This post was written by Luisa F. González Valencia, PhD candidate at the Centre for Documentation and Research on Latin America – CEDLA, as part of the Global Digital Cultures research project P(r)otestas.
The tax reform project filed by Ivan Duque’s government in April 2021 provoked enormous popular backlash across Colombia, exacerbating growing discontent about government corruption, economic inequality, and state violence. This discontent led to mass demonstrations, already in November 2019 under the form of a national strike that lasted until March 2020, when the country entered a strict five-month quarantine in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, millions of people have taken to the streets again, even in small towns, because, as the protesters claim, “this government is more dangerous than the virus”.
While the government and its allied media keep referring to protesters as “hooligans”, social media has been exploding with images made by civilians. These viral images show police and army forces beating up and shooting at unarmed protesters. From April 28 to June 3, more than 1100 cases of police brutality have been reported, including 68 deaths, at least 20 of them in hands of police officers. There have been more than 5500 arbitrary arrests, more or less 419 of those arrested are missing (see a report by the Human Rights Watch). Moreover, on May 9th, multiple videos and audio notes circulated on social media and private chats showing raw (and often real-time) footage of armed militia attacking protesters to break the strike in Cali – the city with the highest rates of police brutality. These militias called themselves “good civilians” who fulfilled their national duty.
Since the outbreak of the protests in late 2019, the ultraright has been proliferating discourse around the “good citizen” on the Internet, justifying an escalation of (para-)state violence while mongering fear about the nature of the strike and the identity of the protesters. This process is also often accompanied by fabricated stories. On 21 November 2019, for example, when the first national strike broke out, videos and audio notes attempting to prove that “hooligans” were entering private residential units in Cali and Bogotá were circulated online. In response, armed residents fired warning shots into the air to ward off alleged intruders, triggering a significant escalation of fear in those cities. Police officers tasked with evaluating the situation arrived at a hero’s welcome by fearful civilians. Even though robberies were not reported, the dominant narrative of protesters as thieves and hooligans persisted. This is but one example that makes visible the power of online misinformation during heated political situations like the national strikes in Colombia. Importantly, this also unveiled an independently armed sector of society that is actively and persistently contributing to decades of violence enveloping the country. Besides showing muscle on the streets, these paramilitary groups increasingly use social media to intimidate and delegitimize government critics.
Similar to the viral videos of “hooligans” permeating residential units, new videos emerged on 9 May 2021, this time supposedly showing people from the Minga Indígena (an indigenous organisation) committing acts of vandalism and declaring an armed strike in Cali. The videos do not reveal the faces of the actors and the presence of witnesses is unknown. Nevertheless, the viral videos fuelled fear about the strike and sparked a trend of racist commentary in mainstream media and online. That same day, upper-class citizens also uploaded videos of themselves and their neighbours protesting the Minga “threat”. Those tensions led to a shooting in the south of the city.
Indigenous congressman, César Pachón, recently filed a lawsuit that incorporates these videos as evidence against the state. In the live video below, Pachón shows how police, military, and paramilitary forces launched a murderous attack on indigenous people in Cali.
During the attack, eleven members of the Minga were injured. Three of them suffered severely and were in critical condition. Of the “good civilians” who participated in the attack (some, dressed in white, took the role of protesting while others did the shooting), none were wounded, despite their claim that indigenous people were armed.
Mass media outlets that are strongly connected with the government and financial sectors in Colombia represented the event as a confrontation between civilians and indigenous people. By re-broadcasting the fake videos and misinformation from social media, they stigmatized the protest and its participants. This process of mediatized stigmatization of protest events mainly targets a middle-class audience that does not live in the popular neighbourhoods affected by police brutality and is prone to believe state forces over protesters.
Since the peace agreements between the government and FARC-EP were signed in 2016, social leaders and ex-guerrillas have been systematically targeted for murder. At present, however, those murders have stopped, and the violence has passed from the countryside to the cities. This does not affect all city residents equally, however. Oppressed, racialized, and impoverished sectors of society remain a target of dogged military and paramilitary violence. In response, people like Enith Bambagüé, a member of the indigenous reservation Alto Rey, reflected: “isn’t it then the state that is killing us all?”
The Internet plays a crucial role in the current phase of violence in Colombia. It has given people the tools to denounce human rights violations but it has also fuelled polarization and hate discourses that have led to armed struggle. Several Internet-based alternative media channels are emerging to narrate what the mainstream media does not cover. Their counter-narratives, however, rarely reach beyond their circles due to the echo chamber effect of social media algorithms. Internet blackouts and the disappearing of content related to the strike on Instagram and Twitter have shed light on the use of censorship. International organisations and media outlets, including Human Rights Watch and The Guardian, have offered Colombians direct contact to send in evidence materials. Locally, activists have created the bot @ArchivaColombia which offers a safe digital channel for archiving videos and materials related to the strike. The digital arena in Colombia, then, is not only a reflection of the socio-political battle happening in the streets; it is also gearing this battle in new directions. Above all, it amplifies the call for social justice and the desperate cry of those who wish to see change.
 Valle and Cauca: the conflict moves from the indigenous resarvations to the cities, Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca – CRIC, May 10, 2021.