party Podemos.

The 15-M movement: the birth of a culture of resistance

The 15-M launched a cultural intervention in which collective action succeeded in introducing a powerful discourse into the public sphere that provided an alternative interpretation of ‘the crisis’. The messages produced and shared online and in the plazas, erupted onto national television sets, breaking the spiral of silence in the mainstream media in relation to citizens’ dissatisfaction with the abuses of the two-party system and major financial institutions that were calling for austerity-induced reforms.

One of 15-M’s key propositions was that we should turn to techno-politics. This was based on the idea that a key element of change is the knowledge generated and shared by a connected multitude in the cyber-territory (organisation) for the strategic creation of innovative and participatory uses of online platforms (communication), aimed at generating changes in the social and political systems (social action). 

The application of humanistic and technical knowledge allowed for the appropriation of digital media, leading to a proliferation of free software, collaborative platforms and creative production. Digital communication worked in synergy with the expressive occupation of urban spaces. According to the self-managed 15Mpedia, digital technologies allowed the dialogue that was needed to bring together hundreds of associations to support the call for the May 15 demonstrations. This two-pronged approach to communication helped activists and citizens to:

  • - Become protagonists as media producers representing themselves and the world, leading to a democratisation of production and increased diversity: “They don’t represent us”, “Real democracy NOW! We are not a commodity lying in the hands of politicians and bankers”;
  • - Establish the frames of political discussion: “They call it democracy, but it isn’t”, “We are not anti-system; the system is anti-us”, “violence is earning 600 Euros”;
  • - Innovate in language and discourse: “There’s not enough bread for so much chorizo” (corruption);
  • - Appropriate mass and popular culture: “Nobody expects the #SPANISHREVOLUTION”, a reference to Monty Python’s, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”;
  • - Promote and experience change: “Change begins with you”;
  • - Share a feeling of belonging to a collectivity: “Let’s do something new together”;
  • - Shape identities through collective practices: “We can only fix this without them” in response to the government’s proposition that “we are all in the same boat”;
  • - Generate affective exchanges and develop mutual trust;
  • - Promote citizens’ empowerment, for example through rumba performances inside banks that have been viewed on YouTube half a million times: “This is not a crisis; it’s called capitalism”;
  • - Spread the feeling of hope, for example with the Solfonic orchestra playing the ‘Ode to Joy’ in crowded squares and diffusing the video on the social networks.

A variety of online initiatives were put into work, such as hundreds of time banks to counter the effects of austerity through a time-based currency for exchanging services and knowledge or the creation of both physical and digital networks to paralyse the normal functioning of Bankia, a corrupt financial institution that was bailed out with public funding.

After some time, the indignados movement lost momentum. Its capacity to influence the digital world was reduced and many of the online initiatives disappeared. However, its spirit was diffused through society, leading to experimental actions like the 2015 virtual march in which thousands of holograms of people surrounded Congress to protest against the Gag Law, which criminalises social activism against austerity and limits freedom of speech.

Podemos: constructing hegemony

Podemos emerged as the political force that, imbued with the spirit of 15-M, would act as an electoral weapon for the assault on austerity-minded political institutions. One of the most important elements behind the appeal of Podemos has been its political communication based on a national-populist strategy that included winning space on television, charismatic leadership, the development of new cognitive connections (the pueblo vs the casta) and a bold attitude —all with the aim of building a new cultural hegemony.

A spot for the election showed communication exchanges on the digital media to symbolise the youth that has been forced to emigrate as a consequence of the policies of austerity: “Saturday is the saddest day because it’s not the same to comment on the game on WhatsApp as watching it together in the stadium”, prompting his father to ask politicians to bring his kid back home. The candidate of Podemos appears to share proposals for the “Return plan”.

