Creating Technology for Social Change

Mexico’s Networked Social Movements: #YoSoy132

How are networks and technologies being used to organise social movements in Mexico? Andrés Monroy Hernandez organised a panel to look at this question in the case of the Mexican #YoSoy132 movement. Andrés is a social computing researcher at Microsoft Research and an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. (I have previously blogged his research on designing for remix and creative learning). The panel was hosted by Microsoft Research New England, in collaboration with the Center for Civic Media.


  • Antonio Attolini Murra is one of the more visible voices in the #YoSoy132 movement and a student in political science and international relations at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México
  • Sasha Costanza Chock is one of the principal investigators here at the MIT Center for Civic Media, professor at Comparative Media Studies, and also a Berkman fellow.
  • Mayo Fuster Morell does action research in the field of networked social movements. She’s a fellow at the Berkman Center as well.

The Mexican #YoSoy132 movement started this past May in response to a speech by Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico. Students organised in protest of the candidate’s record on human rights, but mainstream media downplayed student activism, claiming that the students had been paid to protest (protest footage here). In response, students posted films of themselves on YouTube to show that they were genuine students, tagging those films with the hashtag #YoSoy132. This was the beginning of a social movement which made it out onto the streets, captured the attention of national and international press, and was successful at changing the shape of the Mexican presidential race.

A few days after the #YoSoy132 hashtag emerged, Andrés and Gilad Lotan conducted an analysis of twitter accounts supporting the university students. The result was surprising. For class reasons, it’s very uncommon to see people from public and private universities coalescing into a single movement. Gilad and Andrés found Twitter involvement from people of very different educational backgrounds; Twitter accounts from both the left and right converged on this story.

The #YoSoy132 movement had both online and offline components which often merged. Andrés shows us signs from demonstrations which feature printed screenshots of Facebook. If you were on social media, you might have thought that Peña Nieto was going to lose the election. You would have been wrong. Enrique Peña Nieto was declared winner of the presidential election on the 31st of August, the result of largely offline election campaigning.

What does it mean to have a social media movement that doesn’t have representation in the broader popular movement? Andrés ends with a few further questions:

  • Networked movements have very fluid membership. You can say you’re part of the #YoSoy132 movement, and no one can tell you it’s not true.
  • Many of these movements are decentralised. Antonio, for example, isn’t really a leader of the movement, even though he’s more visible. What do the other people think about that?
  • Vague goals? People have very different ideas of what a movement is about. This can help at the beginning, but as the movement starts to solidify, people start to realize that their goals are different.
  • Ephemeral lifespan? A movement’s message might be trending today, but tomorrow it will be Justin Bieber. What do we make of that?
#YoSoy132 panel at Microsoft NERD

Antonio speaks next. He’s a student at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, majoring in political science and international relations. According to Antonio, #YoSoy123 has over 150 assemblies around the world, include one here in Boston. Even so, it’s hard for people who weren’t there from the beginning to know what’s really happening. So Antonio gives us an inside perspective on this social networked movement.

Antonio explains the context to us. #YoSoy132 happened in the lead up to a Mexican presidential election; it’s very natural for social movements to arise in Mexico when elections are held. Next, the leading candidate, it was easy to motivate protest against Enrique Peña Nieto. For 70 years, the construction of the Mexican state has been fundamentally shaped by his party, PRI.

Next, #YoSoy132 happened in Mexico City, a very social city with active media. There are public and private TV, newspaper, and Internet. Public deliberation is common in the city. Meetings in public parks are impossible for people in other Mexican cities, due to the systematic criminalisation of protest. Mexico City has also had a leftist government for 15 years, a government which from 2000-2006 was governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was a leading candidate for the presidency. Since Mexico city is a political center, people can gather in large numbers and the presence of the press makes it possible to hold public protests.

Antonio argues that youth are given no priority by government and civil society, giving them even more reason to protest. #YoSoy132 began in private universities, which is unusual. Private universities are thought to be distanced or uninvolved from politics. It’s usually the public universities which have tradition of political involvement in Mexican and local issues.

Another unusual aspect of #YoSoy132 was its focus on media manipulation. It’s very unusual for Mexican protests to highlight the way that social problems are gathered, transformed into facts, and shared with the public– ultimately in the service of ideology and politics.

At this point, Antonio shares a quote by Manuel Castells: “In this consists the dynamic of social change, as in each moment what we are living are institutional relations of domination that endure until they are confronted by new forms of resistance to such domination.”

Although we’re here at Microsoft to talk about technology and social movements, Antonio argues that we should look beyond just the form of #YoSoy132 to consider the substance of protest. When protests happen, Mexico typically has no mechanisms to translate the views of protest into public policy. He sees #YoSoy132 as a response to that environment.

Sasha speaks next; Mexico has been a space of innovation for networked social movements since before it was cool. He shows us a clip of a talk by Subcommandante Marcos which helped inspire the founding of the IndyMedia network. This is just one example of the need need to locate our understanding of current practices in context of the social movement history in the geography we’re considering.

Second, Sasha reminds us that Peña Nieto is an easy target, especially after the occupation in 2006 of Atenco, one of the largest human rights violations of the decade in Mexico (film here).

