A New Form of Collective Action? An Excerpt from “Indigenous Civil Society in Latin America”

The following is an excerpt from Indigenous Civil Society in Latin America: Collective Action in the Digital Age by Pascal Lupien, which is available now wherever books are sold.

This is a thoughtful and impressive study. Lupien sheds important light on twenty-first century Indigenous political dynamics in the Andes, teaching us sobering lessons about the limits of digital technologies and the surprising promise of analog communication. For its timely attention to information and Indigenous politics, this is the book many of us have been waiting for.

José Antonio Lucero, author of Struggles of Voice: The Politics of Indigenous Representation in the Andes

Book Cover for Indigenous Civil Society in Latin America: Collective Action in the Digital Age by Pascal Lupien

Networked Movements: A New Form of Collective Action?

Perhaps the biggest impact on collective action between the 1990s and the 2010s has been the advent of the Internet age and, more recently, of social media. Observers argue that digital technologies have transformed the very nature of collective action. Political engagement has increasingly moved online (Bennett and Segerberg 2013; Biekart and Fowler 2013; Bimber 2017; Castells 2015; Lilleker and Koc-Michalska 2017; Murschetz 2018). Digital technologies allow organizers to mobilize large numbers of unrelated people quickly and cheaply, an affordance Bimber (1998) calls “accelerated pluralism.” Diffusion and use of these tools, according to cyber optimists, favor democratization, citizen engagement, and autonomy of civil society (Castells 2015; Howard 2010). Digital technologies can help activists to spread information and emotional appeals, coordinate logistics, disseminate news about conditions and events, and reach international audiences, which may alter the political opportunity structure by putting pressure on governments (Larson 2019).

Authors such as Manuel Castells (2015) and Zeynep Tufekci (2017) believe that digital technologies have created an entirely new type of social movement: participatory, nonhierarchical, and “networked” through new technologies. These networked movements reject formal leadership and organizations, distrust political parties, and seek to circumvent the mainstream media. Castells, one of the most influential and prolific writers on the subject, has long argued that the Internet embodies the culture of freedom, as it was built to withstand control by elites who seek to disrupt the flow of information (Castells 2001). Drawing on cases such as the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados movement, he paints a vibrant picture of leaderless, horizontal, decentralized networks interacting across different nodes. Activists make decisions though participatory assemblies—conceptually connected to free spaces on the Internet—but do not produce formal political programs, although they are unified by their desire to transform the democratic process. They view formal organizations as constrictive and they eschew electoral and other forms of civil participation (Bennett 2014; Castells 2015).

Castells believes that the ability to reach a wide audience at low cost facilitates collective action. But he goes a step further, arguing that digital technologies are a site of counter power where social actors can challenge established institutions and discourse, demand representation, and promote their own demands. Counter power requires autonomous communication and spaces free from those who hold power. The institutional public sphere is occupied by the powerful; social movements must construct a new public space. Social media facilitate horizontal networks that are difficult for governments to control; they provide spaces for unfettered deliberation and coordination. Castells acknowledges that “the influence of these movements on policy is usually limited” (Castells 2015, 236). But he believes that they are able to raise consciousness and perhaps eventually have an impact on politicians.

Perhaps the biggest impact on collective action between the 1990s and the 2010s has been the advent of the Internet age and, more recently, of social media.

Tufekci (2017, xi) agrees that a new era of collective action has emerged in the 2010s. She describes this as a “historical transition, a shift in how social movements operate and in how powerful actors respond.… A reconfiguration of publics and movements through the assimilation of digital technologies.” In this “networked public sphere,” ordinary citizens can debate ideas, document incidents, spread news, and respond to corporate or state media. In the past, it was difficult for actors to organize and mobilize without formal organizations and hierarchical leadership. In these “new” movements, very little is accomplished through traditional organizations. Tools such as Twitter facilitate and accelerate this process, encouraging ad hoc action by whoever shows up.

But Tufekci offers a more critical and nuanced analysis of the impact of digital technologies on collective action. The Internet, she argues, allows movements to grow rapidly, but without building formal and informal mobilizing structures and collective capacities that prepare them for the challenges they will inevitably face. In contrast to the past, when movements were built up over a long period and involved meticulous and sustained organizing work, today’s movements are organized online. New movements can scale up quickly and deal with logistics without building up this prior organizational capacity. But she claims that with speed comes a particular weakness: their ability to pursue goals and change tactics beyond the original protest event is limited as they are unable to sustain the momentum. Their lack of experience and collective decision-making capacity renders them fragile in the longer term. For these reasons, they tend to rely on the same tactics to recapture their initial success, and the lack of leadership means that there is nobody to negotiate with the state and press claims in a sustained manner. Tactical innovation, she argues, is the key to maintaining momentum and pursuing long-term goals.

In the twenty-first century, Indigenous groups have built on “older” twentieth-century technologies to pursue some of the same goals using new digital tools.

We have seen that throughout the twentieth century, Indigenous communities adopted and appropriated technologies such as radio and video to engage in the public sphere and to create sites of counterpower. In the twenty-first century, Indigenous groups have built on “older” twentieth-century technologies to pursue some of the same goals using new digital tools. While most studies on the use of ICTs by social movements focus on Western democracies (Breuer and Groshek 2014), a growing body of literature examines how Indigenous peoples have actively appropriated digital platforms. Tufekci (2017) identifies Indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico as the earliest global movement of the Internet era. Studies have looked at using digital media a tool of self-representation to communicate messages independently of the mainstream media, and to challenge dominant stereotypes (Basanta 2013; Petray 2013; Soriano 2012; Wilson, Carlson, and Sciascia 2017); communicate with other Indigenous groups and mobilize supporters and allies (Virtanen 2015); create new forms of cultural expression (Landzelius 2006); produce news and information that cover issues that matter to Indigenous people (Wilson, Carlson and Sciascia 2017); engage in political campaigning (Basanta 2013; Budka 2019; González Lorenzo 2009; Monasterios 2003; Wagner 2018); and support participatory democracy initiatives (Cruz and Gravante 2018). Indigenous communities seek to use digital tools for both cultural preservation and change, and as part of an ongoing strategy of resisting and rewriting colonial narratives (Ginsburg 2016; Hinzo and Clark 2019; Landzelius 2006; Wilson, Carlson, and Sciascia 2017). But this does not mean that they have or will become the types of “networked movements” that supposedly characterize collective action in the twenty-first century.

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Pascal Lupien is assistant professor of political science at Brock University. He is author of Citizens’ Power in Latin America: Theory and Practice.