'We are not armed,' one sign says, 'we are indignant.' (Javier Barbancho/El Mundo)
If no one covers it, is it a revolution?
COMMENTARY | May 23, 2011
Last week Spain was the scene of enormous, continuous demonstrations created, like the Arab Spring, in response to messages on Twitter and Facebook. Called the #SpanishRevolution, the citizen outburst – seeking jobs, more responsive government, and less corruption – has been the largest since the end of the Franco regime in the 1970s. But the traditional news media did their best to ignore it, until it became overwhelming.
By Juan Antonio Giner
After seven years of socialist government, the Spanish unemployment rate is 21 percent, more than twice the European average. Unemployment of young people is at 41 percent.
Such joblessness has made for an explosive situation for a good while; it was exacerbated in February when the Spanish Parliament passed a law restricting the use of Internet. The Sinde Law (Ángeles González-Sinde is the Culture minister), regulates Internet downloads in Spain.
In response, some Spanish cyberspace activists generated a Twitter hashtag – #nolesvotes – calling for citizens not to vote in upcoming elections for members of the political parties that supported the law: PSOE (socialists), PP (conservatives) and CIU (Catalan moderate nationalists). By election day – May 22 – what had been an apathetic citizenry only weeks earlier turned into one that was very much engaged. And they did it without much help from the traditional Spanish media.
Most Spanish news organizations didn't criticize or seriously examine the Sinde law, but a few well-known social media leaders pushed the "don't vote for them" campaign. That led to an enormous outpouring in Madrid on Sunday May 15, the #15M (for May 15) movement – and the beginning of what is now known as the #SpanishRevolution. It's too early to tell what the impact will be, whether the "revolution" will be lasting and whether it will bring about serious change. But in Spain there has been no outpouring like this in recent history. (Click here to see what the Twitter outcry, now attracting participants in many countries, looks like on a world map.)
Even after May 15, the main print papers didn't pay much attention right away – a big mistake. Their lack of coverage produced a huge reaction in Spanish Twitter and Facebook. The demonstration never stopped, becoming a permanent, massive encampment at Puerta del Sol, the central square of Madrid, and in Barcelona and elsewhere. Still, for several days, hardly any coverage.
But as The Observer of London wrote, "all that changed as demonstrations organised via Facebook and Twitter became static protests in city squares, mushrooming into something that caught politicians, unions and the media by surprise. While journalists were following the dull routine of campaigning for Sunday's municipal and regional elections, the steam was beginning to escape from a pressure cooker of discontent."
By Wednesday May 18th, the newspapers could no longer ignore the protesters; they started to devote more and more space to the #15M movement and by the end of the week were taken over by it, as indicated by the orange blocks in this chart of the front pages of seven leading dailies. (Also, click here for scores of news photos taken May 20 and 21st.)
On Friday May 20th, more than 60,000 people ignored authorities’ orders to leave the square in Madrid. "Take over the square!" became the slogan in dozens of Spanish cities; groups met in sympathy in assembly areas in other countries as well, often with young overseas Spaniards joining the Puerta del Sol campers from a distance.
Across Spain, most of the demonstrations had a mix of young and older people, united not by political party or union affiliation but upset by the poor performance of the Spanish democratic institutions, and the current socialist government.
Some likened these demonstrations to the Arab Spring, but the reality is that Spaniards were not asking for democracy but for a better government, more jobs, and less corrupt politicians. What was similar was the use of the new social media tools.
The protesters, known as "los indignados” – the indignant ones – seem in some ways naive, disorganized, and lacking political skills, but their freshness and spontaneity has attracted many supporters around the country.
The political, business, and media establishment accused them of not offering solutions or programs, and some ridiculed what they said were old fashioned, leftist ideas. The reality is that the success of the campers was more in their "silent screams" than in speeches or declarations.
El Mundo, the second largest paper in the country, critical of the government and populist, published one of the most clever analyses of the #15M movement. Manuel Hidalgo, a journalist and well known writer, said in his piece: Let’s pay attention to these people, and let’s reconsider our journalistic coverage, what they are saying in the streets must be in our pages too. (You can read it here in Spanish.)
Of course, other voices in El Mundo said the opposite: This #spanishrevolution is just nothing, and less than nothing – an empty hashtag, wrote Arcadi Espada.
Pedro J. Ramírez, a fixture in Spanish journalism and the longtime editor of El Mundo, is a recent “convert” to Twitter with more than 30,000 followers in just a few weeks. He also was very critical of the movement, but his paper ended up presenting one of the most balanced and full pictures of the #M15 outcry, including a two-page Sunday "letter from the editor" with a no-excuses indictment of the government accusing the prime minister and his Interior minister, Alfdredo Rubalcaba as the real villains of all this mess. Rubalcaba is seen by many as his party’s successor to Zapatero.
Público, a new Madrid left-leaning paper with a circulation of 90,000, was more open to the campers but its traditional support of PSOE policies and politicians made it a victim of #15M attack, seen as too close to the government.
For weeks before the elections, campaign rallies were little more than orchestrated media events produced by the propaganda machines of the political parties with no real impact in the mainstream. But last week campers (“Yes We Camp!”) were able to refocus public attention, leading to expectations of a substantial voter turnout instead of a dismal one.
The elections on Sunday were a huge defeat for the socialist government -- their worst losses in 30 years. The conservatives of PP were the big winners, not because they increased their base, but because PSOE voters deserted their party, with many seeing it as a confusing mix of empty rhetoric: a kind of diet socialism. For the most part, its former supporters didn’t abstain but moved instead to other leftist and social-democrat minority parties.
The campers are still in the squares, refusing to go away, but with less apparent support. At this point, many expect the group to become something of a marginal force in the current democratic system.
The reality is that in just seven days, they galvanized Spanish public opinion as no other movement has done since the end of the Franco regime. Ironically, this first major, clamorous social media movement in European politics could end up being a revolution that devours its own people. It forced the traditional media and all of Spain to take note of it, but in seeking to create a more leftist government, it ended up shutting down a light-gauche-caviar socialist government and opened the door to a big conservative party. The result may be that the indignados have sent themselves into a political limbo of minority parties and factions.
THE SPANISH REVOLUTION VIDEO
Juan Antonio Giner
05/24/2011, 08:50 AM
Watch here a remake of the 1997 Apple video, same audio and lines, but new images from the Spanish Revolution movement