From Chiapas to Tahrir: Networks and the Diffusion of Protest

From Chiapas to Tahrir: Networks and the Diffusion of Protest

A lot has changed in the world of technology since the indigenous Zapatista movement emerged in the mid-1990s in southern Mexico to become a symbol of the fight for global justice. To modern would-be revolutionaries, the communication technologies that allowed the Zapatistas to gain global visibility -- highlighted by the then-futuristic-looking pictures of Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s leader, posing in the Chiapas jungle wrapped in electronic gear -- now look obsolete and cumbersome. Communication technologies have since morphed into devices that, despite being smaller, are incomparably more powerful for broadcasting, not only because exponential growth in Internet penetration over the past two decades has made potential audiences larger, but also because the devices themselves are now ubiquitous, becoming a sort of invisible presence that shapes our daily routines and feeds us constantly with information.

As outdated as the imagery of the Zapatista movement might look to our retrained eyes, however, it was one of the first global manifestations of the tectonic shift caused by new communication technologies and the ever-extending capillarity of the Internet. The transformations unleashed then are still shaping the way protest movements arise: The Internet underpins much of the action in the recent global upsurge in political protests, as it surely will in future waves, albeit with a different interface.

The series of events leading from the insurgency in Chiapas in 1994 to the uprisings that followed the 2011 Egyptian revolution can be split into two phases. The first encompasses the emergence of transnational networks, or what some have called a “global civil society,” empowered by the increasing availability of Internet technologies. The Zapatista movement is one of the most prominent examples in this phase because it showed how local struggles could grab the attention of an international public through their digital presence. Organizations -- nongovernmental and advocacy groups, mostly -- were the crucial nodes in the transnational networks that echoed those local struggles, and websites and electronic mailing lists were the main tools for disseminating information.

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