Polarization and disinformation spread in Spain

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In Spain, extreme rhetoric is found in demonstrations and street arts.

Protesters hold up signs and shout slogans during a demonstration against the compulsory wearing of face masks in Madrid on August 16, 2020 (AFP)

Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and German Philology at the University of Granada (Spain) as well as Senior Researcher at the Center for Radical Law Analysis (CARR).

Citizens have traditionally entered the city’s public spaces to express their discontent and channel their demands. One of the most studied manifestations of the opinion of the people are the civil demonstrations. Even if they have been a constant throughout history, the era of COVID-19 has been particularly prolific with certain walkouts of citizens who have already become benchmarks: from various demonstrations against government measures to fight the pandemic to rallies against the results of the November elections in the United States leading to the insurgency and dramatic assault on Capitol Hill, through the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd and, following, the civil uprising to throw colonial symbols around the world. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the range of various revolts by public citizens has been numerous and diverse.

Spain was no stranger to these actions of rebellion in the uncertain times we all live in. Social actors took to the streets at different times to show their disagreement or frustration on several issues. One of the largest and most congested concentrations was held by coronavirus deniers in the summer of 2020.

The most unexpected demonstration was probably the one led by the popularly known as the “Cayetanos”, the “Cayetanos Revolt” (the march of a group of citizens from the Salamanca neighborhood in Madrid, one of the most wealthiest in the country). For the first time, the upper class took to the streets to protest against the measures imposed by the government (prolonged confinement) to combat the virus as they saw it as controlling and violating their freedom (as well as their economy) as a means to submit their will.

Citizen protests aside, people criticize authority, dissent and non-compliance in public spaces via graffiti. Graffiti is so integrated into our daily lives that it is an integral part of the urban landscape. They are rejected and despised by a significant part of the population because they are associated with urban crimes (mainly linked to delinquency, the destruction of private property and the vandalism of historical monuments), as summed up perfectly in “Theory broken windows ”by Kelling and Wilson. ”.

However, from a discursive point of view, graffiti channels civil unrest and provides a very accurate diagnosis of controversial topics in society. The main role of graffiti is to convey a message that challenges groups in power, transgressing shared public space in a risky but controlled manner while undermining domination.

The study of graffiti gives us a glimpse that confirms the polarization that Spanish society has known, especially in recent years. Basically there is a timeless type of graffiti addressed to any form of settlement (i.e. rights) and another set of graffiti that reflects current socio-political issues.

While one group of posts reflects local controversies, some of the graffiti content could be extrapolated to any geographic area in Spain (and even other countries). Nazi swastikas, for example, are unfortunately a typical symbol to be found everywhere, but especially mosques and other Muslim places of worship have their walls vandalized with anti-Muslim slogans, usually after an Islamist attack.

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During the pandemic, city walls in Spain were decorated with numerous references to the coronavirus and the alleged evil brains behind it (fig. 1), protests against the new normal, various conspiracy theories and the new order that brought it about. As a result, the debate around the bill on the status of transsexuals, or the criticism against the incarceration of rapper Pablo Hasèl, to name but a few. Public spaces have become the agora where opposing social actors put forward their opinions.

In Spain, the eruption of the far right on the political scene was also reflected in public spaces. Antifa slogans proliferate and specific messages against VOX (or their policies) and Abascal are not uncommon (fig. 2 and 3). These anti-far-right street art protests reached their peak in December 2019, when graffiti depicted VOX leader Santiago Abascal with a bullet in his forehead.

The political force lodged a complaint because a feminist organization (Subversives Castelló) recognized the authorship of the graphic message. Italian graffiti artist TVboy has made Abascal the protagonist of some of his most significant works of recent years, all involving a harsh critique of far-right party politics. Thus, the leader of VOX was presented as an active supporter of the feminist movement (which the party harshly criticized), passionately embracing members of the conservative People’s Party (Isabel Ayuso) – following the artist’s earlier work on Italian far-right politicians (Salvini embracing Di Maio) – or affectionately hugging Pablo Casado (leader of the PP) against the backdrop of a rainbow flag and the slogan “Love unites” to defend pride happy.

Civil disobedience takes different ways in which citizens show their hostility towards authority. Mass protests and graffiti are two of the most popular ways people choose to show their animosity against power. The latter have not received as much attention as the former, but they are just as significant as they tackle the main issues that disrupt and shake society. Mass protests and graffiti differ radically in the way they are carried out: the former are carried out in the light of day, and they are the result of collective action which is somehow socially accepted as part of the democratic game; the latter are clandestine, take advantage of the shared public space to make minorities visible, operate through a controlled risk and are massively rejected. To read the city through their walls is to take the pulse of society and the subjects that people really care about. Graffiti is an act of opposition to national and local powers as well as clearly intersectional with 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 growing role it plays in Spanish society.

This article is brought to you by the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through its research, CARR intends to conduct discussions on the development of radical right-wing extremism around the world. Rantt has been a CARR partner for 3 years. We have published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of doctors, historians, professors and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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