Colombians Clash Online, Hoping to End the Country's Armed Conflict

"We're the peace generation" Photo: Agencia Prensa Rural, published under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“We're the peace generation.” Photo: Agencia Prensa Rural (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After more than five decades of armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a peace settlement and the transition to post-conflict scenario is finally at hand, if voters want it.

For the past four years, state officials and guerrilla leaders have negotiated in La Havana, Cuba, finally signing an agreement (Final Agreement on the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace) on Monday, September 26, in Cartagena de Indias. The agreement is up for a plebiscite this Sunday, October 2.

In the meantime, Colombia's public discourse seems to have shifted, with topics like “forgiveness,” “tolerance,” diverse political participation, reparation for victims, reconciliation, and land redistribution gaining new currency in both the mainstream and independent media.

An Ambivalent Civic Imagination

Over the past four years, Colombian Internet users have discussed ending the war, building peace, and creating a more tolerant and participatory democracy. Activists, state officials, even guerrillas, and others have been busy writing about, reacting to, and sharing online content about the peace negotiations, the prospects for reconciliation, reparations for war victims, and more.

Colombia's community of Internet users isn't unanimous about the proposed settlement with FARC, however, and a vocal part of society says the agreement asks too much compromise. The war should continue, these critics argue, arguing that fears about the deal are legitimate.

This Sunday, Colombia's voters will ratify or reject the peace deal. The question on the ballot reads simply, “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” According to a recent national opinion poll, released on September 16, slightly more than half of the country — 55.3 percent — says it will vote “Yes,” while 38.3 percent says it will vote “No.”

New Media and the Pedagogy of Peace

So far, supporters of the peace agreement have demonstrated particular civic imagination in their online activity, focusing their campaign on visualizing a different future for Colombia — one that takes place in a post-conflict scenario.

The peace agreement itself is an unruly 300 pages, meaning that few voters will actually have read the document they are voting on. The document's supporters and opponents, meanwhile, have focused their outreach efforts on six main points: (1) land reform and rural development, (2) political participation for ex-rebels, (3) ending the fighting, (4) combating drug trafficking, (5) transnational justice and reparations for victims of the conflict, and (6) disarmament and the implementation and monitoring of the accord.

This work to educate voters by disaggregating the peace deal into its component parts has become known as the “pedagogy of peace.”

Colombian Internet users have experimented with a variety of online tools to spread information about the referendum. Below is a list of some of the most prominent efforts:

  • Las palomas no son blancas’ (Doves are not white): a webcomic created by Juan David Olmos that illustrates the different chapters and sections of the peace agreement.
  • Twitter hashtags: many Colombians are using Twitter to discuss the peace agreement and campaign for “Yes” votes. Organizing “Twitter-a-thons,” or marathons of tweets, for instance, became one of the tactics used for discussing the peace agreement, explaining it, and sharing arguments in favor. Almost everyday during the past weeks, a new hashtag has been created and thousands of Colombians have used it. Some of the most popular hashtags include #SiALaPaz, #ObvioqueSi, and #TodosConLaPaz.
  • Dejemos de matarnos’ (Let's stop killing one another): a multimedia site with animated videos,  infographics, and other materials that can be used to learn and teach about the peace process.
  • PlebiSÍto, a website dedicated to answering questions about the peace agreement. They also have a WhatsApp channel where people can ask any question about it.
  • 1000 razones para la paz, a website where citizens share their reasons for saying “Yes” to the peace agreement. The site invites Colombians to write their reasons for supporting peace, aiming to collect at least 1,000 reasons.
  • Facebook groups and pages: Al paredon (To the firing line), Informémonos Primero (Let's get informed first), Paz mi pez (Peace my fish), Todos x la paz (Everybody for peace), Si a la paz Colombia (Yes to peace Colombia), Sí de todos (Everyone's yes), Forjandopaz (Peacebuilding).
  • La conversación más grande del mundo (The biggest conversation in the world): a platform for discussing the peace process and generating ideas about the post-conflict future of Colombia.
  • Todos por la paz (Everyone for peace): a platform that serves to organize a volunteers, aggregates video testimonies, aggregates news related to peace process, hosts learning resources, and coordinates a network of volunteers.
  • Con los pacifistas: a video oriented campaign of the Colombian Agency for the Reintegration that invites organizations to record versions of a dance video. The video uses the format of the famous Harlem Shake dance craze. The music is the one of a cumbia digital track. The performance for the first part of the video involves one person doing a dove gesture with her hands while coworkers appear on the background doing normal office work. After the music changes with loud bass and beats, all the workers start to dance with costumes and other props as if they were in a dance party.

The opposition to the Colombian government and the peace agreement has also leveraged new media tools to organize itself and spread its messages. Using Twitter hashtags like #TodosAVotarNo, #YoVotoNO and #VotaNoEnElPlebiscito citizens have also been able to share their reasons against the peace agreement and circulate images, videos and texts.  Opponents have gathered around Facebook pages and groups like Al plebiscito VOTO NO (To de plebiscite Vote NO),  VotaNo Colombia (VoteNo colombia), and No al Plebiscito (No to the Plebsicite), and engaged in conversations against the peace process and deal. However, citizens against the peace deal have not created new websites that allow a more participatory and decentralized activity. VotoNo, for instance, is a new website where citizens can find videos, infographics, and visual kits about why to vote No at the referendum, but does not offer any space for feedback and conversations.

The wide range of new-media initiatives shows that a great number of Colombians are engaging with new forms of participation and discussion, using the networked communication environment for civic purposes. What effect this will have on this weekend's vote remains to be seen, but the repercussions promise to be historic.

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