Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Social Networking in Ecuador’s Police Action

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The specifics of the planning process behind the September 30 police action are still murky.  However, it has become clear that the police force used SMS messaging to rapidly spread information about the unpopular Ley de Servicio Publico and to coordinate the strike for the next morning.  Similarly, national newspapers such as El Comercio have argued that the Correa administration, opposition politicians and the general public utilized various forms of communication such as Twitter and Facebook to coordinate, mobilize and share information.  But, are all forms of communication created equally?

Facebook.  About 30 politicians in Ecuador, including president Correa, have Facebook pages and thousands—even tens of thousands—of followers.  Since September 30, Correa (or, presumably an assistant) has made use of this form of social networking to provide opinions on the golpe, the police and other issues as well as to call people to the streets in support of democracy and the government. 

Other assembleistas in Correa´s camp, as well as opposition politicians such as César Montúfar (Concertación Nacional Democrática), have used their Facebook pages as a space to profess their opinions and to share information about legislative happenings.  The general public, especially on September 30 and October 15, has used Facebook for posting their opinions and their involvement in street protests.  However, because Facebook is, by design, exclusive, the information and opinions that are posted have a limited audience. 

Twitter.  Politicians´ tweets of information, links to debates and laws available online and opinions (in 140 characters or less) are sent into the “twitósfero” where direct followers, or anyone else searching for a specific term can find them.  The general public took advantage of twitter on September 30 to communicate about the location of protests, the activities of the police and the military and to share information that was not being broadcast over the television via the cadena nacional.  However, the sheer volume of tweets made it difficult to sort through and find information.  Plus, in the twitósfero, the reliability of information is always in question.

SMS.  SMS messaging is the hardest of the three forms of communication to measure because it is private.  However, El Comercio has determined that the police were using SMS to pass along the word that the assembly had approved the cuts to their bonuses, as well as information about the planned strike, beginning the night of September 29.  Because a strike is always risky, it is not an easy decision for participants to make.  Similarly, those demonstrating in support of the government have indicated that they received information about the location and safety of the demonstrations from friends via SMS.  In both cases, the fact that information and plans were coming from trusted colleagues or acquaintances resulted in a greater likelihood of participation in protest activities.

Social networking has important implications for politics, both from the perspective of the government and of the population.  However, tools such as Facebook and Twitter have proven to be problematic in terms of access and the quantity and quality of information.  SMS messages are more effective for mobilization because they are more credible and manageable.

*Lindsay Green-Barber is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a graduate teaching fellow at Hunter College and PhD candidate at City University in New York and is in Ecuador doing field research for her doctoral dissertation on information and communication technologies and social movements in developing countries.

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