The Internet has strengthened the Catalan independence movement
CATALAN NEWS AGENCY – An important tool, but not a perfect tool
Rebecca Lock.- “Without a doubt the independence movement would never have been so successful without Web 2.0 technologies” says Scottish academic Kathryn Crameri, author of ‘Goodbye Spain? The Question of Independence for Catalonia’. She explains that, “in general, the Internet and social media have been used to communicate with supporters or potential supporters, to organise events and to mobilise people to take part in them”, and it appears that the Catalan independence movement is no different. 2014 marks 300 years since Catalonia lost its sovereignty and self-government institutions to the Bourbons in the War of Succession, and ever since then there have been some calls for it to become independent again. However, it is only in the last few years that support for independence in Catalonia has grown considerably, with around 50% of the Catalan population supporting the movement in 2014, compared to some 15% 10 years ago. Ana Sofía Cardenal, Professor at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), says the trigger for this astonishing growth can be traced back to the decision made by the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2010 to annul and reinterpret several articles of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, causing widespread protests throughout Catalonia.
In his new book, ‘Sobirania.Cat’, prominent Catalan journalist Saül Gordillo explains how the growth of the independence movement can also be intrinsically linked to the steady rise of online activity in Catalonia, saying that the growth in the movement would be “unthinkable” without the Internet. Albert Royo, Secretary General of Catalonia’s Public Diplomacy Council (Diplocat), explained why Catalans are so reliant on the Internet in their pro-independence activism. In his opinion: “The diplomatic channels of communication are being controlled by the Spanish Government”. “In a way we were just pushed by the circumstances to try and find a way to communicate what is happening here”. In the wake of the mass demonstration in Barcelona on Catalonia’s National Day, when 1.8 million protestors (according to local police) demanded to vote on independence on November the 9th, it is clear that online, pro-independence activism will continue to be very relevant in Catalonia in the near future.
In her book,’Goodbye Spain? The Question of Independence for Catalonia’, Crameri commented, “If previous efforts by political parties and institutions have not been enough to guarantee recognition by the Spanish state then citizens may take these matters into their own hands”. This University of Glasgow Professor told the CNA that one of the main ways the Catalan public has been able to do this is through the use of Web 2.0 technologies, which is any website that allows for an interaction with an online audience. She stated that “in general, Catalans have been quick to see the advantages of new technologies and to capitalise on them as much as possible”.
Open space for Catalan
Award winning journalist Saül Gordillo expanded on this by saying, “Catalan is the language which has historically stood out on the net as attracting a very high participation and a large presence”. He went on to explain that perhaps this is because “for a long time there only existed public radio and television in Catalan and all the other channels were in Spanish…but on the Internet Catalonian people who speak Catalan have found a channel where it feels natural to express their feelings, their rights and their worries.”
For Crameri, this high participation of Catalans on the Internet is intrinsically linked to the growth in the independence movement as the Internet “lets you do things in new ways, for example having fewer organisations but more participants, having more decentralised organisational structures… and being able to spread the effect of an event much wider – and for longer – that the event itself”.
For this reason she comments, “Without a doubt the independence movement would never have been successful without Web 2.0 technologies. And that means support for independence in Catalonia would not have grown so quickly, even if all the other conditions had been the same”.
The Internet has facilitated pro-independence mass demonstrations
Ana Sofía Cardenal, who specialises in the effects of the Internet on political behaviour, says that “people who have been for independence have traditionally been very active on the net” because they perceive themselves as “minorities” who “tend to have an incentive to use the Internet because its cheap, you can reach potential supporters and you have a chance to become ‘visible'”.
As Professor Craemi points out, a clear example of this would be the ‘Lipdub for Independence’ in the Catalan town of Vic in 2010. Through Facebook and a blog, a small team of organisers managed to mobilise nearly 6,000 people to take part in the event, which involved lip-syncing to a Catalan song whilst scenes depicting different aspects of the local culture were performed in the background. The video of the event attracted half a million views on YouTube in just one week and today has well over two million plays.
Likewise, Albert Royo, Secretary General of Diplocat, pointed out that civil society groups relied heavily on the Internet in the organisation of the ‘Catalan Way’, a mass demonstration that took place in September 2013, when 1.6 million independence supporters (according to Catalan Police) formed a 400km-long human chain through Catalonia. Royo said, “There was not a single empty space from the French border to the border with Valencia. Most supporters registered online with the exact place to be and there was someone responsible for them in every section. Every section was half a kilometre so there was 800 people responsible in total.” He concluded, “It was an amazing example of how to organise a mass movement…without the internet that wouldn’t be possible, that’s for sure”.
Yet Crameri commented that in terms of Web 2.0 technologies, “It is not just the organisational benefits that have been so crucial” within the independence movement. “The whole point of Web 2.0 is that it allows people to feel much more involved because they can interact with each other in real time” she said.
Here, she mentioned the huge demonstration in Barcelona in July 2010, known as ‘Demonstration 2.0’, in which hashtags and a free Wi-Fi connection along the route encouraged demonstrators to upload their photos to Flickr or to Tweet during the event. Crameri explained, “This gave a real-time account of what was going on that was very important for supporters who want to be there but couldn’t. It also provided a lasting record which helps people remember the event with pride”.
Using Web 2.0 to be heard worldwide
However, as Royo explains, Web 2.0 technologies have not only facilitated the independence movement through their unique capacity to organise and report on demonstrations at a grassroots level, they have also been of special use to Catalan organisations as, according to Royo, “formal diplomatic channels of communication are being controlled by the Spanish Government”. For this reason he says that at his organisation, Diplocat, a public-private body which raises awareness about Catalonia abroad, “we really have to use the tools on offer so as to communicate to the world what is happening here, or at least our view of what is happening here”.
