30 Nov

A method to getting scared: the spread of 21/22N in Cali and in Bogotá

Linterna Verde analyzed these two hectic nights to understand the relationship between what happened offline and the chaotic debate on the internet. And how coordinated everything was in the end

Por Cristina Vélez Vieira and Carlos Cortés

Updated 30 de December, 2019 at 3:19 pm

It should be clear by now that there was mass hysteria in Cali and in Bogotá on Thursday, November 21 and on Friday, November 22. With a similar story, both cities fell into a dangerous state of anxiety due to a mixture of news, rumors and lies, which were transmitted like a virus through messaging systems and social networks.

What was the relationship between what happened offline and the chaotic debate on the internet? Why did word-of-mouth have such an impact on Whatsapp? How coordinated were these episodes? Linterna Verde reviewed tweets, Whatsapp message chains and news to try to answer these questions.

Since the November 21 national strike was announced in the beginning of the month, the Iván Duque administration has promoted a very clear strategy to fight it. The demonstrations – as stated by the Presidency and by the Democratic Center – were part of an international agenda for destabilization; they were supposedly infiltrated by foreigners and would lead to vandalism. The message was clearly conveyed by the communication media before the strike: to march was to be left behind.

Legend: Presidential Campaign against the National Strike
As is well known, there were acts of vandalism and looting in the country, especially in Bogota and Cali, in parallel to the marches on Thursday, 21. In the capital, the Praça Bolívar was evacuated by the Esmad in the end of the afternoon, while cities such as Suba and Kennedy saw confrontations, damage to the TransMileniion public transport stations and warehouse robberies. The situation was similar in downtown Cali, in several of the Mío stations (similar to BRT) and in some commercial areas.

In the midst of this complex scenario, the Cali City Hall decreed a curfew at three o’clock in the afternoon. The measure sought to control insecurity in the city, but it was also a declaration of a state of risk. One day later, the same happened in Bogotá: it was decreed in select locations at first, but soon extended to the entire city. It was the first time this happened in both capitals ever since the 70s.

“We” against the “others”.

Except for the differences in time, form and place, what happened in Cali and Bogotá was very similar. The protests, the vandalism and the looting led to the declaration of an official emergency. This fact, which the authorities indistinctly classified as a matter of public order, was added to the indignation of the demonstrators, who saw the curfew as a way to silence the protest. There was paranoia, fear and uncertainty.

As the hours passed – on Thursday in Cali and on Friday in Bogotá –, the streets were slowly cleared and the people sought refuge in their homes due to the curfew. The public space was no man’s land; home was the only safe place. In this context of vulnerability and risk, disinformation spread like gunpowder on Whatsapp: the vandalism we saw on the television would come straight to our living rooms.

Audio file which was passed around on Whatsapp

Despite the lack of credibility of some of these messages, the threat they posed was blunt: it was connected to the events of that day, it happened in a state of exceptional public order, and it fed the fear of other communities and sectors in the city. As explained by La Silla Pacífico, in the case of Cali, social inequality and the fear of the poor defined who the “others” were. In Bogotá, there were aggressions against Venezuelans (see a detailed analysis here). The contamination was not the result of ignorance, but of prejudice, as has been analyzed in other countries in cases of rumors spread through Whatsapp.

The narrative we saw after that was very clear: there were vandals walking on the streets and entering residential complexes and units the police was gone; neighbors had to get organized and defend themselves. The threat was concrete, maybe not directly, but with someone close: it happened to my cousin, my neighbor saw it, a friend told me about it.

Audio file which was passed around on Whatsapp

Many of the Whatsapp message chains we identified contained instructions which people started following to the letter: you must wear white shirts to dintinguish yourself from the criminals; you must arm yourself with bats, sticks and even guns, and take turns keeping watch with your neighbors until the morning. The apparent calm was in fact the prelude to an attack.

Audio file which was passed around on Whatsapp

The testimonies of the people themselves and of strangers creates an emotional contamination and reinforces the belief that a threat exists. As explained by Damon Centola, the value of a certain behavior increases as others start adopting it, increasing its credibility and legitimacy. That explains in part the lessons learned in Cali the night before were ignored in Bogotá: beliefs and herd mentality unconsciously functioned as antibodies; we simply do not digest this information.

meme 1:
don’t shoot
I’m from another complex

meme 2:
They’re coming… They’re coming…
Who??? … I don’t know, but they’re coming…

Legend: “Memes” which were passed around on social networks. Regarding this topic, see the article by La Silla Académica, “memes of the strike show the libertarian but perverse power of the internet”.

The social diffusion was accompanied by physical isolation, which was also projected into the digital communities. In other words, the external threat, reinforced and fed by outside rumors, transformed the residential units or complexes and the digital groups where they gather – the close networks – into islands.

The survival instinct broke any potential political or religious bubble for those sharing this space: the “others” were no longer defined inside the ideological spectrum. In this extreme situation, the neighbors were a close-know micro network of trust, united in defending their territory.

Whatsapp screenshot:
Admin Monteclaro: Dear residents, the administration reports that, considering the situation in the country and that we are immersed in the problem, protesters are aggressively entering residential complexes. The board and the administration will be alert, and the alarms will sound if we need your support and commitment.
The administration, the board and the committee are testing the alarm.
We will continue testing.

Legend: Whatsapp group of a complex in Suba, an example of the micro networks of contamination and mobilization created in different neighborhoods of Bogotá.

