Oscar Morales is hardly a household name outside his native Colombia – but for the Facebook generation at least he surely deserves to be.
In early 2008 a 34-year-old civil engineer from Barranquilla astonished established politicians, academics and media pundits by organizing simultaneous street protests in more than 200 cities around the world using nothing more than straightforward internet tools.
“Uncontrollably angry” about the actions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), terrorists responsible for kidnapping hundreds of men, women and children over the last four decades, Oscar Morales decided to contact other sympathizers through the establishment of a new Facebook group (One Million Voices Against FARC).
Within 24 hours thousands of Colombians and other well-wishers at home and abroad were signing up; within a couple of weeks the mainstream media had taken up the story; and exactly a month after the online chat and discussion group initiative had been launched (12 noon Colombian time on February 4) an estimated 12m-15m people in more than 40 countries publicly manifested their disgust, in what Hillary Clinton described as “the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history.”
The Morales initiative, which sparked co-ordinated protests everywhere from London and New York to Caracas and Tokyo, highlights the potential to transform virtual discussion around an emotionally charged issue into global action on a vast scale. But how did he do it and what were the key success factors?
Morales acknowledged, in an interview with the Brunswick Review, that he “had no prior experience of this sort of thing, just a lot of passion.”
He explained that a team of co-ordinators was assembled to spearhead the effort, work that included the preparing and disseminating of documents, the writing, translating and issuing of press releases and the dogged pursuit of media contacts in newspapers and television. Expert advice on how to obtain permits for street protests was obtained, and along with centrally designed flyers, banners and T-shirt logos, was made available on the group’s hurriedly constructed website to be downloaded free of charge. News about the forthcoming marches was posted on every Colombia-related website that the Bogotá organizers could track down.
Morales says support from the media – extensive interviews and editorials proclaiming it was time to take a stand – was critical to building momentum. The tight deadline equally concentrated minds and unleashed energy: “If we had waited any longer I don’t think it would have had the same effect.” And the role of volunteers was indispensable: “Many people devoted a lot of time, not least to translating documents into the 17 languages, among them English, Russian, Portuguese and Chinese, that were used to get the message across.” Corporate sponsors showed solidarity at local level by providing equipment such as speakers and microphones for the marches’ organizers.
Morales, now a freelance web technology advisor, believes the power of the internet derives from the fact that it is both free – online tools like Skype, MSN Messenger and GMail accounts, he says, were “incredibly useful” – and universal.
The fight for justice by One Million Voices Against FARC, meanwhile, is far from over. “In 2008 many hostages were released and FARC has understood that kidnapping is not the solution, but more than 100 people are still in captivity.”
Will he try and repeat the protest? “I think this would be very difficult as it would lack the surprise element. What we are doing, though, is more strategic work that seeks to explain what is going on in Colombia and counters the bad image of the country created by FARC. People now realize they are not the Robin Hoods they claim to be. We are engaging in the political arena but we are not politicians. We are building a new way of making citizen politics.”
More information from http://www.millondevoces.org and http://www.facebook.com/onemillionvoices
Rurik Ingram is a Partner in Brunswick's London office. Rurik has extensive knowledge of the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American markets.