Blocked by government censorship, Nicaraguans turn to the Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp platforms to express their views. Behind the shouting match on social media is the hunger for freedom.
By Mildred Largaespada (special for Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – “What’s all the shouting about?” a Twitter user exclaimed.
There are times when it seems like those on the social networks are yelling. A blunt post, microblog or Tweet can feel like a shout. The sensation of “a shouting match” also comes when those on social media are all commenting on the same topic. And let’s say it clearly, a la Nica: it’s not so much what you write but how often you do it.
This behavior is seen most often on Twitter, although there are feverish exchanges on Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram as well. In the current repressive situation in Nicaragua, the social networks are the only space for free expression. Where, otherwise, are people going to express their ideas in a police state? When that police state practices censorship and represses all the democratic freedoms in the public arena?
But debating is one thing and expressing disagreement by maligning the mother of the other tweeter is another. Or sending out a Tweet suggesting that the other go feed on organic residue. Another form of abuse is posting blatant misinformation as news contents, hoping others will retweet it and spread the lie.
Certain conversations on social media are deceptive. They appear to be political debate, when they’re truly just rants and rude behavior. Not to mention the groups that organize to demean others, or people emboldened by unscrupulous voices that applaud digital lynching.
So, what happens with well-grounded information or reasoned opinions that invite a debate of ideas? These find fewer people interested in entering the conversation, although there are some. These controversial posts often enjoy great success on social media. The post and comments add up to an orderly political narrative. People then find a renewed pleasure in having exercised their independent judgement.
Political culture in the social networks
The difference between a shouting match and a political debate on social media depends on the users’ capacity to express ideas. It also lies in their skill in using social media. To debate politically on the networks, two factors exert influence: the user’s political culture and the network’s pre-established formats. In other words: how grounded is your experience with Nicaraguan politics? Also – how skilled are you at using the formats that the platform offers you? And we should add: it also depends on the users’ preparation for speaking in public, and the atmosphere surrounding the issue.
Regarding Nicaraguans’ use of the media, certain traits of the national political culture are often highlighted. These are presented as a kind of grim mirror, as if they were unmovable. Among other things, we call each other caudillo followers, authoritarians, conflictive, afflicted with colonialist syndrome, blindly obedient, war-mongers.
Seldom do we mention the positive Nicaraguan traits, like solidarity, cooperation, democratic, respect for human rights, pacifism, non-violent conflict resolution. Both groups of cultural traits coexist. Everyone brings their own mirror to the social networks.
The formats of the networks also determine the level of the online conversation. Sometimes they limit the conversation, while other times they facilitate it. You can’t post an essay on Twitter to develop your arguments – your entire idea must be condensed into 280 characters. On Facebook, there’s more space to express ideas and the site offers formats in a blog style. People can better develop discussions there. Nicaraguans’ ability to take advantage of the formats of each platform is at least average.
Nicaraguans reaveal a number of distinct behaviors when debating on the networks:
Robotic: There are people who enter their sites and set in motion their index finger, hitting “like” on everything the algorithm presents. They do this with ideas they agree with, but also for commentaries with unfounded information. They interpret the latter through the lens of their political culture as being close to their own ideas. They don’t read the news, only the comments of the person that did read it. They’re guided by that person’s interpretation.
Discerning: These people do follow the news on other media. Since they’re well-informed, they then choose to give a “like” to the opinions of certain other users. They can sometimes be energized enough to write their own opinion, short or long, according to the platform. They participate in debates, and they tolerate criticism and comments.
Rude: They habitually use vulgar, disparaging, threatening and sexist terms. Some of these users are organized into bands that feed off of others’ accounts to get attention. That behavior is called bullying or stalking. They reveal intimate things with the intention of sinking someone’s reputation, or at least leaving a black mark on it.
Well-educated: They leave a comment that adds to the debate and they leave. Some of these users also organize into groups to comment. The ideas that their group expresses can be repetitive, but they don’t cross the line of decency.
Private groups: Some users configure their privacy settings so as to only converse with people they know and are close to. Many such accounts belong to people who previously participated publicly in the country’s democratic struggle, and still remain involved. However, in the current atmosphere, they’ve gone anonymous, or use aliases to protect themselves. Adolescents also often maintain private groups, so they can protect themselves. Otherwise, they face danger from pederasts and pedophiles, human traffickers and potential rapists. Still other users, worn out by the harassment they receive for their political ideas, have locked their accounts.
Open groups: These are organized to disseminate information of interest, or to wage political campaigns. They function by proposing hashtags to make topics go viral. Some use anonymity, but they’re not fake accounts. Other anonymous accounts, though, are fake accounts, where users hide behind aliases to attack with impunity. Some people organize open groups to support their organizations and political parties, and now their pre-candidates.
Social network users reflect the subcultures they belong to, and that identification also influences the level of debate. Each social subgroup expresses its belonging through certain words. Each employs certain big words, concepts, memes, popular expressions, sayings, refrains, photos, doctored photos, caricatures or nicknames typical of that subgroup.
For example, a person from a journalistic or intellectual subculture might speak of “the Ortega regime”. A FSLN party member would instead refer to Ortega with a phrase like: “our admired guide, the comandante.” A victim of the dictatorship’s prisons, on the other hand, could call him “the torturer of innocents”. Finally, an old hand at the practice of debate on social media will just write: #aytaon”.
Some subcultures are more inclined towards political debates with logical arguments, while others settle controversies in a more limited way. We’re in a one-party regime, with years of political indoctrination from the regime’s powerful information system. The regime’s propaganda reaches us through the media, schools and universities, and billboards. As a result, we Nicaraguans have been losing our ability to speak in turn and recognize when others have the floor. We have difficulty doing this when conversing about political matters and debating.
Which platform for which type of debate?
On which of the social networks do people come together to discuss issues? The recent report on the website “DataReprtal” offers some global data. The report was put together by Simon Kemp and the Kepios team, with help from Hootsuite and We Are Social. The general report was posted on February 12, 2021. They also put together a section on Nicaragua.
The original report can be found at: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-nicaragua
Among the interesting data they uncovered is the number of Nicaraguans who use the Twitter platform: 162.8 thousand users. That number represents 3.3% of the total Nicaraguan population over 13. They also reveal that 62.8% of these Twitter users are male, and 37.2% female.
Those who take a conservative view of the social networks could argue that 3.3% of the population is “very few people”. They exclaim: “You see? Real life isn’t on Twitter!” Certainly, real life has its place, but the social networks are very important for individual expression, within and outside the territory.
And Facebook? In Nicaragua, that platform is used by an equal number of men and women. It’s by far the most widely used platform, and its 3.4 million users represent 68.5 percent of the Nicaraguan population.
In the case of Instagram, there’s an audience of 720 thousand Nicaraguan users, while LinkedIn has 420 thousand users.
In Nicaragua’s current circumstances, the social networks are the only space open for public debate and for meeting like-minded people. All other public avenues are closed off and censored. Every day, the level of debate rises. Every day, people are learning to express their ideas and to defend themselves from political bullies. They’re also learning to denounce fake accounts and threats. Every day, people “clean up” their timelines using editorial criteria that allows them to have a political conversation and express their judgement.
Even though sometimes “noise” or “shouting” appears, we shouldn’t be fooled by that behavior. Behind it, lies the true cry of Nicaraguans: our hunger for free political debate.