From wikileaks to the Global Spring. Logics of the Internet in collective action

Notes from the Digital culture, networks and distributed politics in the age of the Internet. From the Global Spring to the Net Democracy, organized by the Communication and Civil Society programme of the IN3 in Barcelona, Spain, in October 24-25, 2012. More notes on this event: comsc.

Presentation of the Conference: Manuel Castells

In recent years there have been social movements that address the lack of representativeness and legitimacy of their politicians and governments. Institutions have been emptied of content.

It is not that democracy has ceased to be “democratic”, but many citizens believe so, which is a serious issue. And that is why many citizens look for alternative and more effective ways of participation.

So, what we are witnessing is not a minor protest, but a new pattern of behaviour that leads to change. Change of institutions and forms of institutionalization that should lead to new ways of decision-making that affects people’s lives. It is not (only) about building a new future, but about fixing our present. And it is not (only) about finding new ways of participation, but about designing new democracies.

We should be able to tell the difference between the actual mobilizations that imply occupations, fights with the police and some times some violence, from the ideas that boost these mobilizations. There of course is much debate and disagreement around the way mobilizations take place, but the consensus arises when the debate focus on the reasons and foundations of the mobilizations.

What forms of activism and mobilization in the public space can be carried on so that they affect the public agenda, real politics and decision-making? And this is the field of experimentation that we are witnessing. And what happens when the red line of violence is trespassed, as it implies the death-sentence of the movement.

This is what is at stake and it is very likely to intensify until it finds a solution.

Round table: From wikileaks to the Global Spring. Logics of the Internet in collective action
Chairs: Arnau Monterde

Marga Padilla (

Protests in the Internet have their own specificities, fights in the Internet work, if not different, with their own rules of the game.

So, what is the Internet? What is the cyberspace? In his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow defines it as a free non-physical space where physical violence cannot be enforced, where the rules of a material world do not apply any more. Despite the romantic approach of the declaration, it is absolutely true that the cyberspace, or the Internet, does imply many challenges to law and governance as we know them. This feature of an disembodied space implies:

  • The Internet can be experienced in many ways depending on the interests that drive action on the Net, interests that are often opposed. Ambiguity is, thus, the very nature of the Internet.
  • If a device can work in many ways and its not physical, it cannot be controlled. The Internet, and the messages that go through it, cannot be controlled.
  • Last, a very specific thing about the Internet is that we have its code, we know how it works.

What is then at stake is (1) how to control access to this virtual space and, as a consequence, (2) how to control access to virtual goods that are not scarce, that can be freely and costlessly distributed and replicated.

The case of Wikileaks

Wikileaks presents a paradigmatic case of ways to attack the freedom of speech in the Internet, taken as a separate space from “reality”: while Wikileaks was haunted all along cyberspace (attacking their hosting services, their domain names, etc.), newspapers publishing Wikileaks’ documents were not attacked. Why was that so? Was Wikileaks more dangerous on the Net that on paper? Or was it because of the nature of the Internet?

One of the explanations is that while newspapers are usually national and politically-biased, Wikileaks acted internationally, with no political-bias, attacking the core of governments without a political agenda behind (did not want to substitute a government by another, which would have been understood as “fair”), it provided raw data and not just interpreted or mediated information.

Wikileaks is an unfinished device, it needs a solidarity network that “completes” what Wikileaks is providing. Wikileaks contributes to the commons by resigning control. All other nodes in the network acknowledge that Wikileaks is providing wealth to the network, which is good in itself (despite agreement or disagreement on what is specifically providing). Providing content, networking, wealth, is of most value in a network. And it is that value that was attacked.

On the other hand, the Internet is still seen as a lawless space, where the rules and law of the “real world” somewhat do not apply. Freedom of speech, the right to have a name or a website, etc. can be more easily attacked on the Net that on the flesh-and-bones world.

The cyberactivism kit

  • Deep professional and technological knowledge.
  • Capability to react quickly.
  • Deliberate ambiguity, confusion, comfortability with chaos.
  • Decentralized information &mash; vs. centralized traditional independent news sources.

The case of Anonymous

Anonymous — a non-organization, with an undefined political goal — can be understood as the reply of the lack of (or violation of) human rights on the Internet. If governments and firms act illegally or a-legally on the Net, Anonymous will do tantamount from the approach of the citizen.

Anonymous can also be understood as the result of the clash of two different rights: the freedom of speech, the freedom to access culture, and copyright.

Anonymous adds to the cyberactivism kit:

  • Citizen politics with generic and plain English words
  • Aim of anonymization, in the sense of unselfishness.

Laura Pérez Altable (UPF)
Informative flows during the Arab Spring: the case of Tunis

Some examples of digital networks of communication helping social movements:

  • Castells labels the Zapatist Movement (1994) as the first informational guerilla: it used international media intensively to both diffuse their message and also to organize themselves around the message.
  • The Battle of Seattle (1999) used for the first time the blog to organize and also diffuse their message.
  • Iran lived unrests in 2009 against the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad where Twitter was broadly used as a tool to organize the protests.
  • The Arab Spring (2010–), which witnessed how the message was co-built and co-broadcasted by citizens and corporate media.
  • Others: Occuppy Wall Street, YoSoy132, etc.

Sampedro (Opinión pública y democracia deliberativa. Medios, sondeos y urnas. Istmo, Madrid, 2000) states that there are two different public spheres: the central one, where politics and media act, and outer or periferic public spheres that is where citizens act.

The traditional scheme of a political sphere that affects media that affect the public sphere is intercepted by a new actor: the digital networks of communication. These networks intercept the message especially between media and the public sphere, but actually affect all levels and actors in the scheme. With the appearance of the new actor, both the Agenda-Setting Theory and the Gate-Keeping Theory are altered and have to be explained from scratch, now including the new actor. Media are transformed: from being gatekeepers that filter information they turn into gatewatchers that make it visible.

Citizens hack local media and the official discourse of the government by aiming at international media and the international civil society.


Q: People on the Internet may not suffer violence in it, but they definitely do outside of it because of their virtual actions. So, it is just partially true that there is no violence in cyberspace. How can this be counteracted? What is disobedience in cyberspace? Marga Padilla: the best way to perform disobedience is by hacking, that is, not going against the law on a straightforward manner, but circumventing it or even using it for one’s own purposes.

Eduard Aibar: The decentralized structure of the Internet is it true or just an illusion? How can the Egyptian government shut the Internet down in a matter of hours? A: While it may be physically possible to shut down the Internet, alternatives to connect to the Net were possible. On the other hand, the social and economical impact of shutting down the Internet implied that shutting it down was not sustainable in the medium-term. Marga Padilla: the best way to avoid Internet shut-downs is the ability to have a plan B by creating mirrors, for which both knowledge and the physical layer are required. Any social movement should have a hacker in their lines: hacking should be in each and every political or citizen agenda.


Digital culture, networks and distributed politics in the age of the Internet (2012)