Bowdoin College

Zapatista solidarity online: A case study of Internet activism

With the surge of the Internet, there is much speculation about transformations in the realm of politics and democracy.  Authors such as Papacharissi and Dahlberg criticize the claims of “Net enthusiasts” about the democratizing potential of the Internet.  Can the Internet approach the much-idealized model of the public sphere, a space where people come as equal citizens to debate issues of societal concern, ultimately reaching a consensus or public opinion?  Although both Dahlberg and Papacharissi expressed doubt over the reaching of political unity through cyberspace, there have been multiple situations since the birth of the Internet in which it has been used as a powerful tool for social activism.  A key distinction should be made between social activism and democracy.  While social activists often have democratic goals, they do not necessarily represent the majority faction in a particular political arena.  For example, their cause may be related to the interests of an oppressed minority group.

The emblematic Zapatista movement of Southern Mexico has served as a posterchild for Internet activism.  Manuel Castells mentions the Zapatistas briefly his article “An Introduction to the Information Age” In this paper, I will explore the context of the Zapatista movement, and how the Internet was used to advance their cause, and the general benefits and limitations of online activism.

The Zapatistas are a politically organized group of oppressed indigenous people, mainly campesinos, in Chiapas, Mexico that has struggled to gain autonomy (though not total separation) from the Mexican government (Cleaver p.164).  In 1994, the Zapatistas army invaded various areas of Chiapas on the same day of the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Even before the uprising, the Internet had been used as a means of communication for anti-NAFTA groups (Cleaver 1998, p.627).  The timing of the revolts attracted attracted attention, sparking the creation of an even wider web of anti-neoliberal organizations (Cleaver 1998, 622).  These groups, which had varied goals, sympathized with the Zapatistas and created a significant Internet presence for this localized, indigenous struggle in Mexico.  The Internet was used in several ways to strengthen the Zapatista’s resistance against the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Information about the state of affairs in Chiapas spread rapidly in cyberspace, and became The Zapatista’s online presence not only allowed reporting on their situation that was not restricted by the “state control of the Mexican mass media” (Cleaver 1998, 625), it created international pressure for the Mexican army not to respond violently to the Zapatistas’ demands (Rucht 50, 2004).

A group of Zapatista sympathizers called the Electronic Disturbance Theater utilized a tactic reminiscent of Mafia Boy’s stunt.  They performed a virtual sit-in, a form of “hactivism” which clogged several servers and websites (including the Mexican president’s) using software called FloodNet.  Although, this act of sabotage involved both offline and online participation, it was centered on a virtual space, and its effects were geographically more widespread than those of many physical sit-ins (Meikle, 2002).  Virtual sit-ins have proved to be successful means of attracting mainstream media attention and thus gaining visibility for causes that would otherwise be overlooked (Meikle 155, 2002).

The Internet can be tremendously useful for planning and coordinating events that occur offline, and the Zapatistas and their supporters capitalized on this.  In 1996 and 1997, Zapatistas and other activists met in mass in Chiapas and Spain to talk about their goals and ways of collaborating (Cleaver 1998, 630). This undoubtedly strengthened connections that had been formed online between participants by bringing them together in one physical location.  However, the occurrence of these conferences also suggests that activists were not satisfied with operating entirely in a virtual space and that they found value in meeting face-to-face despite the significant effort required to do so.

Cleaver notes that although the actual, indigenous Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico benefited greatly from the online presence of their struggle, they were not actually sending emails or publishing blogs.  A digital divide between the mass of Zapatistas and their sympathizers abroad is evident: “The Zapatista communities are indigenous, poor and often cut-off not only from computer communications but also from the necessary electricity and telephone systems” (Cleaver 1998, 628).  Thus, an intermediary or representative with literacy and access to technology is crucial for the voices of the digitally disenfranchised to be heard.

Kahn and Dellner claim that there is “an evolving sense of the way in which the internet may be deployed in a democratic and emancipatory manner by a growing planetary citizenry to inform others, and to construct new social and political relations” (2002, p.88).  I believe that the case of the Zapatista movement illustrates affirms this statement.  However, it is vital to recognize that the Internet is a potential tool, not a silver-bullet mechanism.  It facilitates fast communication across barriers of space and time and has produced innovative measures such as “hacktivism”, but digital divides limits the extent to which some groups can actively engage in online activism.


CASTELLS, M. (1997) An Introduction to the Information Society. IN WEBSTER, F. (Ed.) The Information Society Reader. New York and London, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

DAHLBERG, L. (1998) Cyberspace and the public sphere: Exploring the democratic potential of the Net. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 4, 70-84.

DONK, W. V. D., LOADER, B. D., NIXON, P. G. & RUCHT, D. (2004) Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements, London, Routledge.

HARRY M. CLEAVER, J. (1998) The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric. Journal of International Affairs, 51, 621-640.

KAHN, R. & KELLNER, D. (2004) New Media and Internet Activism: From the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to Blogging. New Media and Society, 6, 87-95.

MEIKLE, G. (2002) Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet, New York, Routledge.

PAPACHARISSI, Z. (2002) The virtual sphere: the internet as a public sphere. IN WEBSTER, F. (Ed.) The information society reader. New York and London, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

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