In April 2018, Nicaragua experienced a huge civic insurrection during which numerous students, campesinos, feminists, environmentalists and others throughout the country reacted against the authoritarian and violent pseudo-socialist government of President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega. Now serving his third consecutive term as President, Oretga first gained notoriety in the 1980s. Today, almost four decades later, many view Ortega as a corrupt and authoritarian ruler who ignores the needs of his people and attempts to silence the masses with military force.
On Feb. 25, 2019, former Nicaraguan organizer, writer, artist and historian Gabriel Perez Setright visited Vassar College to discuss their experience using social media to mobilize resistance during their home country’s political instability last spring.
Setright recalled what it was like to protest under Ortega’s rule. During this time, they were living in Nicaragua, co-directing a cultural community center called La Rizoma which acted as a safe space for organizers and artists. “The civic aspect of the insurrection involved a commitment to nonviolence but a celebration of self-defense,” they noted. “This uprising was also politically plural, meaning that it did not endorse one political ideology, but should not be contrasted with socialism or capitalism.”
In a movement that involves such a wide variety of people, communities and perspectives, it can be difficult to find a way to coalesce everyone’s political agenda. Social media overcomes this issue, acting as a public platform airing competing opinions. As Setright explained in the case of Nicaragua, “Social media was a key tool which everybody used to organize, protect each other, collect evidence, discuss political tactics, expose paramilitary violence and build new exiled communities.”
Throughout the political unrest, activists and everyday Nicaraguan citizens often used Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter for a variety of purposes, including tracking the movements of the police and government officials, accounting for political prisoners and students, and gathering and distributing resources to impoverished communities. “Social media was the fastest way for an entire country to communicate,” recounted Setright. “It was how we organized, stayed safe and shared critical information.”
Using the internet and social media applications, Nicaraguans exposed the structural violence perpetrated by their government and further built and maintained resilient communities. Rather than using these applications as purely social platforms, sites like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were utilized to strategize and organize people and resources, transforming the nation.
Professor of Hispanic Studies and Media Studies Eva Woods Peiró explained why she brought Setright to her “Decolonizing Digital Media” class. She noted, “There are many academic studies out there on digital tools in social movements, but this presentation stood out for me because Gabe had been working from within the anti-capitalist student movement, yet also had a very solid theoretical grasp of what was going on politically and technologically.”
Peiró further explained that Setright’s message on the power of technology in activism is incredibly important for young people and students, particularly given the current political climate. “One of Gabe’s conclusions warned about our haste to stereotype millennial youth as glued to their screens, uninformed and apolitical,” said Peiró. “But in the specific context of Nicaragua, students like Gabe contributed their ability to combine digital tools like Twitter and blogs to help boost coalition.”
As Peiró had hoped, Setright’s message seemed to greatly impact the students in their audience. Charlotte Varcoe-Wolfson ’19 [Full Disclosure: Varcoe-Wolfson is a Contributing Editor for the Misc], a student in Eva Woods’ seminar, took particular interest in the imagery displayed throughout the talk: “For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Gabriel Peréz Setright’s presentation was his aesthetic interpretation of the revolution in Nicaragua,” she recalled. “He showed an image of students protesting with a huge Coca-Cola billboard in the background that said, ‘sin azúcar,’ [meaning] without sugar. Even though it was a coincidence, Gabriel interpreted the image to mean that the students would deliver their message without sugar-coating.”
Setright concurred with this sentiment, adding how social media can be a double-edged sword. While it is extremely useful to spread information and quickly mobilize large groups, social media can also be superficial or unreliable and massively distort the truth. “In the end the revolution will not be televised,” Setright commented. “The revolution will be live. Social media needs to find a way to complement the lived, embodied and spatial characteristics of any popular insurrection.”
They continued on to encourage students of all grade levels and in all countries to learn to reap the benefits of social media at a young age due to its potential future uses in the political realm. “People should start learning how to cook for 20 people, how to be first responders, how to write and edit papers, how to use photoshop, how to record interviews, how to paint murals, how to facilitate a meeting between 20 people, how to help someone that’s having a panic attack,” they advised. “So start watching those tutorials, and start co-opting social media for the benefits of all and in the horizon of social justice and liberation. I think that after experiencing a nationwide emergency you can’t unsee the power that you and your loved ones have over the future of your country.”