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5. The long-term impact of the new protest movements

August 24, 2014

In early 2011, the Spanish blog entrepreneur Julio Alonso joined other netizens in switching his attention from internet issues to his country’s profound economic and political crisis. The story below recounts this transition as well as giving us Alonso’s particular take on the indignados (15M) movement, shaped by his technological expertise. It is translated and adapted from an interview by Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid towards the end of 2011. This is the fifth instalment in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website. In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

09_julio-alonsoMy name is Julio Alonso. I am the founder and CEO of Weblogs SL, a company that manages digital publications written by a 250-strong editorial team. Currently we maintain more than 40 specialist publications in Spanish and Portuguese which are followed by some 13 million unique users every month.

I hold an MBA from the Rotterdam School of Management (1994) and a Law Degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (1991). I am also MBA “Honoris Causa” by the Escuela Europea de Negocios (2011) [1].

I like to think of the 15M (or indignados) movement as a frame of mind shared by a vast number of people. 15M was a collective realisation that Spain’s political system is broken. This is a system that serves the powerful, not the people. As someone put it on Twitter: “The problem is not that the system is corrupt but that it corrupts”. Back in the pre-internet era this system may have been the least evil option available, but in the 21st century it no longer meets people’s needs or aspirations.

Internet freedoms

I arrived at the 15M movement through the online protests against the ‘Sinde law’, a copyright law drafted under US government pressure. It was eventually passed in January 2011 and we Spanish netizens thought it would erode our freedom of expression and invade people’s privacy [2]. So a group of us wrote a manifesto on Google Wave, a platform that no longer exists. We could have used Google Docs, another tool that allows a lot of people to co-edit a document by adding a paragraph here, changing a verb there, modifying the text as they go along.

The manifesto was very widely shared. Numerous people joined the effort and republished it on their own blogs or webpages. However, we were unable to mobilise people on the streets. The one time we tried to do this, there were only 500 of us.

These days we like to talk about ‘internet freedoms’. Yet as the internet becomes ever more central to the exercise of our freedoms, this phrase will soon become ‘freedoms’, full stop. When our protest failed to mobilise people offline we realised there was a limit to what we could do as amateur campaigners faced with professional lobbyists. We concluded that the only weapon at our disposal was voting. If only we could influence Spanish voters, perhaps politicians would start paying attention to us.

Out of this rationale came the new platform No Les Votes (Don’t Vote For Them, shortened to NLV). A group of us netizens came up with the idea of NLV in early 2011. We thought it was interesting, so we set up a webpage and started to spread the word. Of course, new ideas will only diffuse via the internet if they capture people’s imagination. There are certain things you can do to help them spread, or even go viral. Celebrity endorsement can help but if a proposal is stupid it will never catch on. We had no idea what kind of an impact NLV would have, so the day after the launch we were really surprised to find numerous wikis, hashtags, Facebook pages, graphic materials, guerrilla campaigns, and so on, where people were taking our idea and running with it.

Contrary to some media reports, we were not asking people not to vote in the coming elections of 22 May 2011. Rather the idea was to put an end to Spain’s two-party system, ‘punishing’ those political parties that had voted in favour of the Sinde law. Gradually we began to merge with other new initiatives that were also launched around that time, such as Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future) and Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now). This helped us to connect internet issues with broader societal concerns. We realised that the Sinde Law was merely a small symptom of a general malaise, namely a blocked political system. Spain had an unrepresented population at the mercy of partisan interests, coupled with a general lack of transparency in the system. As a result of our interactions with other platforms we modified our manifesto, putting corruption first.

We were not the first. A few years earlier, the copyleft movement had done something similar in the US. Its leading light, the Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who invented the Creative Commons licences, had realised that in order to defend the internet he had to take on America’s political system. In his latest book, Republic, Lost, he writes about how lobbies influence politics in the US. This argument is pure 15M, so to speak. Lessig also explains that people around the world have reached roughly the same conclusions about their political systems through very different paths.

One of the more interesting NLV initiatives was the corruptódromo, or ‘corruptiondrome’. This was set up by someone with a background in cartography. This person created a Google mashup where we could collaboratively map all the known cases of political corruption, linking them to articles from the press, blogs, and other media.

All sorts of people

We saw the call for a demo on 15 May. Some of us from NLV talked to the organisers and supported it via Twitter and other platforms. To be frank, I thought the turnout would be poor. Perhaps not as bad as the 500 we had managed to mobilise, but I didn’t expect more than 2,000 to 5,000 people to show up. On arriving at Sol I met up with fellow netizens Enrique Dans and Javier Maestre. I was delighted to encounter a large and diverse crowd. At previous NLV and internet-related protests we were all quite techie – our iPhones, iPads, and Androids always ready to hand. We were physically there, at the demo, but we were simultaneously online. 15M was not like that. Here there were all sorts of people: some brought their children along, others were not ‘the demonstrator type’; some looked alternative, others mainstream; some were old, others young; some were rich, others poor.

