Homage to Catalonia: Translating Catalonian Independence onto the Internet (31.10.17)

‘One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war – propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting’ George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia

‘The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war. All foreigners alike are appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality’ George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia

On the 27th of October Puigdemont declared Catalonian independence over the Spanish government. The Spanish government responded by sacking Puigdemont and the Catalan government’s cabinet establishing Spain’s greatest civil unrest since the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The previous Civil War led to a battle between the Republicans and the Nationalists in the centre of Barcelona. George Orwell fought and wrote about his experiences on the side of the Republicans who fought for the cause of socialism, opposing the Fascist nationalists led by Franco. Following Fascist victory and the establishment of a Franco dictatorship, Catalonia became fertile soil for anti-Fascist resistance and thus became heavily policed by Franco. Some 4000 Catalans were executed between 1938 and 1953, whilst the Catalan language was banned from public life and ‘confined to private spaces’.

Today Spain’s Civil War fails to resemble the one Orwell described in Homage to Catalonia. There is almost no violence. Instead, the current Civil War looks more like a carnival, with Unionist and Separatist movements competing over who holds the best street procession. Rather than arming the Separatists with guns, Catalonian independence is being fought as a cultural war through the utilisation and manipulation of online media.

The translation of the Separatist movement onto the Internet provide evidence of the profound changes in political competition and contest. The resistance methods of the Separatist movement know no historical parallel. Whilst the streets of Barcelona remain peaceful, Twitter has become a media battlefield with different movements fighting over the most seductive and persuasive narrative for and against Catalan independence.

The media games played by the Separatists and Unionists demonstrate the impact of technology on the social sphere, providing unrehearsed and unparalleled scenes of political theatre.

Street Theater

Both Separatist and Unionist groups have exercised their support for and against Catalan independence through marching in the streets of Barcelona.

On Friday the 27th of October, following Puigdemont’s declaration of Catalan independence, Separatist supporters celebrated on the streets of Barcelona filling Las Ramblas as well as the surrounding squares. Scenes of celebration were published by the media representing a Barcelona united in support of Catalan independence.

The images broadcast throughout the world showed thousands of Catalonians sporting Catalan flags, the Estelades and Semyera, like Barcelona players who had just won the Champions League. Separatists wished the flags would now be the new national flag and thus were proud signs of independence. The carnival atmosphere was amplified by a concert taking place in Placa Sant Jaume, where Catalan’s danced and sang to the song of independence and to the outsider it looked as though the whole of Barcelona were singing in harmony.

Just two days later, on Sunday the 29th of October, almost identical scenes were broadcast from the streets of Barcelona. Once again thousands of people filled the Las Ramblas, only this time they carried the Spanish national flags and sang ‘viva Espana’. Had you not seen the scenes just two days prior it would have appeared that Barcelona was united in support for the Unionists.

In the world of 24-hour media both processions created powerful events of political protest and argument. Following the marches on the 27th and the 29th symbols of Separatist’s and Unionist’s were broadcast around the world. In the 1960’s the New Left referred to this political tactic as a pseudo-event – an event in which you grab media attention, for bad or good reasons, in order to gain publicity for your political cause. This tactic gained prominence during the 1960’s where Televised media began to grow. In the world of 24-hour news channels, social media streams, and websites the media’s appetite has grown exponentially, thus making pseudo events such as the marches on the 27th and 29th extraordinarily popular due to the culture of 24-hour media.

Twitter Tagging

The power of dictating the media narrative is so profound that narratives and counternarratives are spun almost at an hourly rate. While the streets of Barcelona remain peaceful, Twitter has become the bloody battleground for cultural civil war. On the 30th of October, the hashtags trending round Barcelona were all related to the independence struggle such as #155AplicadoARV, #DUIDespuESP and #LesMossos. The revolutionary tags that once may have painted the walls of Barcelona now cake the walls of Twitter.

Following the pro-Unionist march on the 29th Separatists took to Twitter to write a counter-narrative to the events. Following the march on the 29th @ericcatalunya published videos on his Twitter page of people shouting pro-franco chants at the Mossos as well as a video of people sporting the Spain flag beating up a man wearing a turban. @ericcatalunya published videos aligning Franco Fascism with the march on the 29th to puncture and deflate images of Unionist unity and strength.

Despite having no affiliation to a major media corporation, @ericcatalunya has, through Twitter, been provided with a media platform that can help spin a narrative of Catalan independence to a large number of readers. With 19,000 followers and 74,000 tweets, his Twitter page has become a pro-Separatist Newspaper weaving a narrative that can, in turn, be posted and liked by other Separatist supporters on their respective pages, spinning Unionist media representations and arguing for the Separatist cause.

Political Graffiti

Following Puigdemont’s declaration of Catalan independence, on Friday the 27th the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, fired both Puigdemont and his cabinet, thus making it illegal for them to take up their positions in government.

In response to this action, the Separatist movements utilisation of Social Media demonstrates the sites centrality to their political strategy. Josep Rull, Catalan minister for territory and sustainability, took to Twitter to protest this sacking, posting a photo of himself at his desk on Monday 30th of October. Rather than making a statement, or talking to the local Newspaper, Rull chose to inform the public of his position through Twitter. The photo demonstrates Rull defying the laws of Madrid, in turn, encouraging his Separatist followers to do the same.

Support for this political move was met with 29,000 likes and 3700 retweets as supporters of the Separatist movement stitched Rull’s rebellion into their own social media narratives. Like @ericcatalan, Rull was using Twitter in order to influence a volatile political situation.

In response to Rull’s photo, Unionists on Social Media immediately began to spin a counter-narrative. Beatriz Becara, a vice-president on the Human Rights Subcommittee at the European Parliament, tweeted claiming that immediately after the photo had been taken the Mossos had, through legal force, removed Rull from his office thus undermining the authority of Rull’s tweet. According to the New York Times Rull was not removed by the Mossos, but instead left an hour later to go to a party meeting, suggesting that Becara, an authoritative political representative, knowingly retweeted a lie in order to undermine Rull’s protest, providing insight into the severity of the propaganda wars taking place over the narrative of Social Media.

Similarly, Puigdemont used Instagram to attract media attention. Rather less threateningly the ex-Catalan Prime Minister posted a picture of the sky under the caption ‘bon dia’ meaning good day in Catalan. Puigdemont’s inoffensive post caused a media stir, with one Spanish Newspaper even posting an article called ‘in search of Puigdemont’ as journalists wrongly identified and travelled to the building where they believed the Separatist leader had taken the photo from. Rather than demonstrating a politically tactical post, Puigdemont’s Instagram exemplifies the leading role social media is playing, as both Rull and Puigdemont’s social media posts became mainstream media stories.

Politicians like Rull and Becara battle over the grand narratives of Twitter, because Twitter feeds into both the narratives of politically sympathetic followers and also mainstream media corporations, reaching large numbers of the population and thus acting as an effective weapon to enforce Wittgensteinian language games.

Through translating Spain’s Civil War into internet terms it is clear that the political strategy of both sides focuses on establishing an online presence. Media representations are continually published due to platforms like Twitter and 24-hour news channels. Through communicating a robust narrative each political side can hope to provide momentum for their respective cause, as shown in the global medias reactions to the marches on the 27th, supporting Separatism, and on the 29th, opposing Separatism. Twitter has become a battleground where competing political views fight to undermine their rivals, generate further sympathetic media representations and win language games. As a result, the carnival atmosphere on the streets of Barcelona translates to a pantomime show online and whilst this Civil War has been peaceful it has not been boring, providing some of the greatest theatre seen in 21st-century European politics.

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