Essay Politics Society History

Spain’s Digital Civil War

by Alvaro Santana Acuña , 27 October 2017

Today, while tension between Catalonia and Spain ebbs and flows, a digital civil war is being fought on social media. No truce is in sight.

In 1976, 677,455 infants and I were born in Spain. Those of us who live today are the same age as democracy in our country: 41 years. We learned to walk in a democracy, we went to school in a democracy, and we first fell in love in a democracy. I want to raise my children in a democracy. I also want to die in a democracy. But now, due to the ongoing conflict between the Catalan and Spanish government, I and many children born after Franco’s forty-year dictatorship wonder whether democracy will outlive us.

In 1994, Spanish democracy and the 677,456 children of ’76 reached the legal age of 18. That year, I was a university student working in the dusty solitude of an archive, reading documents on Spain’s political history between the 1850s and 1930s. Numerous documents included words, phrases, and speeches that called for sectarian violence and not democratic dialogue.

Several of these documents described the civil clashes known as the Carlist Wars, which spanned between 1833 and 1876. Other documents were written during the failed governments of the First Republic of 1873 and the Second Republic of 1931. Accounts about inexperienced kings punctuated historical records, as in the sad cases of Amadeo I (brought from Italy to reign in Spain for three years) and Alfonso XIII, who went into voluntary exile in 1931, after the collapse of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and the establishment of the Second Republic. Between the 1850s and 1930s, there were also countless stories about corrupt politicians stealing democratic elections, families broken apart due to ideological disputes, and towns shattered by guerrilla warfare.

Today, in 2017, the words, phrases, and speeches calling for sectarian violence that I believed to be buried in historical archives have reappeared on the front page of newspapers, news headlines, and especially violent conversations on social media.

The Age of Digital Trenches

No one in his right mind wants to repeat the violence of the Spanish Civil War, which killed over 700,000 people between 1936 and 1939, sent half a million into exile, and helped set the stage for World War II. But times change, and with them also change the ways to channel hatred and make war. Today, while tension between Catalonia and Spain ebbs and flows, a digital civil war is being fought on social media. No truce is in sight. The most alarming and painful fact is that thousands of its soldiers are the children of democracy.

In principle, social media platforms should facilitate dialogue across the ideological spectrum. Yet Spaniards’ on-line reactions to the Catalan crisis suggest otherwise. No longer a mere echo chamber of what happens in the parliaments of Spain and Catalonia, daily clashes on social media have become part of the problem.

Two centuries ago, the spread of nation-states gave rise to total wars, such as the two world wars. Nowadays, the global spread of social media is giving birth to new a form of warfare, as revealed by the unintentional role of Facebook and other social media outlets during the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. Bits of data cannot be defeated as easily as flesh and blood soldiers, and social media platforms now function as digital battlefields. Unlike traditional muddy and bloody battlefields, no army – not even the American, the world’s most powerful army – has enough weapons to win a war fought in a digital battlefield.

In Spain and Catalonia, the digital Balkanization of people’s minds due to exposure to sectarian social media content is a reality. People’s positions on the Catalan crisis become more radical in the intimacy of their digital trenches. Usage of smartphones and other portable digital devices confirms their views on the crisis as it is presented to them via customized social media content in their apps.

It is unclear whether social media Balkanization is directly responsible for episodes of sectarian violence in the streets of Catalonia this month. Yet digital trenches are spreading. Soldiers continue to dig their trenches in Facebook profiles, intolerant tweets, secret Snapchat messages, private Instagram images, and closed WhatsApp groups. Behind these digital trenches there are people that I love and admire, just as most Spaniards had a loved one who fought in the trenches of 1936.

Instead of talking to each other, digital soldiers leave a WhatsApp group if members do not applaud their opinion about what to do with Catalonia or Spain. On Facebook, a friend and member of the conservative Popular Party insulted his party leader and Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy for being too soft with Catalonia. Via Twitter, a Catalan friend in favor of independence shared the famous 1975 video of Prime Minister Arias Navarro announcing the death of dictator Franco, but his voice is altered and he declares, “Spaniards, Franco has returned.” My partner and I got into an argument about whether Instagram photos of blood-soaked Catalans hit by the police during the referendum in early October were real or digitally edited.

In historical documents written in the 1930s I often read, “Now, have you become a right-winger?” This question was an accusation that people directed at those that decided to embrace a strong conservative outlook in the years prior to the Spanish Civil War. This week I read it again in a WhatsApp group, when a family member censured another for his opinion about how the Spanish government is handling the Catalan crisis. On multiple social media platforms, users threw, like digital grenades flying over the trenches, the declarations of Catalan and Spanish soccer player Gerard Piqué, who condemned Spanish police’s violence against the Catalan people while he keeps playing for Spain’s national soccer team. And some children of ’76 doubt that democratic dialogue is the solution and long for the authoritarianism of the Franco dictatorship, in which they never lived.

Democratic Dialogue and Right to Dissent in Danger

A fraction of Catalan independentists seeks self-government for the so-called Catalan countries (Els Països Catalans). Along with Catalonia, these countries would include territories in Aragón, Murcia, and southern France, most of Valencia, and all Balearic Islands. Yet the Catalan crisis is hardly a national territorial issue.

Russian hackers are dropping fake-news bombs about the crisis, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweets relentlessly about it, and supporters of Belgium’s partition and Scotland’s independence are monitoring it closely. Why? They know that, as in the 1930s, Europe’s existential crisis has in Catalonia one of its main sites. The Catalan crisis explodes when the far right has multiplied its presence in the German parliament, as it did in Hitler’s times. If this was not sufficient warning, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica should also warn Europe’s democratic leaders about the perils of international indifference on the Catalan crisis.

This crisis, which may spread to the Basque Country (there, demonstrations in solidarity with Catalonia are on the rise) and other European regions, goes beyond independence. At stake is the future of the project of unity in Europe and the survival of a 41-year old democracy in Spain. Thousands of Spaniards born since 1976 have adopted the democratic values of dialogue, consensus, and the right to dissent.

One of these values is listening to all parties in conflict. Another value is to never forget (especially in times of crisis) that what unites Spaniards is more strategically important than what separates them. Another value is to accept and respect territorial and cultural differences. These values have led me to admire and love friends and relatives who are conservatives, centrists, and communists, who are Spanish, Catalan, Basque, and Canarian nationalists.

For Spaniards born in 1976, the collective health of their lives is forever linked to the health of their democracy. And nowadays there is so much hatred against Catalonia and Spain on social media (while the social divide widens) that many children of ’76 wonder whether democracy really lives in Spaniards’ hearts and ways of thinking.

Spaniards should prove to their ancestors, the ones who died in the trenches of ’36, that they have not forgotten the lessons of war. Civil society must take a firm step forward and demand that Spanish and Catalan politicians make full use of the democratic value of dialogue and find a negotiated and all-encompassing solution to this serious crisis. If solved, the children of ’76 would reach old age and tell their grandchildren not that we fought in a civil war (as my grandparents did), but that we are the first generation of Spaniards that was born, lived, and died in peace and democracy.

by Alvaro Santana Acuña, 27 October 2017

To quote this article :

Alvaro Santana Acuña, « Spain’s Digital Civil War », Books and Ideas , 27 October 2017. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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