Social Networks and Civic Mobilization in Latin America
Translation of the Tweet: "People with more than one thousand followers: RT (Retweet) is a good way to contribute with #projetoenchentes (flood relief in Brazil)."
Access to the Internet as well as social networking sites has been growing steadily and rapidly in Latin American countries, despite economic impediments. It is increasingly common to hear discussion of the growth of social network sites such as Facebook in Argentina. In one month, between October and November of 2009, the number of Facebook users in Argentina grew 10 percent, by 3.9 million users, to a total of 39.3 million, which is more than 17% of the country’s population. In Brazil, in one month, November 2009, Orkut had 20 million unique visitors, according to recent Ibope/Nielsen data. The adoption of these sites is having a strong, broad impact in these countries.
These sites not only influence the way people think about their social groups, but they also provide new channels for people to share information and coordinate. They make information diffusion more accessible and less expensive. They create velocity and widespread reach, and thus, are becoming a very fertile environment for coordination, cooperation and social action for Latin American citizens.
There are several examples of this phenomenon. One is how Costa Ricans used Twitter to coordinate efforts to share new information and to help the victims of a major earthquake in 2009. The tremors hit the country starting on Jan. 12th and quickly the population started using the Internet to coordinate. This month, the same dynamic has been observed among Brazilians who are coordinating (link is in Portuguese) with Twitter (tag #projetoenchentes), blogs and Orkut to aid the victims of recent heavy rains and floods that have afflicted the country, especially in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and caused 30 deaths.
Social networking sites have not only been used to coordinate emergency networks, but also mobilizations for political causes, such as the Mega Não (“Big No”) Movement (in Portuguese) in Brazil, where people have used social networking sites and blogs to organize themselves against an effort to limit Internet usage that was going to be voted on by the National Congress. Users, through Twitter, were able to collect millions of signatures for a petition, create several protest blog posts, and also real life protests, leading the congress to publicly discuss the proposal, which ended up failing.
In 2008, Colombians used Facebook as a political space to stand against the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group known for kidnapping and killing citizens and politicians in the country) and organize a protest called Un Millón de Voces contra las Farc (in Spanish), later translated to “One Million Voices against Farc." In these communities thousand of Colombians, followed by friends and supporters all over the world, organized marches to criticize the actions of the group. Other websites, social networking sites, blog posts and other forms of actions have arisen to support the cause.
Pro-environmental causes, such as the “Un millón de votos por la Ley de Bosques (link is in Spanish; translation: "One million votes for the Forest’s Law" campaign), which took place in Argentina and was supported by Greenpeace, are also increasingly common. The campaign, organized through social media, managed to get more than one million signatures on a petition pleading with the Argentinean Senate to vote for the law, which eventually passed.
These examples point to the fact that social media and social networking sites are new technologies that not only are appropriated as ways to have fun, but have quickly become a place for people to communicate and share ideas, and to achieve common goals.
Although this may seem commonplace for most of the democratic western world, Latin American countries have, for the most part, endured extensive periods of dictatorships in the last 40 years, where freedom of speech and social organization have been forbidden. Social media is providing citizens with a new space to coordinate themselves around causes, with new tools and methods that are still being discovered by users as their numbers grow.
The intriguing phenomenon is that these mobilizations are being engineered by users and are being built within their own social networks. However, there are still considerable limits to the potential of this dynamic. Although social mobilization via social media has become more and more common in Latin America, it is also important to recognize that most of these countries still have large segments of their populations who do not possess Internet access. It is still a challenge for the governments of these countries to provide access so, until that happens, there will be limits to the public discussions and activities that can emerge in cyberspace.