The Zapatista Movement is seen by many as the beginning of social media activism. It began in 1994 in Chiapas, one of the poorest countries in Mexico. Unlike our most recent example of social activism in KONY 2012, a local group, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation lead the movement.
The state of Chiapas is extremely rich in natural resources, especially coffee and petrochemicals. These resources were being extracted at huge levels from land belonging to the community’s indigenous people. The natives however did not receive the benefits of the resource wealth and were in realisty some of the poorest people within Mexico. The Zapatistas became frustrated with this marginalization and created a huge social movement that has gone on to inspire social media activism. The rebellion began with a physical invasion of government spaces within Chiapas however the group quickly turned to non violent activism through internet resources.
In 1994, internet technology was still young, nevertheless the Zapatistas successfully utilized and bypassed suppression from national media outlets. Strong visual iconographics were released across the web to create a global recognition of the movement happening in Mexico. Email lists, Usenet groups, listservs, and websites were all used by the Zapatistas to gain support for their movement and fund-raise. Many online activists were silenced throughout this process, nevertheless there were always more to take their place and keep the movement vocal. The group even took language barriers into account and utilized the English language in most of their campaigns to expand their global audience. One of the coolest things the Zapatistas utilized was the art of “hacktivism.” By clogging web servers and websites, the movement was able to get its voice heard on opposition media sources. These activities were a huge success, proving for the first time just how influential social media could be to globalize an issue.
The Zapatistas did run into a few setbacks along the way. The digital divide became problematic due to the early age of internet usage. Many members, and potential members, of the activism movement did not have access to the technology to join the online community that the Zapatistas were creating. In order to quell this marginalization of supporters they created offline activism events.
This campaign made huge strides in reaching their goals. The then president Ernesto Zedillo agreed to negotiate with the Zapatista group, however their greatest goal of changing the constitution has still not occurred. New health clinics, schools, and other anti-poverty programs have resulted from the Zapatista social movement. This is a huge indicator of even the early power of social media in globalizing an issue and bringing social change.
One thing that must be noted by current social media activist however is the detail that the people of Chiapas still face very poor economic conditions 15 years into the struggle. Thus, even if social media can raise voices and generate support, this is not always enough to reach your end goal. Sometimes even a global spotlight cannot overcome all government corruption like we see with the situation in Mexico.