Social Media: Its Power & Pitfalls (Part 1)

by Joshua Potash

On July 8, 2019, chats between Ricardo Rosselló, the Governor of Puerto Rico, and members of his cabinet leaked to the press. Rossello was in France at the time of the leak, and in his absence the racist, homophobic, and bigoted content of these messages spread across the island at breakneck speed (los detalles están en Español aquí).

Combined with allegations of scandal and corruption, these internal messages expressing contempt and bigotry towards countless Puerto Ricans had the effect of a spark hitting gasoline, and the fire spread across every conceivable media and social media platform. **When the now former Governor touched down only three days later, on July 11th, the combustible scenario erupted.

Protests quickly filled the streets. Thousands and thousands of Puerto Ricans marched through San Juan, with the area directly outside the Governor’s Mansion, La Fortaleza, bearing witness to a nightly scene of hundreds of riot police repeatedly tear gassing masses of protesters. Every day the protests appeared to escalate, and in less than a week an island-wide general strike was called. On July 17th one million people, more than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s population, marched in cities and towns and on highways across the colony. Dozens of municipalities were effectively shut down by the sheer number of people taking to the streets day after day. Creative protests from yoga to kayaking to the banging of pots and pans from balconies every night disrupted life and called international attention to the #RickyRenuncio movement, demanding that Governor Ricardo Rosselló step down.

Ultimately, the force of the movement was such that he did. Just over two weeks after the incendiary chats were leaked, Ricky announced that he would be stepping down, to wild celebrations throughout Puerto Rico. The people had won.

The account above is a radically condensed version of what occurred over the two weeks of protest that ousted the Governor of Puerto Rico. In the midst of this mobilization some people were hurt, many more were exhausted, and time seemed to drag out in an impossible manner. But there was also great joy, great music, people dancing in the streets with stars like Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny, and so much more. When you talk to people who were in Puerto Rico at the time their eyes go just a little distant, brought back to the magic of those memories, the magic of people experiencing their power and finding joy together in the streets. People continue to protest in Puerto Rico, whether it be the privatization of the energy grid, teacher pensions, continued corruption, or other causes. But there is no doubt that the summer of 2019 was a special moment for thousands and even millions of Puerto Ricans.

Part of the magic that allowed people to seize the moment and mobilize together in spectacular fashion was social media. At this point a lot of us are passingly familiar with the way social media intersects with social movements, whether it be the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter, or something more localized in your area.

The summer of 2019 in Puerto Rico is one of the most powerful examples of social media being used most effectively to help people act in concert, and win a decisive victory.

From the beginning, when the Governor’s chats were first leaked, outrage spread on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But then, with remarkable speed, calls to action were interwoven with the anger. Protests were mobilized, largely using social media to get the word out. Even the massive general strike on July 17th where a million people protested, calling for the Governor’s resignation rather than going to work, was spread over social media apps. This truly massive strike reportedly started with an anonymous Facebook post that spread like wildfire and culminated in one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Puerto Rico. And Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms also let the world know what was happening. Of course the mainstream media also wrote articles and produced TV segments, but online people watched in real time as Puerto Ricans flooded the streets, as Ricky Martin danced on a bus at a protest, and as fireworks erupted over San Juan in celebration.

That is not to say social media was, or is, a silver bullet. The way hundreds of thousands of people acted in concert during the #RickyRenuncia movement may not have lasted had the protests needed to continue for months. The following summer the entire world saw massive protests against police murders and violence. Summer 2020 was one of the largest social movement mobilizations in history, with somewhere between 15 and 26 million people taking to the streets in the United States alone. But today we see that police budgets haven’t been reduced, and police continue to kill 3 people a day. The massive mobilizations, the outpouring of support on social media and elsewhere, wasn’t enough to affect the changes we need to see. Similarly, in Puerto Rico the fundamental colonial power structure perseveres, despite the exit of one governor and the entrance of another.

Of course, social media isn’t the only or even the main culprit here. Entrenched power structures persist despite all sorts of upheaval and organizing, through disruptions and elections and more. Instead, the story of Puerto Rico in the summer of 2019, and the Black Lives Matter mobilizations of the following summer can lead us to think about the strengths and weaknesses of social media, and of our relationships to it.

So that’s what this series hopes to do: look at how we use social media, how we could use it more effectively, and how we can develop a relationship with it that places this powerful tool in its proper place. This is just as much for me as for you; as I write this I’m thinking about checking Twitter for the first time today, because that website takes up far too much space in my brain. So I’ll be working through this with you, not as an expert, but just as one of the many people who spent a big chunk of my life online, struggling to use social media well, and not just get used by it. Hopefully in working through this together we can all develop healthier relationships with these platforms, and wield their power more effectively.