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Neo-Zapatista demonstrations

A study examines the ways in which net-activists interact, the digital networks, and territoriality

The Anonymous mask was one of the symbols adopted from demonstrations in other countries, used by those who did not want to show their faces

WIKIMEDIA COMMONSThe Anonymous mask was one of the symbols adopted from demonstrations in other countries, used by those who did not want to show their facesWIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Much has been written about the passeatas (protest marches) that took place in Brazil in June 2013, especially as regards the political content, legitimacy, and historical significance of those demonstrations. While some intellectuals were surprised at the size of the demonstrations, others saw in the streets a highly symbolic expression of the ability of “net-activists” to organize support for a cause. This is, by the way, the key finding of a study on the subject funded by FAPESP entitled Collaborative action and new forms of participation in digital networks. The principal investigator was Italian sociologist Massimo Di Felice, coordinator of the Atopos Research Center of the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP).

The study, driven by the international nature of net-activism, involved collaboration by three European sociologists, Michel Maffesoli, founder and director of the Center for Studies of the Actual and the Everyday of the Sorbonne—University of Paris; José Bragança de Miranda, of the Center for Studies in Communications and Language of the Universidade Nova in Lisbon; and Alberto Abruzzese, of the Italian Media Studies Unit of the Free University of Languages and Communication (IULM) in Milan. All three, plus Pierre Levy, attended the first international conference on Net-Activism, Digital Networks and New Practices of Democracy held at ECA-USP on November 6-8, 2013. The principal papers presented there are to be compiled in book form at the end of the first half of 2014.

While they debated the idea of setting up an international observatory about net-activism, Di Felice and his colleagues found numerous analogies—especially analogies of form—between the new models of participation in digital networks from 2011 to 2013. “Although the demands were surprisingly similar,” he observes, the researchers opted to analyze the characteristics of the forms of interaction among the activists, the digital networks, and the territoriality. In other words, instead of looking at the political motivations and arguments, “the research was guided by the desire to describe the interactions within those demonstrations and the scope of their localization,” Di Felice says.

Protest at the National Congress building in June 2013 against the money being spent on the World Cup, corruption, and urging improvements in transportation, health care, and education

VALTER CAMPANATO / ABRProtest at the National Congress building in June 2013 against the money being spent on the World Cup, corruption, and urging improvements in transportation, health care, and educationVALTER CAMPANATO / ABR

Prior, therefore, to the political and cultural effervescence stimulated by various mobilizations on the networks and in the streets, both inside and outside the Rio-São Paulo corridor, the sociologist had already taken his first steps in investigating the potential of the activism that was being expressed on the networks. “In starting the study, I was inspired by my own journey that had led me to investigate, during the past decade, the forms that conflict was taking in Latin America,” Di Felice explains. At first, the researcher focused his attention on the Zapatista movement in the Mexico of 1994, which constituted the first model of a global protest involving letters scattered around the Internet. “All current movements, in whatever corner of the world, find their inspiration in the Zapatista movement. It was a landmark. The covered faces of the “Black Blocs” and the members of Anonymous came from the Zapatistas, as does the refusal to battle to take over power and the aversion to traditional ideological banners and political parties of whatever leaning. Like the Zapatistas, they see the possibility of creating their own kind of communications as an alternative to the official media. We saw all those elements earlier, in Zapatismo,” Di Felice says.

Di Felice’s research identified three distinct moments in the development of digital activism. First, in the 1990s, there was the development of theme-based international movements, with the diffusion of activisms on centralized networks, and theoretical movements in the field of esthetics in Australia and India, which intended to create strategies for actions with the so-called “tactical media.” Their actions took place in the arts and in politics with the search for innovative tactics of intervention that would quickly produce international ramifications. One example was the rise of the digital protests of the Cyberpunk movement.

During the second moment, still in the 1990s and early 2000s, Di Felice witnessed the ramifications of the indigenous and cybernetic phase that found its expression in the Zapatista struggle and inspired the World Social Forum. And so came the first instances of international media-inspired protests, in cities like Seattle (1999), Prague (2000), and Davos (2001). They marked the experimentation with the first forms of conflictuality and, with the Internet, raised social action to planetary dimensions.

Protests in Seattle, Washington (USA), November 1999


Lastly, a third moment occurred starting in 2000 and continuing into the present. In it, the researcher highlights a new activism that, in many cases, provoked radical transformations—as in the case of the Arab Spring, with the defeat of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya and, in Tunisia, of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali—and the rise of new movements, such as the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy (2009), the #YoSoy132 in Mexico (2012), the “indignants” of the 15-M Movement in Spain (2011), and the M12M (12th of March) Movement in Portugal (2011). Nor can we forget Occupy Wall Street in the United States, (2011) and the jornadas de junho protests in Brazil (2013).

But what it is that changed in order to foster the “boom” in such broad, diverse movements? Di Felice says the key is in the progress from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Previously, the Internet was a network of computers connected by modems and telephone lines and permitting only exchanges of texts and images. Those were the days of the first notions of cyberculture. In the 1990s, cyber-activism was considered to be a type of grass-roots political action marked by dissemination of information on the Internet in order to boycott consumption of certain items and arrange occupations and protests related to human rights, civil rights, and ecological issues.

070-073_Redes digitais_217Now, with technological progress and the advent of digital social networks, the Internet has become a plural and conflictive platform, mobile and agile, facilitating the exchange and sharing not only of texts and images but also of other multimedia formats. People can now converse with each other, create thematic networks, exchange content, and collaborate in real time to find solutions. According to Di Felice, net-activism represents an intensive form of interaction on the network among individuals, territories, and digital technologies. In contrast to earlier times, marked by opposition to globalization, this new activism signals the development of a global citizenship identity that is possible and present on digital networks, with demand agendas directed toward democracy, equity, and sustainability. “The Internet is a collective structure. It is an intelligent network,” as Di Felice defined it in an interview conducted by Skype, connecting Rome with São Paulo.

Along the same line, Henrique Antoun, author of A internet e a rua (The Internet and the Street) (Sulina, 2013) and coordinator of Cibercult, a laboratory at the School of Communications of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), explains: “Digital networks enable societies to experiment playfully with both socio-global and local relationships and sites and to propose new forms of work, autonomous projects, and new kinds of collectivity and governance. With cyber-activism, the stupid mass becomes an intelligent multitude, making thought guide collective actions and submitting the centrality of strategy to the decentralization of tactics.”

In that context, the study headed by Di Felice—besides constructing a typology of net-activist action that characterizes the quality of the action as frontal, immersive, conversational, and reticular—identified three characteristics that comprise the definition of net-activism. The first refers to the singular ecology of actions that are happening at the same time in the streets and on the digital networks. “It is a new ecology, very complex; it aggregates connectivity devices, cities, bodies, and digital information (big data) through different types of actors and interactions. No longer is there any distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds,” the researcher says. “This inaugurates a new form of citizenship that goes beyond the public sphere that was previously made possible by the ‘published’ opinion media, i.e., by the opinions disseminated in the public media sphere. Now anyone can produce information and share it.” One need only consider the most recent demonstrations packaged by hashtag #vemprarua (#cometothestreets). Now the demonstrators are physically in the street and, at the same time, can take and post photos on Facebook, comment on the protest in real time, and so expand the space in which their actions occur. Protesters can record and post videos on YouTube, revealing realities different from those propagated by traditional media. They can also post on Twitter, narrating their personal impressions about what is happening in the street and on the network.

If there is no longer any apparent contraposition between the “real” and the “virtual” universes, what can we say about the difference between the public sphere and private space? “Right now we are not living only in a territory, but also in intelligent networks,” Di Felice explains. “The process that began with the discovery of electricity expands quantitatively with digital networks and mobile connection devices. The ubiquitous connection with the flows of information via those devices enables me to change my social status and my experience of location. Increasingly, where we are and what we are doing is the result of relationships on complex ecological networks.”

The Occupy Wall Street Movement, New York (USA) September 2011

DAVID SHANKBONEThe Occupy Wall Street Movement, New York (USA) September 2011DAVID SHANKBONE

The second characteristic of net-activism is said to be an enhanced value of anonymity (influenced by the Zapatista movement) and the rejection of an ideology-based political identity that is synthesized in a leader, (a rejection that reverberated in the protests in Brazil, for example). There is no center that diffuses orders and ideas, but a horizontal relationship among net-activists. The third characteristic is rejection of institutionalization, as expressed in an aversion to political parties of whatever orientation, which essentially differentiates the social movements on digital networks from modern social movements (see graphic). “Digital activism makes it possible to go beyond the old idea of what constitutes a militant—the active members of college fraternities and political parties. That is in the past, now that we can all act in the digital networks. Cultural activities, studies, social relationships—they are all on the network. And so we have a new kind of democracy, one in which citizens are called upon to be active citizens every day—not only by voting every four years,” says Di Felice.

But is net-activism strictly tied to the #vemprarua? In other words, in order to fully realize oneself, must one be present, body and soul, at the demonstrations? Perhaps not. “Net-activism cannot be thought of merely in the dimension of protest or conflict. There are networks of citizens who are thinking about solutions for the dilemmas of our times,” observes Di Felice. “The protest march is merely the visible expression of the networks. The truth is that the most important aspect of activism on the network is the access to information and the debates leading to direct solutions of problems via the creation of networks of innovation.” Di Felice concludes by saying that “here we have an important role for universities. They have an obligation to be present on the networks and participate in that historic process that marks the passage from the society of the spectacle to the society of the networks.”

Collaborative action and new forms of participation in digital networks. (No. 2010/50999-6); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal investigator Massimo Di Felice; Investment R$30,267.23 (FAPESP).

Scientific article
DI FELICE, M. Ser redes: o formismo digital dos movimentos net-ativistas. Revista Matrizes – USP, V. 7, No. 2, pp. 49-71. 2013.