On the night of November 9th, a mounting political crisis struck Peruvians at home – the impeachment of former President Martin Vizcarra sparked unsettling controversy five months away from their upcoming elections. As his replacement, Head of Congress Manuel Merino assumed power as interim President. To understand his renouncement six days later, it is worth mentioning how a digital phenomenon occurred in the public sphere, where social media became a key platform for Peruvian activism.
On November 10, several pedestrians started noticing many buildings with flyers on their windows. Posters were hung and incriminating texts projected, conveying messages of rejection towards Merino and his supporters. It is no surprise that, by the end of the week, a small number of protests had ultimately escalated into large demonstrations at a national and international level. Merino and Congress became subject to an imminent political targeting, where regular citizens and online activists condemned their lack of representativity.
While this form of on-site activism took place, photos and posts about these protests were flooding people’s news feeds. Peruvians from different regions envisioned a clear goal – to actively delegitimize Merino’s ascension to power through various channels. Many proceeded to change their profile pictures on social media, with the prominent slogan “Merino is not my President”. As the protests developed, the issue was evidently becoming obtrusive.
Shortly, the topic had reached international news, where news media companies like The Guardian and BBC informed readers about the demonstrations. A pivotal moment was on November 14, the day where the biggest march took place, and yet two Peruvian protesters were killed by shots from police officers. The famous hashtag #14N started circulating on social media, and posts to coordinate a ‘cacerolazo’ (banging pots as a show of respect) were announced to pay tribute. By November 15, protesters shared live streams showing a minute of silence for the deaths of Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado. With concern, everyone asked for information about the disappeared ones.
Social media as a facilitator of Peruvian digital activism
Although there has been a clash of views about the motives behind the impeachment, an initial negative response was sufficient to mobilize citizens around Peru. With both an economic and health crisis taking place, a large segment felt inclined to voice their opinions on digital platforms about corruption and political instability in the country. While citizens immersed themselves in a digital environment, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram became a conflict arena with polarized views about the impeachment, civilian brigades helping wounded protesters and police violence resulting in disappearances.
As a channel for news and denouncements, social media adopted a role as an important ally in this historical event, where the spread of few posts rapidly evolved into a massive wave of digital Peruvian activism. Users recorded evidence of violent scenarios, arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses with their own phones, which were initially attributed to the police and ‘ternas’ (police officers dressed as civilians), but ultimately reflected on Merino and his government.
Needless to say, social media experienced a spike of content production, where information ranged from safety instructions for activists to video footage incriminating police officers. A massive consumption of the Internet thus resulted in social media becoming a hotspot for Peruvian users – even posts written in Spanish started being translated into English to reach the international media landscape, and with some success.
Arguably, social media enabled an effective form of communication for citizens. To the advantage of protesters, these platforms facilitated the coordination of gatherings for highly involved audiences. To a large extent, it was not the traditional news media that thrived in the Peruvian context. It was rather independent journalists, students, non-profit organizations like Amnesty International, and even artists and civilians who explained in social media their concerns about the political situation of the country.
The different affordances of social media may have further stimulated Peruvian activism. As seen on Instagram and Twitter, activists were largely successful in diffusing timely information with strangers, informational resources for protesters, and diverse opportunities for online political participation through weaker social ties. Instead, the intrusive presence of stories on Facebook and Instagram shared by users’ friends may have incited some social pressure to participate. At some point, it became difficult not to engage in the discussion.
(Digital) protesting in the pandemic?
In the context of a pandemic, digital activism has become pivotal for citizens who want to exercise their right to protest without the risk of exposure to the virus. Although there was an attempt to defend democratic processes with protests, social media this time gained prominent attention of Peruvian users. In fact, online platforms were remarkably favourable for Peruvians to participate in activism at the comfort of their homes.
Arguably, several factors have been key in building some pressure to enhance Merino’s resignation. After all, Merino could not overlook the issue anymore – his Ministers resigned, demonstrators continued displaying his face on the facade of his home with projectors, and the deaths of Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado were directly attributed to him. However, one must acknowledge the contribution of social media users, who kept reacting and sharing content in line with their political frustrations, and actively questioning if those holding power represented their political needs with their decision-making.
Once again, social media campaigns have proven their potential to shape the public agenda at a rapid pace.
Corruption is a critical problem in the Peruvian government system, one to which powers like the executive and legislative branch have not been immune to historically. After continuous allegations of corruption, the protests held in November could be seen as a new symptom of discontentment amongst Peruvians, rooting from the inefficiency of their officials with powerful political positions and the deficiencies of their governments in the different public sectors. Once again, social media campaigns have proven their potential to shape the public agenda at a rapid pace. Although an issue complex in nature, the public efforts of Peruvian civilians may have in fact fostered the renouncement of a president in six days.
Cover: Sergio Zambrano