Social media, mass mobilization and political change in Puerto Rico

Social networks and digital media proved to be a vital tool in the fight for democracy for the first time in the history of Puerto Rico. The people came together to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello and mobilized massively to express themselves creatively on the democratic crisis in the island.

In these weeks of protests, constitutional balances of the branches of government, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of peaceful demonstration and the political future of the island were fought for by the people tired of the incessant public corruption.

On 24 July 2019, Puerto Ricans claimed an unprecedented victory when the Governor announced that he would resign. Puerto Rico joined the select group of countries that managed to oust a governor peacefully without blood and violence.

In the heart of this struggle there is a catalyst of protest efforts: social media and digital networks. When the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed the contents of the chat that started the scandal, the people expressed widespread indignation through social media. Digital media platforms served as amplifiers of public opinion which adopted the hashtag "#RickyRenuncia" that became the chant of the demonstrators. These protesters were not limited to young people but also included citizens of all ages, beliefs and political ideologies.

It looks like a page taken from the book of the Arab Spring and an excellent case study for the use of the social media to mobilize resources and strengthen a social movement. In 2016, Forbes reported that 87.7% of social network users in Puerto Rico used Facebook.

This means that these social media platforms were vital to develop the wide range of manifestations. They also provided a space to coordinate protests and control public opinion which proliferated various calls to different instances of manifestations and ensured consecutive weeks of daily protests.

Even the massive strike – which was the cover of dozens of newspapers around the world – began with an anonymous announcement disseminated through an image on Facebook. According to estimates it is one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Puerto Rico with close to a million participants.

One of the relevant actors in digital media has been political analyst Jay (Josué) Fonseca who has spent years investigating irregularities in the government with more than 1 million followers on Facebook is a figure of mediatic authority on the island. He was key in the recent developments on the island through his daily news synthesis and podcasts which he distributes to his Facebook fans through instant messaging. In addition, the use of Facebook Live allowed for real time reactions to the information provided by government officials.

Social media networks took special significance when – the day of the national strike – a container of tear gas thrown by police incinerated the car of a protester. The first report of this incident by one of the most important television channels in Puerto Rico blamed the protesters.

It was not until a video circulated through social media which showed that the responsible of the fire were, in fact, the state police force. This event questioned the reliability and highlighted the neglect of traditional media, which have sometimes been accused of being complicit in government corruption. Also it produced a counter narrative that vindicated the protesters.

All recent events are examples of the impact of the use of digital media to reach and mobilize society. The use of social networks for news coverage, the expressions of the artistic class of the country and the dissemination of the expressions of the Governor assured that every citizen had access to information that encouraged the protests.

In addition, users flooded the official accounts of the governor with messages and images allusive to the demand for his resignation.

History has made it clear that information technologies strengthen social movements and Puerto Rico is the latest case study. Therefore, in times where misinformation is evident, it is necessary that we create new informational platforms on social media and new technologies used with journalistic integrity to continue achieving victories like the one on the 24 of July for Boricuas.

The fight in Puerto Rico will not end soon and should be taken as an instance where digital media served to mobilize society, seek justice and defend democracy.

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