The power of apps and social media in Chile’s social movements

More than a couple Chileans have brought up the fun fact that Chile has almost twice as many phones as it does people. On my commute to work, people are entranced with Youtube videos, chatting on Whatsapp, or playing Candy Crush. It is no different than what I see in my commute in DC (except for the over-crowding). When I bought a vintage sweater from a street vendor in Lastarria, I asked her for the artist who did her nails, and she pointed me to an Instagram account taking appointments and questions via WhatsApp. Calling an Uber or ordering food through Rappi (a food/grocery delivery app) is just as effective as it is in the U.S. In fact, I am currently writing this blog post from the pretty cool café that used a targeted Instagram ad to reach me a few weeks ago.

Quiet Sunday at Café Triciclo near Baquedano

All of this isn’t surprising in Santiago, given it’s growing notoriety as the home of “Chilecon Valley”. The city is becoming the largest tech-centered entrepreneurial hub of Latin America, and through a thick haze of inequality, this is reflected in the consumerist patterns of its inhabitants. The evolution of Santiago in terms of internet penetration, tech-based start-ups, and even non-tech focused start-ups that simply rely on technology to reach their consumer base, has a lot to say about the prioritization of rapid innovation in the country’s journey towards development. In 2010, CORFO launched Start Up Chile, a government-funded accelerator precisely aimed at thrusting the country to its now-known position as the leading entrepreneurial hub in the region. While there have been many incredible success stories, all contributing to an influx of investment into the economy, it is important to note that out of the 1,600 companies it has accelerated, more than three times as many foreign companies have participated than Chilean companies. This is great in terms of international exposure, which is one of the intentions of the program, but there are indirect consequences to having more social investment towards foreign ideas rather than fomenting a more competitive landscape nationally (and away from the capital). 

It goes without saying that technology is often found on the wrong side of social development; increasing digital inequality, increase in cyberbullying, hate speech online, etc. all form part of the negative consequences of tech evolution. However, I have realized in my time in Santiago that technology, as it is in every country, can be harnessed by a population for a good kind of change. At Universidad Alberto Hurtado, I was instantly curious about the stickers on the inside of the womens’ restroom stalls, advertising low-cost access to menstrual products via Instagram. It seems odd and insignificant at first glance, but the implications of using social media to not only create accessibility for healthier and affordable options of menstrual products but also to destigmatize a topic that affects half of the population and is still considered taboo in many places…I think that’s awesome. 

Kissathon during the 2011 student movement. Photo courtesy of The Atlantic

On a larger scale, learning about the role of social media and technology in Chile’s student movements also got me thinking about the way generations began harnessing these digital tools to do the same thing our ancestors have done: march and protest. In a conversation with the amazing Laura and Hugo, our coordinators for the program at Universidad Alberto Hurtado, I learned that the 2011 Chilean student movement groomed many young leaders who would go on to turn their social activism into political positions. Not surprisingly, these students were using Facebook and WhatsApp groups to organize sit-ins, flashmobs, kiss-a-thons, viral campaigns, etc. that all made up the so-called revolución pingüina (named after the black and white uniforms of the students protesting.)

In the years that followed, it was technology once again that allowed critical organizers of the movement to pursue positions in Chile’s political bodies. One example is that of Camila Vallejo Dowling, who went from being president of the University of Chile student federation to winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in Chile as a member of the Communist Party. Vallejo has a following of over 1.3 million followers on Twitter. My fascination for what can transpire when communities, whether local or global, harness the power of technology for good runs deep. It also explains why I have had such a great time at my internship, a nonprofit called Ciudadanía Inteligente that focuses precisely on this idea in the Latin American region. I do believe that it can be something as little as making menstrual cups more accessible at a college campus, or creating a social movement that can lead to the resignation of a corrupt and malicious governor. Chile is not a big country population wise, and Santiago is the most interconnected city in terms of accessibility to WiFi, technology, and usability of app-based services (like Rappi, Uber, etc.) I believe there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to shift the focus of apps and social media from something that can facilitate a late night McDonald’s order to more powerful collective tools, but I do believe the Millenials and Gen Z’ers in Santiago are the ones leading the way.

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