A Survey of Digital Activism in Latin America
During Saturday’s roundtable discussion at Campus Party, Monica Tapia of Alternativas y Capacidades volunteered a definition of digital activism: a campaign that uses digital tools to achieve a particular policy-related objective. So far we have documented three such case studies, all based in Mexico: 1) Artículo 19’s efforts to create a federal committee for the protection of journalists in Mexico, 2) Alternativas y Capacidades efforts to improve education policy, and 3) Fundar’s attempt to reform the federal agricultural subsidy program by bringing more transparency to how subsidies are distributed. While each of the three campaigns are at various stages of development, so far none of them are able to point to a concrete policy change as a result of their advocacy. In fact, there are very few examples in which concrete policy changes result from online activist campaigns. We will continue documenting at least 22 more case studies over the next five months in order to better understand the strategies, common obstacles, and best tools for activists wanting to create social change. Other groups are also documenting case studies throughout the region. A preliminary list:
DigiActive is an “independent collective of volunteers dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use the Internet and mobile phones to increase their impact.” Unfortunately the site hasn’t been updated since June, but many of the same contributors remain active at the Meta Activism Project. The following case studies were documented from 2008 – 2009:
- “Geotracking the protests on Peru’s Bagua massacre”. July, 2009. Using Google Maps, the Center for Indigenous Public Policies and Rights published a map noting protest locations, along with basic information and photos of individual protests when available. By increasing visibility the organization sought to ensure the protesters’ safety.
- “Facebook for Protest? The Value of Social Software for Political Activism in the Anti-FARC Rallies” by Christina Neumayer & Celina Raffl. December, 2008. Two Austrian researchers document the use of Facebook by Colombian engineer Oscar Morales to organize protests against the Colombian militant leftist group the FARC.
- “Campaign: E-petition Saves Rainforest in French Guiana” by Talia Whyte. April, 2008. According to Whyte, an email campaign directed at the French government caused a gold mining project in French Guiana to stall. The government finally decided not to grant the contract.
- Campaign: “Justice Now!” for a Girl in El Salvador by Mary Joyce. April, 2008. The Human Rights Institute of the Central American University led a multi-faceted online campaign which encouraged Salvadoran bloggers to advocate for the re-trial of suspects in the rape and murder of 9-year-old Katya Miranda. The campaign was ultimately successful and led to the arrest of Katya’s grandfather and seven other men arrested in connection with the crime.
The Alliance for Youth Movements describes itself as “a not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting digital activists” from around the world. It is supported by a diverse cast of corporate, government, and academic sponsors – everyone from MTV to Facebook to the US Department of State and Columbia University’s Law School. The network has been building a collection of digital activism case studies, many of which document the work of network delegates who have attended past summits in New York, Mexico City and London. Each case study includes two or three “key takeaways” for others interested in launching similar campaigns. From Latin America we find the following case studies:
- Viva Favela – a project of the NGO Viva Rio which trains residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to use video cameras to document their communities and challenge mainstream media portrayals of the city’s slums. The citizen held cameras also keep a watchful eye on police behavior in the the favelas.
- Oscar Morales and One Million Voices Against FARC – another case study of Oscar Morales’ use of Facebook to organize protests against the militant leftist group the FARC in Colombia.
- El Chiguirre Bipolar – A popular Venezuelan blog and online animated series that uses satire to criticize President Hugo Chavez in ways that might not be allowed in Venezuela’s restrictive broadcast media environment.
A photo of Morro Das Pedras taken by a citizen journalist from Viva Favela.
The Technology for Transparency Network focuses on case studies in which digital tools are used specifically to promote transparency, accountability and civic participation. (Disclaimer: I directed research at the network during the first half of 2010.) Their case studies from Latin America:
- Congreso Visible – a platform for citizens to inform themselves and communicate with their representatives in Colombia’s Congress.
- Votenaweb – allows Brazilian citizens to compare their vote on congressional bills along with politicians.
- Cuidemos el Voto – uses the Ushahidi platform to monitor and map misconduct in federal and municipal Mexican elections.
- Congresso Aberto tracks, visualizes, and analyzes official data from Brazil’s Congress.
- ProAcceso uses social media tools to form a coalition of organizations that work with Venezuela’s municipal governments to promote greater access to public information.
- Dinero y Política is an online database that aims to make electoral campaign contributions more transparent in Argentina.
- Cidade Democrática is a software platform that enables Brazilians to document and discuss municipal problems and solutions.
- Guatemala Visible uses online video and social media to draw attention to the appointment and confirmation process of key public officials.
- #InternetNecesario was a de-centralized campaign that began on Twitter to convince Mexican politicians to remove a three percent tax on internet access.
- Adote um Vereador encourages Brazilian citizens to blog about the work of their local elected officials in order to hold them accountable.
- Vota Inteligente aims to use technology provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials.
The Berkman Center for Internet & Society, MobileActive, and HIVOS’ Digital Natives with a Cause initiative all frequently publish case studies about digital activism campaigns, but so far they have not focused on Latin America. The one exception is MobileActive’s case study of Rede Jovem, a Brazilian non-profit that trains youth in Rio de Janeiro to use GPS-enabled cell phones to create maps of five favelas.
A number of other journalistic case studies of digital activism projects in Latin America can be found in new and old media alike:
- “Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest: How an Amazonian Tribe Is Mastering the Modern World” by Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Der Spiegel. June, 2010. An overview of how the Surui people from the Brazilian rainforest, with the support of Google and the Amazon Conservation Team, are using Google Earth, social media, and carbon trading to save their homeland.
- “Venezuela: Allies in Technology, Women Who are Not Afraid of Mice” by Laura Vidal in Global Voices. July, 2010. Venezuelan NGO Aliadas en Cadena has created the program Aliadas en Tecnología, which sees in technology a window of opportunity for empowering women affected by poverty in Venezuela.
- “SMS Creates Zero Waste in Buenos Aires” by Justin Oberman in Personal Democracy Forum – Greenpeace Argentina coordinated a 15-month text message campaign to put pressure on the city government of Buenos Aires to adopt a Zero Waste policy by 2010. Buenos Aires is now one of the leaders in the municipal Zero Waste movement.
- “Costa Rica: Congress Approves US Military Presence to Battle Drug Trafficking” by Jenny Cascante in Global Voices. July, 2010. Costa Rican bloggers distribute an online petition to protest against US military presence in Costa Rican territory.
- “Peru: Cyber-Activism in Chimbote” by Juan Arellano in Global Voices. June, 2010. Residents of Chimbote, Peru use social media to launch a campaign to put pressure on their government to improve the quality of roads.
In the Spanish-language version of this post we will look at available case studies of digital activism projects in Latin America that are published in Spanish. A few great places to start: Masticable, David de Ugarte, Periodismo Ciudadano, and Pateando Piedras.
A review of the current case studies of digital activism projects in Latin America reveals that there is no shortage of organizations, informal groups, and individuals using digital tools to bring about social change in their countries. However, these case studies also reveal the enormous and time-consuming challenge of carrying out an online campaign that eventually creates, changes, or rescinds a policy. Further, it is clear that existing case studies have not yet been been analyzed closely enough to determine the effectiveness of various online tools and strategies to bring about social change. The Meta-Activism Project is building an open spreadsheet of case studies across projects, topics, and regions with the hope of establishing indicators to measure the effectiveness of digital activism campaigns. So far 104 case studies exist in their spreadsheet, but they are seeking more contributions.
And so are we. Surely there are other case studies of digital activism projects in Latin America that are not covered in this post. Please let us know by leaving a comment below or sending a link via our contact page.