Next, we need to take digital inequality into account when we think about networked social movements. Sasha shows us a graph of broadband penetration in Mexico (11%), with around 31% of the population having Internet access. This forces us to acknowledge the many forms of media that people are making: print, audio, and video.

OccupyResearch is one group that takes this approach of looking at the actual media practices that are happening on the ground in a social movement. Sasha shows us photos of Occupy media tents from Boston, Detroit, Wall St, London, LA, Toronto, and elsewhere. Livestreams like TimCast reached up to 80,000 simultaneous viewers. Nor is Livestreaming new. Groups like Deep Dish TV in the 1980s were livestreaming counter-nuclear protests from downtown Manhattan. Finally, he shows us a graph of “usage of different types of sources for news and information about the Occupy movement” from the Occupy general survey. Word of mouth, the Occupy websites, email, and telephone were the most important media through which participants heard about Occupy (including an unexpectedly high number of Facebook responses, since the survey was partially publicised on Facebook).

While many social movements target mass media, #YoSoy132 seems to have focused more than others on challenging mainstream media. In addition to critique, these movements are sometimes able to break into mainstream media. He shows us a graph by Pablo Rey Mazon which shows coverage of Occupy Wall Street on the front pages of mainstream media, plotted next to a graph of twitter popularity.

Mayo compares the Spanish #15 Indignados with #YoSoy132. She promises to share general characteristics of the current wave of mobilization, discuss the influence of technology on the shape of a movement, and suggest ways that the adoption of ICTs might explain the nature of these mobilisations.

Mayo argues that contemporary movements aren’t issue-based: they are fundamental critiques on the nature of current political systems. Even though some happen in connection to an election, they are ongoing movements that outlast the election. Both mobilisations happened in May. These movements are non-partisan, challenging the current political parties. Both movements challenge traditional media as gatekeepers of the public debate. Particularly in Spain, policies about information and freedom of expression are central to these movements’ agendas, and Free Software is part of their agenda. Mayo reckons that the Indignados have a much higher gender balance than other movements (such as the Global Justice Movement). Sasha notes that the Occupy demographic study also shows a majority of women at higher positions.

Mayo offers a model for understanding the technology adopted by social movements. Many of these movements are born on commercial platforms like YouTube (in the case of Mexico) and Facebook (Spain). Next, movements are using a broad mix of commercial and noncommercial tools–in Spain, participants in the movement also developed their own technologies. Commercial platforms are great places to start the conversation, since they have broad social adoption. However, when participants need to carry out less visible communications, they tend to use technologies they developed. Movements also work to connect information across these platforms. Finally, movements are experimenting with collective citizen monitoring technologies, using them to monitor election fraud and collect leaks on powerful companies.

Mayo ended by arguing that a movement’s use of technology influences its broader shape across space, time, scale, composition, and social impact. She talks about a digital arena where movements can coordinate actions, share PR, and even carry out protest online. Digital communications can also speed up a movement; using SMS and Twitter, they can respond to state actions very quickly. Technologies have also been used to coordinate much more targeted local movements in Spain, offering opportunities large and small for people to get involved.

Juan from Chile mentions Chilean student protests of the last two years, which he says haven’t yet been met by substantial political change.

Antonio responds that he recently heard a speech by Camila Vallejo, president of the University of Chile Student Federation. Antonio points out that Chile, unlike Mexico, has a formal organised structure to its student movements. Camila is president of a federation which has formal representation and meetings in many universities. In contrast, #YoSoy132 is decentralised, leaderless movement which functions outside institutions. Antonio foresees that the Mexican group may suffer the same fate as social movements in Chile: merely raising awareness. He wonders if the Chilean approach might be more effective in the long term.

Sasha asks about the alternative, livestreamed presidential debates arranged by #YoSoy132. Antonio tells us about one of the movement’s high points: convincing television stations to air alternative presidential debates. After one of the television stations challenged them to a ratings competition with a football match aired at the same time, their debate gained the largest ratings of all time for any presidential debate. After the television stations broadcast a second debate, #YoSoy132 organised a third, two hour livestream-only debate. In the first hour, 100,000 people connected, overwhelming YouTube’s livestream capabilities.

An audience member asks us to imagine democracy as a product and argues that the history of the PRI has the same history as the Mexican mainstream media. She acknowledges that the Internet and Twitter offer efficient communications but she asks what #YoSoy132 is trying to achieve: create a new left? Mayo thinks that the Spanish Indignados and Mexican movements signal a transition in what it means to be a social movement, and that it’s too early to say what shape these new movements will take.

Charlie DeTar asks what lessons movement builders should take from what the panelists have seen. Sasha thinks that we should completely abandon the idea of the digital versus face-to-face. People are increasingly experiencing social movement activity using their mobile devices, but they have always used a variety of media. He thinks we need to move away from simple excitement about new technologies to focus on what people are doing with them.

Another audience member points out that contemporary movements are very well documented; it’s now easier than ever for repressive governments to target hose who participate.

As a final question, an audience member asks if movements are embracing or rejecting commercial spaces. Sasha argues that social movements need to circulate movement positions using whatever platforms people already use.