It’s hard to imagine a protest in Latin America and the Caribbean without social media. Protesters use messaging apps, hashtags, and other creative formats to organize, participate in demonstrations, and call for action. In livestreams, people document police brutality in real-time, enabling accountability and reparations to the victims. Digital protests expose inequalities in the region and make broader social demands, including stopping violence against women. In Chile, protests in 2019 were so powerful that they created the path for a new constitution.
Social media platforms now have a central role in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. In some cases, digital communication can be a form of political participation. Digital protests have strengthened democratic processes by getting more people involved. In many ways, these information flows have become civic space.
But social media platforms are also subject to government interventions that can limit people’s ability to publish content, restricting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly through internet shutdowns, surveillance, content removal, censorship, and restrictive laws.
These limitations are widespread in Latin America and the Caribbean. During the 2019 protests in Chile, the organization Datos Protegidos created a website that allows people to report human rights violations and evidence of police aggression, along with instances where social media platforms remove protest content.
On April 28, 2021, thousands of people in Colombia took to the streets to protest after President Iván Duque submitted a tax reform bill to Congress. The social mobilization known as the “national strike,” or “paro nacional,” emerged to oppose a tax hike during the pandemic. Cali, one of southwest Colombia’s largest cities, was the epicenter of massive protests. Activists and observers turned to Facebook and Twitter to publish reports and videos of alleged human rights violations. Videos of the security force’s disproportionate use of force against demonstrators, as well as of citizen attacks on police forces and local infrastructure, went viral.
Even after the government decided to withdraw the tax reform bill in early May, the protests continued. For the next several months, Colombians set up barricades, flooded the streets with music and chants, and projected slogans onto buildings, calling for better public services, an end to corruption, decreases in organized crime, and a solution to growing inequality.
Similar protests took place in Havana, Cuba, outside the National Capitol Building on July 11. On social media platforms, people documented crowds in the streets expressing their frustration with food scarcity, the state’s ineffective Covid-19 response, and the long-standing political and economic crisis, using the hashtags #SOSCuba and #11J. “We took off the shrouds of silence,” an elderly woman shouted during the protest.
The governments in both Colombia and Cuba responded by calling digital protesters internal enemies, “terrorists,” and “vulgar criminals.” Police identified and prosecuted some protesters. The governments in both cases restricted internet access to limit discourse as well. NetBlocks, a digital rights organization that monitors internet blockages in real time, confirmed internet service disruption in Cali, Colombia, and Cuba during protests.
Although internet service disruption in Cuba is not new, critical voices have had the chance to proliferate. Communication is a form of power. During the July 11 protest, social media and messaging apps connected protesters in different locations. This collective action resonated online even after protesters had left the streets. The government responded by accusing protesters of becoming “enemies of the revolution.” On August 17, the Ministry of Justice published Decree 35 and Resolution 105, which enables the persecution of people who use information and communication technologies for sociopolitical purposes and the indiscriminate censorship of public-interest content online.
Colombia’s approach to online regulation has not been as heavy-handed as Cuba’s, but surveillance is a concern. During the April protests, Telegram groups emerged in Villavicencio, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Popayán, and Medellín as spaces to articulate and organize a debate. Protesters used the platform to share dozens of images and videos portraying police brutality. In response, the government investigated protesters and profiled activities that they determined suspicious without transparency, which prevents public scrutiny.
In a networked society, digital technologies can function as a form of counter-power. Digital protest, at its best, can reduce structural inequalities. Tweets and Telegram groups are not by themselves the only means to promote democratic culture, but they will continue to strengthen social mobilizations throughout the region.
As the digital ecosystem shapes civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean, human rights have to be protected. States and companies are responsible for ensuring that communications remain fluid and uninterrupted. Legislation must protect the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly. It is also essential that people have clarity about how platforms moderate content and implement effective measures to ensure that they can appeal if their content is removed. Transparency is fundamental.