“We ask for solutions and they give us bullets.” Photo by Francisca Avilés.

Instagram: the invisible force behind Chile’s protests

Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has said his government is “at war against a powerful enemy.” But the protesters have no defined leaders or political parties — just frustration, hopes…and Instagram.

By Madison McVan

There’s three bangs, then smoke rises from tear gas bombs. Protesters scatter in the plaza of Viña del Mar. It all happens live on Bastián Zuñiga’s Instagram.

Zuñiga approaches the group of police, broadcasting their raised shields and covered faces.

“They shot him in the eyes!” a man yells off-screen.

Zuñiga turns his attention to a crowd of medics and human rights observers. They’re treating a man slumped against a wall, bleeding from the temple. Spray painted on the wall above his head is the message, “police = terrorism by the state.”

Zuñiga asks for the man’s name, but the medics shoo him away. “It’s journalism,” Zuñiga replies. But he turns, rejoins the crowd and ends his broadcast a few minutes later.

Hundreds of people watched it happen live on Zuñiga’s Instagram account, @realityculiao. At the time of his broadcast on November 14, he had nearly 300,000 followers.

[As of November 30, Zuñiga had temporarily shut down the account. He is also active on the backup account, @reality_culiao and his personal Instagram, @bastiantino]

His account wasn’t originally dedicated to the protests. Before the protests began, Zuñiga posted videos and memes from Chilean reality shows.

It all changed on October 18, when students flooded metro stations without paying in order to protest a hike in subway fares. This “mass evasion” quickly grew into larger protests over stagnant wages, low pensions, poor health and education systems and more.

In the weeks leading up to the mass evasion, high school students organized and spread announcements through Instagram. They sent Zuñiga flyers promoting the mass evasion, and he shared them.

“This all started through social media,” Zuñiga said.

For the first time in Latin America, Instagram is the primary method of organization.

For more than a month, protesters have effectively shut down the country, and Instagram has been the go-to method for sharing protest plans, news and demands.

In the Arab Spring,. In Hong Kong, a web forum called.

In Latin America, one of the first social media controversies was the campaign against the “Javier Duarte Law” in 2011 in Veracruz, Mexico, according to Martin Mulligan, a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Missouri who has studied the role of social media in protest in Latin America.

Former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte proposed the law after two Twitter users were arrested in his state for tweeting about acts of violence that turned out to be false. The law threatened to criminalize the posting of political criticism online with up to four years in prison but was for violating freedom of expression.

#NiUnaMenos, a campaign against gender-based violence and inequality in Argentina in 2015, was the first time a hashtag was used to organize massive protests in Latin America, according to Mulligan.

in the Americas, and youth use Instagram . This means the organization of a social movement through Instagram is unique to Chile.

When an account posts a photo or video — for example, plans for the mass evasion — the post spreads as followers share the post to their Instagram Stories, publicizing it to their own followers and making the impact of any given post immeasurable.

This gives the protesters an element of surprise; no one seemed to have predicted how massive the metro protests on October 18 would be.

Social media allows social movements to proliferate without clear leaders, Mulligan said. He gave the example of the protests in Nicaragua in 2018, in which the installation of WiFi in public parks gave young people the ability to organize themselves in a new way.

“They were invisible to the government and official organizations,” Mulligan said. “They didn’t know and weren’t realizing that there were people connecting through their interests, through diverse virtual communities and initiatives.”

This effect is what Mulligan refers to as a “plurality of voices,” in which various groups, like feminists, LGBTQ activists and the church, have a part in the larger movement.

This decentralized method of organization contradicts the way Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has characterized the movement.

“We are at war against a powerful enemy, relentless, which doesn’t respect anyone or anything and which is ready to use violence and crime to no limit,” Piñera said on October 21.

“TV lies.”

In addition to mobilizing protests, Instagram is one of the main sources of news for protesters.

“I don’t trust the biggest news outlets,” 20-year-old protester Francisca Avilés said, citing ownership of the media by people connected to the political right. “I don’t trust them because they don’t show the reality. And everyone complains about the same thing, that the TV doesn’t show reality.

“Obviously there have been many injuries, but if one day a policeman is hurt, he’s going to lead the news, and they won’t focus on the hurt civilians anymore,” she said.

Bastian Zuñiga with a sign that says “sold-out journalists show us as bandits.” Photo by @to.wass on Instagram.

“TV lies” has been a common slogan online, and many protesters accuse Chilean news channels of staging scenes and focusing on looting and violence over peaceful protests.

On Instagram, the phenomenon of “counterinformation” has exploded. Accounts dedicate themselves to uploading what the news doesn’t show, like videos of violence against protesters by the police and military.

Rodrigo Moya, 29, runs the account @emchileoficial. In addition to sharing protest information, he reposts videos and news sent to him by some of his 33,000 followers.

“I always try to certify what they’re sending me, what they’re telling me,” he said. “It could be that I upload a good news story, but in reality I’m not sure about it, but maybe it’s a great story. I upload it, and later I ask my followers to tell me if it’s real or not.”

Although Moya created his account with the purpose of participating in the protests, others, like Zuñiga, have changed their existing accounts to advance the cause.

Luisa Manríquez, 29, is a tattoo artist based in Santiago. When the protests started, she felt that she needed to use her platform, @laluchaeterna, to educate and mobilize her nearly 20,000 followers.

“Now I have this new job, which is to filter the news and see if it’s relevant and see if it’s real,” Manríquez said.

Luisa Manríquez holding a sign that says “The fight will make us free.” Photo courtesy of Luisa Manríquez.

Pages like @fastcheckcl have appeared to try and resolve the issue of fake news on the platform.

“Independent group of journalists and collaborators checking news #real or #fake to have a Chile without #fakenews,” says the page’s bio.

WhatsApp is also important for communication between people and for the rapid distribution of media, but protesters say it’s not as important as Instagram within the movement.

A way to connect with the world

Even though Soledad Perez Rubio, 21, can’t protest alongside her friends and family in Chile, she can connect with the movement through Instagram.

Perez’s family fled Chile in the aftermath of the military coup of 1973 and settled in Australia, where she was born. Now she’s studying in Barcelona and has participated in marches in support of those in Chile.

Like their friends and family back home, Chilean expats use Instagram to help form a community. Perez saw a flyer for a march in support of Chile on the Instagram of another Chilean in Barcelona and decided to go.

She also uses the app to circumvent traditional news. The majority of the news she sees comes from Instagram accounts that used to share memes but now focus on protests, she said.

Viral videos have increased international awareness of the situation in Chile, including that of opera singer

Chilean influence made its way to New York, where opponents of increased police presence and brutality in the subway used Even Negro Matapacos (“black cop killer”), an iconic black dog who participated in protests in the 2010s and has resurfaced as an icon of the current movement,

Francisca Avilés (right) and her girlfriend with a sign that says “Do it for Matapacos.” Photo courtesy of Fransica Avilés.

For those who don’t live in Chile or can’t protest, Instagram provides a window into the reality of what’s happening on the ground.

The confusion and urgency visible in Zuñiga’s Instagram Live in the plaza of Viña del Mar encapsulates a moment in history for a country in flux. Instagram records it, saves it, and broadcasts Chile’s historic protests to organizers and witnesses around the world.

Edited by Sam Nelson.



Freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Contact me at madisonmcvan@gmail.com.

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