So, if television has been central to the development of Podemos, what role have digital media played? Podemos has relied on ‘collective intelligence’, particularly on the messages produced and shared by citizens, such as viral videos attacking the weaknesses of political adversaries that were produced by a sympathiser of Podemos. Podemos has also dedicated growing human and economic resources to strategically influence the online environment. Some of the party’s key actions include:

  • Building a professional workforce on social networks that contributed, for example, to make #Podemos25M a trending topic;
  • Using websites as a space for financial transparency;
  • Crowd-funding and micro-credits campaigns to remain independent from banks;
  • Using online platforms for citizen interaction and participation in electoral and decision-making processes;
  • Integrating political communication into popular culture, for example with the Spain Wars videos featuring the awakening of the force (of change) against the power of the darkness (subtitled Partido Popular);
  • Producing viral videos that foster empathy among non-politicised members of the public, as in the Spain Wars;
  • Creating new representations and identities: “The beginning of change”, “You are Podemos; Podemos are all of us”;
  • Using digital platforms for devising and circulating its educational programme and, more generally, for sounding out the general mood of affiliates, activists and society and testing the appeal of messages (as noted by Pablo Iglesias, the secretary general of Podemos).

Podemos continued the process of hegemony-building and oriented its project to winning the national government—but not specifically to developing the means to reverse the politics of austerity in the EU context. The coalitions of change that won the elections in important municipalities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia) are now looking into the possibilities. For example, the city council of Madrid in which Podemos participates has enabled an online platform for developing a participatory budget.

Limitations and difficulties of digital media use

The explosion of emotion and the victories on the cultural front may have led both 15-M activists and the leaders of Podemos to disregard all too often the limitations of their strategies. The risks of disenfranchisement following the peaks of hope have now become evident. Several questions therefore arise: did digital media really help to incorporate a substantial number of non-leftists? Is ‘everybody’ really involved in these platforms?

There are, however, some limitations of the strategic use of digital media including:

  • - The social divisions and material conditions affecting the participation and uses of digital media, such as the age gap, class differences, working conditions leading to psychological exhaustion, the incentives for entertainment and evasion;
  • - The internet as a scale-free network. The flows of online communication tend to follow a power law by which some central hubs (leaders of opinion) produce most of the messages, which are then shared by other nodes of the network that may also modify and re-signify them;
  • - The axiom that participation decreases when bureaucratic logic prevails and the processes are controlled and closed in excess by the leaders;
  • - The political ghettoization of online networks comprised by a small number of highly politicised and educated activists;
  • - The processes of groupthink, such as the spiral of silence in the online world;
  • - The absence of powerful alternatives to Google, Facebook, Twitter and the likes
  • - The interventions of adversaries in the online environment;
  • - The difficulties for the alleged autonomy and self-organisation of on-line (and off-line) networks and discourse in the context of the power of tech corporations, corporate media and political and economic forces;
  • - The difficulties for managing, interpreting, systematising and incorporating massive citizen input through online mechanisms as some platforms may turn into sites of communicative overabundance for activists alone;
  • - The redundancy and superficiality that dominates digital networks;
  • Internet surfers sheltering in activist-unfriendly platforms.

Looking ahead

In spite of all the difficulties for an emancipatory use of digital media, all technological revolutions have opened opportunities for the development of different types of transformations.

The future of anti-austerity forces may lie in their capacity to materialise cultural, political and economic transformations by combining social activism and institutional change, mediated by participation in both the traditional mass media and the digital media in order to connect and develop physical and virtual networks of counter-power at a local, national and international level. Five key areas of action can be identified based on the lessons of these two recent experiences:

  1. Enabling online mechanisms for channelling citizen demands against austerity and for public services;
  2. Building a new cultural consensus with the majorities;
  3. Exploring the online possibilities for the combination of participation and efficacy in decision-making, autonomy and solidarity, humanism and professionalism;
  4. Promoting interventions by small groups that can disrupt the functioning of powerful institutions or provide strategic information;
  5. Citizen and public regulation of both the internet and the mass media environments as common goods.

Projects for social change may also look into the contradictions of media power to take advantage of the spaces that open up for democratic intervention. We may benefit from the analysis of the political economy of media and society and, at the same time, promote the affective and ludic side of social change so as to awaken both our being political and the politics of being. As the learning process goes on, the key question remains whether a set of complementary strategies can be applied in practice to transform Europe along democratic lines.

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