The two defining vectors of our time go in opposite directions. Economically, we live in the age of ever more radical inequality, while socially, the distribution of literacy and information, through media old and social, has never been so close to universal. What that means is, a huge majority of the world’s people feel the injustice of inequality.
Recently, that feeling of being seriously underserved on income, opportunity, representation, and respect has driven a networked nation of social media communicants to take their grievances against their governments to the streets.
In South America recently, the specific grievances have been as small as a rise in the price of gas or bus and subway fares, or as big as a stolen election or millions in graft siphoned from government contracts. But they’re not just about money. The protests shaking capital cities from Quito and Santiago to Lima, La Paz, and Caracas share this – rage against generations of maldistribution of everything that matters, favoring a privileged elite at the expense of everyone else, now, in a time of economic stagnation.
What makes this generation different is how much they feel they know about inequality and their victimization. For those moved to action to protest their disempowerment, their smartphones provide daily models of mass action – from Beirut, Baghdad and Hong Kong. Among global phenomena being “normalized,” stopping society dead in its tracks, to articulate nonviolently a political message demanding or rejecting change.
Old media did that, transmitted information, demands and models for protest, but what the interactivity of the new social media does is offer not just facts but friends, a ready-made social identity, a tribe, a mighty network of like-minded people you can join: online or at Tahrir Square.
The digital generation has been overrepresented in protests from El Alto in La Paz, Bolivia, to the Plaza del Teatro in Quito, Ecuador; to Plaza Baquedano in Santiago, Chile. For good reason: as they hit their earning years, young people are confronted by unequal but severe economic hardship, elite-dominated political paralysis or self-enrichment, and a bombardment of digital data detailing their sad predicament and what other “ordinary citizens” are doing about theirs.
Dr Christopher Sabatini is senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and a lecturer in discipline in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University where he has taught since 2008. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU and of the Inter-American Foundation.
In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups.
Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance.