Polarization And Disinformation Spreading In Spain
Dr. Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a lecturer at the department of English and German Philology at the University of Granada (Spain) as well as a senior research fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR).
Citizens have traditionally taken public spaces in the city to express their discontent and channel their demands. One of the most studied manifestations of people’s opinions is the civil demonstrations. Even though they have been a constant through history, the COVID-19 era has been particularly prolific with some citizens’ walkouts that have already become landmarks: from the different protests against the governments’ measures to fight the pandemic to the rallies against the results of the November elections in the US leading to the insurrection and dramatic assault to the Capitol, through the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder and as, an aftermath, the civil uprising to thrown away colonial symbols all around the world. Since the coronavirus’ breakout, the range of diverse public citizens’ revolts has been numerous and diverse.
Spain has not been an alien to those rebelling actions in the uncertain times we are all living through. Social actors occupied the streets in different moments to show their disagreement or frustration on several topics. One of the most significant and crowded concentrations was held by coronavirus deniers in summer 2020.
Probably the most unexpected demonstration was the one carried out by the popularly known as “Cayetanos”, the “Cayetanos revolt” (the march by a group of citizens from the Salamanca neighborhood in Madrid, one of the wealthiest areas in the country). For the first time, the high-class took the streets to protest the measures imposed by the government (extended lockdown) to fight the virus as they considered it was coercing and violating their freedom (along with their economy) as a way to submit their will.
Setting aside the citizens’ demonstrations, people express criticism of authority, dissent, and non-conformity in public spaces via graffiti. Graffiti are so integrated into our daily lives they are an essential part of the urban landscape. They are rejected and despised by a significant amount of the population since they are associated with urban crimes (mainly related to delinquency, destruction of private property, and vandalism of historical monuments), as was perfectly summarised by Kelling and Wilson’s “Theory of Broken Windows”.
However, from a discursive point of view, graffiti channels civil unrest and provides a very accurate diagnosis of contentious topics in society. The main role of graffiti is to convey a message that challenges those groups in power, transgressing the shared public space in a risky but controlled way while they undermine domination.
The study of graffiti gives us an insight that confirms the polarization Spanish society has been going through, especially in the last years. Roughly speaking, there is a type of timeless graffiti addressed to any form of establishment (i.e., anti-monarchy, anti-patriarchy, anti-religious, anti-capitalist) or supportive of minority groups (i.e, pro-anarchy, pro-animal rights) and another set of graffiti that mirrors current socio-political problems.
Whereas a group of messages mirrors local controversies, some of the content of graffiti could be extrapolated to any geographical area of Spain (and even to other countries). Nazis svastikas, for example, is sadly a typical symbol found anywhere but particularly mosques and other Muslim worshipping places have their walls vandalized with anti-Muslim slogans, usually after an Islamist attack.
During the pandemic, the city walls in Spain have been decorated with many references to the coronavirus and the alleged evil masterminds behind it (fig. 1), protests against the new normal, various conspiracy theories and the resulting new order, the debate around the bill on transexuals status, or the criticism against the imprisonment of rapper Pablo Hasèl, just to mention a few. Public spaces have become the agora where opposing social actors put forward their opinions.
In Spain, the burst of the far-right on the political arena has also been mirrored in public spaces. The Antifa slogans proliferate and specific messages against VOX (or their policies) and Abascal are not uncommon (figs. 2 and 3). These anti-far-right street art manifestations reached their peak in December 2019, when graffiti represented Santiago Abascal, VOX’s leader, with a shot on his forehead.
The political force filed a complaint since a feminist organization (Subversives Castelló) admitted the authorship of the graphic message. Italian graffiter TVboy has made Abascal the protagonist of some of his most outstanding works in the last years, all of them involving a harsh criticism of the policies of the far-right party. So, VOX’s leader has been portrayed as an active supporter of the feminist movement (whom the party has harshly criticized), kissing members of the conservative Popular Party (Isabel Ayuso) passionately—following the artist previous work on Italian far-right politicians (Salvini kissing Di Maio)— or hugging Pablo Casado (leader of PP) affectionately with the backdrop of a rainbow flag and the slogan “Love unites” to vindicate the gay pride.
Civil disobedience takes different ways through which citizens show their hostility towards authority. Mass demonstrations and graffiti are two of the most popular ways people choose to show their animosity against power. The latter has not received as much attention as the former, but it is equally significant as they tackle the main problems that disturb and shake society. Both mass protests and graffiti radically differ in their way of execution: the former are performed in the daylight, and they are the result of a collective action that is somehow socially accepted as part of the democratic game; the latter are clandestine, make use of the shared public space to visibilize minorities, are performed through a controlled risk, and are overwhelmingly rejected. Reading the city through their walls is taking the pulse of society and the topics people really care about. Graffiti is an oppositional act to national and local powers as well as clearly intersectional with the actors, targets, and witnesses who play different roles. It is also a thermometer that tells us about the presence of the far-right and the increasing role it is playing in Spanish society.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.