Furthermore, Cardenal commented that “right now 25% of the Spanish population is using the internet for political information”, stressing the importance for organisations to utilise such technologies.
Therefore, Diplocat has recently set up a website called ‘Catalan Votes’ in an attempt to communicate the desire of many Catalans to have a self-determination referendum on the 9th of November to the outside world. The website is available in French, English and German and contains background information on the independence process as well as articles on Catalan history and culture.
Royo explained that a key part of the website is its links to social media, saying “we try to use the best channel according to the audience and the message we have to convey”. For instance, “if we have to communicate news, Twitter is the best”, whereas Facebook “is much more social in a way”. In contrast, ‘Google hangouts’, interactive conferences amongst an online public, are used to talk with “very specific audience”. Royo reinstated that through such online activities they can reach “not only the diplomats, international organisations or politicians, but also the rest of the world in a more balanced relationship”.
The Internet is not a perfect tool
However, Crameri warns against the pro-independence camp relying exclusively on Web 2.0 technologies, saying “it is possible that some potential supporters of independence might feel excluded because they don’t tend to use these technologies.”
She also noted that often people hide behind an online persona when they access these technologies, which means they are “not just putting forward that point of view, but insulting people who don’t share that view”. She continues by stating that “often we don’t approach online debate with an open mind, but are seeking confirmation of our own opinion. This means that, although it may look like there is a genuine debate going on, actually there is much less of that than it might appear.”
Cardenal also commented that often “political parties are not making full use of the Internet for mobilising support” due to the risk of running up against this “unsympathetic” Internet audience. She also mentioned that many political parties worry that too much internet activity could mean they “lose control over their message” or risk awkward party politics by “giving advantage to people who are paying a lower cost (by working for the party on the internet) than the voluntary activists who are doing all the hard work physically”.
She says that for this reason, in general, “parties have not used the Internet as openly and democratically as people thought they would”. However, the Professor later added that “I had some data where I found that the more nationalist a party was, the more active they were on the net” as “they care a lot about the issue, and the Internet is a great resource to reach potential supporters and mobilise them”.
Political activism within the blogosphere
However, it is perhaps with individual users, such as bloggers, where internet activism finds its most natural home. Gordillo explained that there has been a historically large participation of Catalans in the so-called ‘blogosphere’, and that “10 years ago there were studies which placed Catalan in blogs as more popular than Spanish and French”.
Joan Josep Isern, a Catalan blogger who is highlighted as an important online voice in ‘Sobriania.cat’, stated that the high number of pro-independence bloggers in Catalonia may be down to the fact that “Catalan independence has a factor which distinguishes it from other areas of the world: the leading role of the people, which is a role that has retreated into the background in political terms”.
He explained that the value of a blog lies in “the consistency of the blog (which gives it credibility) and the range of its followers (which gives you the ability to influence)” and that pro-independence voices on the internet “will triumph if we stay firm in our convictions and don’t stop looking forward”.
However, author of the prominent anti-independence blog, ‘Mites i mentides del nacionalisme catalá’, who prefers to remain anonymous, disagrees. He says, “the Internet is a reflexion of a society, not the other way round. Bloggers have the ability to change or advance a social or political movement only if there existed a previous social mobilisation.”
This anti-independence activist admits that “the internet is an instrument of more social influence in the (pro) independence camp”, but says “it is not their only tool, nor is it the most important”. According to him, the independence movement is “created, organised and put into place in the offices of Catalan political powers” and is implemented into Catalan society via the state education system and public and private media outlets.
Gordillo, however, totally disagrees with this sentiment. He says, “10 or 20 years ago you could decide things in an office in an agreement between presidents, parties or bankers. But today I believe that people want more freedom, more democracy to decide for themselves, not only on the future of Catalonia, but about everything.”
For Gordillo, the willingness of pro-independence organisations to use Web 2.0 technologies is the real difference between anti-independence and pro-independence activism on the net. He stated that the anti-independence movement has been a lot slower to make full use of the Internet. According to Gordillo, in general terms, those against independence are “not very modern” and “don’t connect with a population who is very educated and active in the digital world.” On the other hand, the pro-independence camp tends to involve “people who are very skilled” in their use of Web 2.0 technologies.
A tool for the grassroots
So would the Catalan independence movement have reached this stage without the help of the Internet? “Yes” says Gordillo “but it would have been a far more old-fashioned movement, dominated by the elites”. He goes on to explain, “The Internet has given the force behind the independence movement, it has been very public and very much from the grassroots…it is a movement that runs from the bottom up”.
Crameri agrees, comparing it to the Scottish independence movement, which she says “is much more located at the level of political debate than action by civil groups”. She notes that, “In Catalonia civil groups are much more prominent”.
Albert Royo also said that the use of the Internet by Catalans “is a very democratic way of communicating what is happening” and repeats the idea that “It is a bottom up process. Politicians are trying to channel the movement through institutions, but it all started because people decided to take to the streets and ask for a political reaction.”
In the wake of the latest mass independence rally on the 11th of September, which involved 1.8 million people, and with less than 2 months to go before the proposed referendum in which Catalans wish cast a vote on potential self-determination, it seems as though this “bottom up process” is continuing to gain momentum, with the Internet continuing to aid the movement’s development all the way.
Picture: Ana Sofía Cardenal, Professor at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in the MediaTIC building (by Rebecca Lock)