If the Internet is the newest front in the Colombian conflict, the country’s oldest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) is staging quite the offensive.
Just a few years ago, connecting with the FARC via any means of communication was enough to arouse the government’s suspicion, put you on a security “watch list” by the state’s intelligence agencies as well as, many foreign governments.
Now the guerrilla group has close to 25,000 followers on Twitter, a Facebook page entitled “Somos Todos” (We Are Everyone), a blog, and a series of YouTube videos.
FARC’s chief peace negotiator, Commander ‘Iván Márquez’ has been tweeting up to twenty times a day over the last two months on topics ranging from his organization’s political platform to Colombia’s recent soccer matches. In a telling tweet of our changing times, alias ‘Márquez’ found time at the peace table in Havana, Cuba, to proclaim to his followers “Vamos Colombia!” (Let’s go Colombia!) just hours before the national football team faced-off against Ecuador.
This laudatory remark is also a far cry from the 2008 bombing of a FARC camp by the Colombian military, when they incursioned into Ecuador to kill the guerrillas’ second-in-command, alias “Raul Reyes” and an international incident which led to the collapse of diplomatic relations between the two nations. The cross border tension now seems relegated to which team will classify for the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
In a world in which social media has been used to organize protests in places as diverse as Egypt, the United States, and Turkey, Twitter and Facebook have proved indispensable political tools. Last month in Colombia, supporters of the agrarian strike used social networking sites to share information about the location of demonstrations and distribute videos documenting police brutality.
“[Twitter] is changing the asymmetries regarding information that the people who are protesting have against the information that the police have,” says Alcides Velásquez, a professor in the Department of Communications at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
Social media are also important components of any political career. Politicians across the spectrum, from former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez to Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, have Twitter accounts. During the run-up to the 2010 presidential election, Partido Verde candidate Antanas Mockus ran his campaign almost entirely online, amassing hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in what become known as “the green wave” because of his party’s official color.
Velásquez says that in many ways Iván Márquez’s tweets resemble those of other political figures in Colombia. Like most, Márquez uses Twitter as a means of broadcasting messages without going through traditional media and as a way of connecting with followers. Of course, he also uses soccer metaphors to get his point across. “The game of a lifetime is being disputed in the agricultural strike,” reads another recent Tweet. “The best soccer stars are our farmers!”
Velásquez explains that mentioning soccer in political messages is a typical way of invoking a shared identity and establishing “common ground” with citizens. In a country in which only 62 percent of the population supports the peace talks, according to a recent Gallup poll, and 73 percent have a negative image of FARC’s leader, as reported by EFE, the FARC would do well to build rapport.
Velásquez also notes that although Márquez started tweeting in January, most of his 335 tweets were posted over the last two months as negotiators reportedly neared the end of their discussions on political participation and began the process of drafting agreements. Márquez’s tweets also coincide with President Santos’ presentation last month of a congressional bill that seeks to set a date for the referendum to which any eventual peace deal will be subjected.
In a direct vote, every ballot counts and FARC could very well be courting voters online in preparation for a potential referendum and future political elections. Perhaps for this reason, the guerrilla group created a digital scandal earlier this year when the Colombian government allegedly blocked their blog and Facebook page. The Ministry of Information Technology and Communications and the President’s Office deny this claim, however, arguing that they only block webpages related to child pornography and drug distribution.
All of this cyber squabbling may ultimately prove irrelevant. As social media becomes an important part of political discussions, research studies suggest family and friends still have more influence over individual decisions than any networking site or advertisement. Facebook and Twitter are more often vehicles for political expression than opinion makers.
If its Facebook page is any indication, FARC clearly believes itself to be the voice of the people. If the majority in Colombia don’t feel the same way, however, all the tweeting from Havana may fall on deaf ears.