Both in Cali and Bogotá, the vandalism reports, the message chains and the calls to action appeared in the social networks at night, when a state of contamination was already evident among the citizens. On Twitter, the conversation around the topic increased at around 7 p.m. and decreased at around midnight.

Legend: Conversation in Cali on Twitter on November 21 starting at 3 p.m. At around 7 p.m., the topic peaked (search terms: vandals OR vandal AND complexes OR condominiums OR units OR residential OR neighbors). Source: Sysomos

Legend: Conversation in Bogotá on Twitter on November 22 starting at 2 p.m. At around 8 p.m., the topic peaked (search terms: vandals OR vandal AND complexes OR condominiums OR units OR residential OR neighbors). Source: Sysomos

Some of us, who lived through what happened in Bogotá on Friday 22 at night, experienced a feeling of dependence and helplessness. At 10 p.m., the news broadcasts ended, the official voices stopped sending reports, and many reliable sources turned off their mobile phones. Twitter then became a free territory for speculation and disinformation, which was added to the people’s desire to learn more.

The American academic Natasha Dow Schüll compares social network addiction to casinos. After a certain time using them, the individual enters a “machine zone”, a tiring flow of actions and attention that cannot be easily broken and where autonomy tends to be lost. Imprisoned by all kinds of emotions, many of those who tweeted and retweeted were lost inside the social network cycle.

Was there a coordinated action?

The fact that the same thing happened both in Bogotá and in Cali indicates that there may have been some sort of coordination to incite fear and anxiety. There are many clear elements: identical audio files with male and female versions, recycled videos which were used as evidence of vandalism in both cities, and witnesses who were actually intimidated by the same “modus operandi” of the individuals who passed by the complexes.

However, if this plan did happen, it was implemented mainly in the hours before the crisis at night and through Whatsapp. The conversation we monitored on Twitter showed no clear signs of coordination. We also did not detect joint actions of bots or “call center” accounts.

We reviewed almost 70 thousand tweets between 3 p.m. and midnight on Friday 22, in which reports or acts of vandalism were made, and found that 91% of the accounts produced a single tweet. Of the remaining 9%, only 28 accounts have more than five tweets. This means that there was no mass production of tweets from concentrated nodes.

Complementary, we analyzed the first reports on Twitter about vandalism in Bogotá in the beginning of the afternoon on Friday 22 in areas such as Molinos, Chicalá, Suba and Parques de Bosa. What we found was organic activity from accounts that wanted to alert the authorities or the media.

Legend: Network of accounts mentioned by users who reported vandalism or looting in the afternoon of November 22 between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. The more central nodes correspond to the most mentioned accounts. The ones with several connections were mentioned simultaneously in a single tweet. No coordinated action of retweets is seen in unknown accounts (if that was the case, they would be in the center of the map). On the contrary, the most important account is @Citytv, through which – due to its wide coverage of the marches – thousands of citizens made their reports.

We also did not find any support to the reports made on Twitter. On Friday night, for example, Gustavo Petro reported the existence of fake accounts which were supposedly inciting panic. Soon after, the influencers Calle and Poché – whose YouTube channel has more than seven million followers – explained to the senator that their fanbase (known as “catchers”) was responsible for sharing the same message as a reply to a request for support. In fact, we found that they are not fake by analyzing them through several protocols for detecting fake accounts.

Tweet: Mr. @Petrogustavo It’s unbelievable that you don’t inform yourself before stating such a thing. Those are not fake accounts. Those are our followers who, because of this chaos, got scared and shared guidelines trying to help, like many others.
It’s very low to classify these girls as terrorists. This is easy to verify.
Look how they incite panic through these fake accounts. This is called terrorism, but the ministry won’t investigate. With false information about burglars in buildings, the citizens’ desire for change is paralyzed.

Legend: The influencers Calle and Poché tell Gustavo Petro that the accounts spreading the same guidelines are fans. Source: Twitter / @calleycpocheoffi

Besides what might have happened in the hours before the crisis and in the Whatsapp conversations we could not observe, what happened on Twitter in Cali and in Bogotá was a mixture of thoughtless amplification, organic fear and opportunism.

Political and opinion leaders from different sides contributed to spreading the same fear: on Thursday, Gustavo Petro called on the community to organize itself; the following day, Maria Fernanda Cabal alerted about the looting plans and made a similar call to action. In other cases, journalists such as María Jimena Duzán questioned the purpose of a curfew, considering what seemed to be a city in chains.

Although vandalism has always been seen as a collateral effect of demonstrations, at some point in that night, a few youtubers and influencers started talking about a supposed conspiracy of the “public forces” to incite panic and sell safety. Now, the “others” were also the police and the State.

At around 11 p.m. on Friday, the mayor Enrique Peñalosa asked people to remain calm, but also talked about a “campaign orchestrated to create terror”. His statement ended up looking like a big question mark. Distrust and speculation were mixed with the shame of having panicked so easily.

21N and 22N (November 21 and 22) in Cali and in Bogotá are already a part of history in the two cities, like the cacerolazo that happened in the country. To many of us, it was a hectic night which we have not understood yet. While many questions remain, one thing is clear: under extreme conditions and in an environment of distrust and susceptibility, panic is viral and fear is the true influencer.

* The Digital Democracy Room is a project of FGV DAPP in Brazil in partnership with Chequeado, Linterna Verde and Ojo Público. It’s goal is to monitor and analyze the digital conversations regarding the electoral context.

The analysis is available the website of Linterna Verde here.