BUENOS AIRES – The use of Twitter and Facebook contributed significantly to the size and reach of Argentina’s recent huge anti-government protest. Now social media must be engaged to raise the quality of Argentinean public political debate.
Like televised fireworks on New Year’s Eve, it started in Australia. On November 8, members of Sydney’s growing population of Argentineans gathered outside their national consulate with flags, pot lids and homemade signs to protest from afar against the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. They anticipated many in Argentina who, hours later, filled the streets of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and other cities and towns across the country. Simply labeled 8N, the slightness of the Twitter-friendly name belied the mass national and international participation, reportedly between 250,000 and 500,000, that the protest attracted.
Social media and the resulting internationalization of 8N contributed two innovative elements to the history of the Argentinean pot-banging protest, known as cacerolazo, a form of demonstration practiced with fervor around the financial crisis of 2001.
The success of 8N, in terms of size and global reach, is partly due to the organizing capacities of social media, learned from the Arab Spring and, closer to home, the Chilean Winter. Yet the persistence of an emotive and highly polarizing rhetoric on social media platforms and at recent protests, indicates that social media has not yet been effectively harnessed to help raise the quality of public political debate in Argentina.
Kirchnerists accuse Mauricio Macri, Chief of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, and the conservative newspaper Clarín of orchestrating 8N. Both are embroiled in personal battles with Kirchner. In reality, no single leader coordinates the Argentine opposition but a specifically ‘anti-K’ (anti-Kirchner) rhetoric now unifies its language of dissent. Accusations of ‘DiKtatorship’ and ‘Korruption’ abound online, partly inspired by rumor of a possible constitutional amendment to allow her to stand for a third presidential term. The words also filled the homemade signs sported at 8N and other recent cacerolazos.
The cacerolazos of 2012 have been described as distinctly “middle-class” but many of the complaints – including inflation, corruption, dishonesty and insecurity – echo, word-for-word, those voiced by the full cross-section of society in 2001 and 2002.
Other complaints repeat, verbatim, demands made for greater government transparency, the strengthening of individual liberties and judicial independence under the presidency (1989 - 1999) of former Peronist leader Carlos Saúl Menem, particularly during his inglorious second term. The political despair of 2012 seems to be breeding a return to old slogans rather than encouraging a new solution-oriented vocabulary capable of stimulating political metamorphosis.
To be sure, this reiteration partly indicates the persistence of deep-rooted political and economic problems. Inflation is again crippling. Numbers from the National Institute of Statistics and Census are again highly questionable. Yet if social media platforms constitute forums for free expression and dissemination of fresh ideas, why has no wholly new and resilient opposition rhetoric advancing a middle ground emerged to confront these problem? Could the same platforms that aided the organization of 8N and its recent precursors be impeding the quality of public political conversation in Argentina?
Retweets and trending hash tags that surrounded 8N illustrate the rapidity with which political divisions can be re-produced on Twitter. Polarizing statements flooded Twitter, suggesting that social media may be extending the global reach and aiding the proliferation of conflicting ideas rather than generating myriad new ones.
Joanne Jacobs, a social media strategist, observes that the ease of the re-tweet function risks generating “noise rather than engagement,” encouraging acquiescent repetitions of ideas with scant requirement for thought. The same is true of Facebook’s “share” mechanism. “Noise” generation is useful for organizing: it can spread events publicity and, as a result, draw a super-size attendance. Social marketers know this well. But politics should not be a commodity, and the transferal of repetition to the Argentine political conversation is re-entrenching already stagnant societal polarizations.
Argentineans are among the most avid social networkers. Harboring that predilection for online interaction could reap a national benefit. To stimulate new ideas, politically dissatisfied Argentineans using social media platforms must find ways to initiate a conversation that abandons the repetition of historically charged and divisive language. They should attempt instead to build on initiatives such as Política Argentina that emphasize the sharing and discussion of future-oriented and innovative opinions.
By substituting reiteration with idea-generation, web-loving Argentineans seeking to influence positive change in their post-authoritarian democracy, a year before its official 30th anniversary, may find that social media can yet prove to be the mother of political invention.
Tanya Filer a visiting research scholar in contemporary Argentine history at the Universidad de San Andrés, Buenos Aires. She witnessed 8N. Earlier this year, she completed fellowship at Harvard University focusing on Latin America. @TanyaFiler