The Catalan tsunami: encrypting swarm intelligence

A Mediterranean tsunami is a rare, once-in-a-century event. A black swan. In Catalonia, the abnormal surge has taken the unique form of a “Democratic Tsunami”.

On Monday 14 October, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced 12 Catalan politicians and grassroots activists to long jail terms for sedition and misuse of public funds. Sedition laws are a thing of the past in many liberal democracies. To date, the penal category of sedition had rarely been applied in post-1978 Spain.

The Supreme Court sentence puts an end to a lengthy trial judging the failed secession bid of 1 October 2017. Yet, the harshness of the ruling, qualified by the International Commission of Jurists as “disproportionate and ultimately unjustifiable” also marks the start of a new wave of pro-independence, pro-human rights activism and protest in Catalonia.


Stop repression in Catalonia, by Steve Eason (Flikr)

Tsunami Democràtic emerged a few weeks ago as a grassroots activist initiative to prepare “the citizens’ response to the Supreme Court sentence”. As with other digital-born activist movements, Democratic Tsunami thrives on social media platforms. Especially on Telegram, Catalonia’s hottest messaging app. In a matter of days, the Tsunami Democràtic Telegram channel has grown from a few thousand to nearly 330,000 subscribers at the time of writing.

Tsunami Democràtic deploys activism tactics mirroring some of the nimble forms of ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Among them, a leaderless online presence to preserve anonymity; unidirectional communications via “official” channels to discourage fake accounts; short-notice, bullet-point calls for people to pop up in local meetups (or “picnics”). With these tools, activists have coordinated large sit-ins at Hong Kong and Barcelona international airports.


Underpinning these tactics, Tsunami Democràtic activists leverage encrypted, privacy-enhanced technologies. This week, the group has released an app that requires a QR code to open. Users can only get the code from other users within their “trusted circles” and are expected to share it likewise. The app requests users to share their approximate location and time preferences to “know how many people are available in each area and when available for peaceful actions of civil disobedience”. Notifications will only pop up for those people within the area.

The new generation of activists is as tech-savvy as their immediate predecessors of the Umbrella Revolution, the Spanish 15-M movement, or the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia, to name well-known examples. Yet, both Hong Kong and Catalan activists have grown weary of exposing their identities in a world where state surveillance, data (and metadata) breaches and engineered misinformation are the new normal.

The new layer of decentralised, encrypted protocols may offer greater resistance to surveillance, censorship, and hacking. But, as many blockchain projects show – to mention a technology where full decentralisation is the Holy Grail – architectural decentralisation does not necessarily entail decentralised governance. In fact, there is an interesting paradox here, for decentralised, trustless governance requires first and second-order levels of trust: (i) trust the code, (ii) trust the [team of] coders. If coders remain anonymous for strategic reasons, second-order trust becomes a leap of faith (we trust you, whoever you are). The suspension of disbelief to allow centralised management of collective intelligence is a new form of “swarm activism” in political conflict scenarios. A digital social contract with a post-modern, encrypted Leviathan. Perhaps a sophisticated “human botnet”, as Enric Luján has recently argued on Twitter.

Will it work for Tsunami Democràtic? In the thick of another complex cycle of protests, demands and repression, it is too early to call. Stay tuned.


This entry was posted in Collective intelligence, democracy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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