I was also struck by the lack of a shared message. All the placards were home-made. Each participant had their own take on the protest, yet everybody was fed up and outraged and felt a strong desire to change things. No one wanted to stand still or to put up with an unbearable situation alone, in silence, any longer.

In the Sinde law campaign there was no left-right divide. There were people from right across the ideological spectrum opposing the proposed law. The divide was rather one between people who live and work on the internet, or have a profound knowledge of it, all of whom were against the Sinde law, and people who don’t use the internet or are uninterested in it and were in favour. At Sol something similar took place. What mattered was not your ideological position. Rather it was your degree of awareness about the current system’s limits and possibilities. The divide was whether or not you still believed in fairy tales.

I would distinguish between the first day at Puerta del Sol, when a somewhat ‘anti-system’ group of people spent the night there and were later evicted, and the second day in which a larger crowd took part in a series of events. These were people from all sorts of backgrounds and political orientations, from radical anti-system types to mainstream citizens, although it is fair to say that those of us wearing suits and ties were in the minority.

In all forms of participation there is a division of labour. Out of 100 people there will be one person who creates contents, another 10 who share and transform those contents, and 90 who consume those contents but don’t contribute anything. At Sol we had people who brought food, or who got you a USB stick when you needed it, and so on. That is normal – you cannot expect the same level or quality of engagement from everybody. For instance, I am in my 40s, I have a business and a job, a family life with daughters. So I wasn’t in a position to spend the night at Sol, but I could still do things that perhaps the guy who slept at Sol couldn’t.

The 15M movement is both plural and tolerant. There were assemblies that dragged on forever in which people talked about the most obscure subjects you can imagine. Still, it was far more participatory and plural than other methods. Was it effective? No, it wasn’t. Was it efficient? No, it was much too slow. Was this the best way to make decisions? Probably not. Did the decisions taken at Sol or in the assemblies represent the entire 15M? No. They only represented part of 15M, but if a point resonated with wider concerns, then it was defended by the whole movement. By the same token, if someone said something that didn’t strike a chord with the rest of us, then it wouldn’t have any uptake. Again, this is how a lot of networked, as opposed to hierarchical, phenomena work in the present age.

Political rites of passage

For me one of the most moving episodes of 15M happened just before the 22 May elections, when the day of reflection was due to start. Spain’s electoral commission had warned us that demonstrations were not allowed on that date, yet we had collectively decided to disobey this order. This was very much in the civil disobedience spirit of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

That evening Puerta del Sol and nearby streets were packed with people who felt the same way and knew they were disobeying a direct order. It was an extraordinary sight. There was a powerful sense of common purpose in the air, a feeling that others thought exactly the same way as you did. It was one of those things that give you goose bumps.

Another moving moment for me was coming across two young kids, aged 17 or 18, who were chatting near Sol. One of them was explaining to the other the effect of an invalid ballot on the smaller parties, how it counts as a valid vote and the percentage is calculated on a larger base. As a result, a small party needs more votes to win a seat in Parliament. This was sheer political law. If you put these two youths in a political class at university they would probably fall asleep, yet here they were, learning together. This is something I observed many times. I found it amusing because only a few months earlier there were people saying that today’s youth are apathetic, that they don’t get involved, that they have it easy. All of a sudden you had people who are more political than ever. Political, not party political.

The use of digital technologies

15M was a confluence of people and strategies. The use of Twitter was brilliant, e.g. finding ways to sustain a trending topic for days on end. The same goes for Facebook. In big cities like Madrid and Barcelona this was easy enough to achieve, but let’s not forget that there were encampments in much smaller localities, too. There were places where people felt the same indignation but they didn’t have a local critical mass. So setting up a Facebook group for a small locality like, say, Meirás, meant that 10 people who didn’t know each other could now meet via Facebook and organise themselves.

But social media don’t make a revolution. Protests come from somewhere else: from a social and economic crisis. A crisis is like a low tide. When the tide is high you don’t see the rock beneath. As soon as the tide subsides, you go: “Anda, there was a rock here!”.

A very important aspect of the new technologies, besides organisation and dissemination, has been their use as a defence against the police. Having a lot of demonstrators armed with mobiles and cameras to record, document and publicise police violence made a difference, as did a general commitment to non-violence, in contrast with countries like Greece. People who are confronting the system have discovered a new weapon. However, we no longer have the surprise factor on our side, as we did during the first ‘battle’. In future conflicts the security forces will have learned many lessons, and they will make strenuous efforts to thwart these sorts of events, for instance, by preventing traditional news media from accessing protest sites. Police tactics will change, and it will be much harder to have the same kind of impact again.

The Truman show

A few weeks ago I was in New York and visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment. As I walked through Zuccotti Park I was strongly reminded of Sol, but there were some notable differences, too. Sol is much larger than Zuccotti, which is a tiny park surrounded by enormous buildings where people eat their sandwiches at midday. I found a familiar scene of camping tents doubling up as information desks. They were beginning to organise themselves into committees. The police presence was huge – the entire square was surrounded. And then you had a mix of alternative types dancing for peace and that sort of thing, people with down-to-earth messages such as student debt. There was a placard that I really liked. It read: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”. This reminded me of the 15M slogans, where feelings of anger towards the system had found creative outlets.

I think Occupy have to walk on their own two feet. They have just been evicted for the first time and they will have to return to the squares, to learn that there is no need to make an announcement every time there is a police action but simply to meet again at the same time in the same place. They will need to come up with mechanisms that work for them.

The US press may have its flaws but it is utterly committed to the First Amendment and to a whole set of freedoms that Americans regard as being fundamental. Unlike in Spain where it was only yesterday that we became a democracy, the US has a much longer trajectory. Their system allows journalists to cover events in places like Wall Street so long as the protests remains small. If, on the other hand, a protest is large and your coverage contributes to its growth, then they will shut down the airspace and close off the streets.

There are things that are there but we cannot see. It is like the film The Truman Show where the main character, Truman, is unaware that he has spent his entire life inside a TV studio as the star of a reality show. Truman mistakes the studio’s walls for the sky. It is only when he gets up close to them that he discovers the truth. Occupiers must make this discovery by themselves, in their own country. For once, here in Spain we are ahead of the Americans in understanding the limits of the system we live in.

Political expertise

I believe the current political system is blocked. It caters to the wrong interests and must therefore be changed. We need to deepen and improve our democracy, adapting it to today’s social and technological realities.

The first step is to make the Spanish Parliament truly representative by dismantling the two-party system, reforming the electoral system, making each vote have the same weight, creating open lists of candidates, and so on. This is a necessary but not sufficient first move. We will then need to find ways of moving towards mixed models of representative and direct democracy.

One key aspect of this process is transparency and access to data. For example, if a delegation from company X pay a visit to a certain MP, which they are fully entitled to do, we want to know this. And if they visit the said MP ten times prior to the passing of a new law that will affect that company, we want to know that, too. Perhaps that politician will have to argue their case to those who oppose the law. The more data we can access, liberate and let people use, the better. Public data should be open and available in user-friendly formats by default, with the exception of those two or three matters that are truly state secrets.

Simply by changing the way citizens participate in public life by increasing transparency and data access, we are already radically changing a lot of things. This will not make the lobbies disappear, but operating in broad daylight will make them much more vulnerable. If we start from here, where we are much likelier to achieve broad consensus, then we’ll be in a strong position to change such things as loans and mortgages and the welfare state, so that we can guarantee the population certain fundamental rights.

We underestimate the long-term impact

I expect 15M will be like a lot of technological innovations. Everybody will overestimate its short-term impact and underestimate its long-term impact. If someone were to forecast a significant electoral or parliamentary change in the short run, I would have my doubts. I hope I am proved wrong, of course. But I do think things are moving. The two-party system, for instance, is on the decline and there are moves towards other options. However, if the change were to be a mere matter of voting percentages, this would not constitute a substantial change of system.

I do believe the 15M movement will permeate society, just like the environmental, pacifist and other movements did before it. All those citizens who took part in 15M, Occupy, and similar movements, will no longer sit quietly at home.

Multiple perspectives

If we think of these movements as having a long-term impact, permeating reality rather than abruptly changing the world, then it is crucial that we make the effort to salvage the experiences of the people who were there, the spirit of the protests, the rationale behind them.

In writing this collective history, no single discourse should dominate all others. Instead, a lot of different people should add their own perspectives. These varied voices may not necessarily contradict one another, but they will certainly lend different weights to different things. Together they will produce a much more faithful rendition of what really happened than the account of a single person. The online archive – a series of conversations with participants followed by a documentary – shows us how to do this.

Return to freedom technologists series


[1] The first two paragraphs are adapted from:

[2] See Sutton, M. (2012), ‘Spain’s Ley Sinde: New Revelations of U.S. Coercion,’ Electronic Frontier Foundation, 9 January 2012.

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