1-O: Smart phones vs state media

October 1st 2017: Catalan Referendum on independence. And the day when ICT challenged the establishment.



The regional Catalan government had announced a referendum about independence, which the Spanish government declared unconstitutional and tried to prevent by all means, including shutting down Catalan internet domains.

In spite of the resistance from the central government, the Catalan government decided to go through with the referendum, urging people to vote. To manage this, they eased the rules around voting, making it possible to vote in any public school, putting the census online and hiding ballot boxes from the central authorities.

The response from Madrid was to avoid the referendum being held, no matter the price. Police forces from all over the country had been sent to Catalonia to confiscate ballot boxes and break into schools, stopping the referendum – with violence, when needed.

Sunday October the 1st marked a day of change in Spanish and European history. The referendum in Catalonia was held, and Spanish police forces pulled in to avoid it from taking place. A remarkable day, as it was the first time in many years an autonomous region tries to claim its independence without any consent from the central state. It was also the first time in many years that a state used this amount of violence against its own people.


It was also a day where the New Media really got to play an important role in international politics.


Manufacturing consent?

People from all over the region went to the streets to show their support for the referendum – and Spanish police did what they could to beat down the demonstrations.


The tense situation had developed over weeks with Spanish interventions, and many Catalans were provoked to participate in the voting and the peaceful demonstrations. Special police forces were seen using pepperspray, rubber bullets and beating demonstrators, with a total of 893 wounded civilians.


Following the development of October 1 on different media, established and social, was an interesting affair.


Each of the big national media channels showed their version of the violence, according to their own political position and interests.

Spanish TV and newspapers echoed the position of the ruling party Partido Popular, sticking to the framing of Catalan independentists as “making a coup”, and the regional police committing “state treason” for choosing a passive position in the clashes.


The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.

– Herman & Chomsky (1988/1994, p. 1)


After the first live recordings of the police violence and Catalans casting their votes were broadcasted on international (and independentist) channels, the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría transmitted an official speech from the government. Her main message was: A referendum is not taking place. The actions of the police are proportional. It is necessary to protect the law and the Spanish democracy against this unconstitutional referendum and extremists.


This image from Publico.es sums up the front page how big Spanish newspapers framed the day versus how many international newspapers chose to tell the story:

On the Spanish side (left), the headlines defend the police violence as a justified way to prevent the illegal referendum – often reporting false numbers of injuries.  The other – in many cases more left-wing – newspapers condemn the use of state violence Against the peaceful demonstrations.


As a friend of mine said: “Do these people forget about the internet and smartphones?”


So it could seem. The politicians and state media appeared to be in denial about what was really happening in the streets (at least for the day). At the same time, the social media was buzzing, wanting to document the happenings:


Esto a ocurrido en ponts Lleida

Publicerat av Karmen Vazquez den 1 oktober 2017


…or directly calling out for international support…




…or trying to show that the people were stronger than the state…


DIRECTO | Esta es la situación ahora mismo en Sabadell

DIRECTO | Esta es la situación ahora mismo en Sabadell #CatalanReferendum(Fuente El País Cat)

Publicerat av Cabronazi den 1 oktober 2017


In a situation like this, where political interests found it best not to show the backside of an extensive decision, citizen documentation and journalism came to its right.


An attempt to prove the government’s wrongdoing. Deputy Prime Minister’s justifying speech with footage of the consequences embedded after each justification of the actions:

Soraya vs a realidade teimuda dos feitos

Soraya vs a realidade teimuda dos feitos. Magnífica montaxe de TV3 para demontar as mentiras dun goberno despótico. #OsPobosDeciden

Publicerat av BNG – Bloque Nacionalista Galego den 2 oktober 2017


Hear nothing, see nothing

Ending up a turbulent week, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont spoke in the Generalitat on Tuesday October 10. Politicians across Europe were holding their breath: Would he finally declare independence and break the structures of the international society as we now it today?


The speech was aired directly to a vast number of international stations, as well as on Facebook.

In the meantime, national public service-broadcaster TVE (Televisión Española) decided to “stop sending their special informative programme about Catalonia when it was announced that the Parlament session was one hour delayed. Instead of continuing with direct sending, TVE continued with the final of the telenovela Acacias 38, and after that they sent two episodes of Centro Médico [staged documentary sharing “strange” medical stories]”.


The same all over again?

In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite

– Herman & Chomsky (1988/1994, p. 1)


…and the dominant elite might as well be defined by political power, as by Herman & Chomsky’s economic classes.


The conflict in Spain is a peculiar case of state media trying to manufacture consent in Chomsky’s most direct meaning of the concept – and silence a problem to death. But does it work?


And does the mass media really do anything different than what happened on social media – representations which also had political incentives?


There have also been claims about fake images and independentist propaganda – and Russian and Israeli contributions in the conflict. This mistrust in social media also weakens the credibility of online information.


Can citizen journalism and documentation on social media challenge the establishment? Or will the online bubbles do the same for the consumer as those who watch the same tv-channel every day – just feed those already convinced?










Reference list

Herman, S. & Chomsky, N. (1988/1994). Manufacturing Consent – the Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage Books







  1. Marcia Munoz Caceres

    Thank you Julie for this interesting blogpost!
    You highlight important democratic and reliance issues exemplifying it using an extremely current and “hot” topic.
    You provide a clear and concisely background to the referendum and the Catalan government which is appreciated and helpful in order to understand and follow your arguments.
    The way you exemplify different media publications reporting about this event gives a very broad perspective of different sources and the way they choose to report the happenings. I specially like the mix of media presented in the blogpost, both established media, social media and multimedia.
    Thank you so much for an interesting insight!

  2. Julie

    Hi Marcia

    Thanks a lot for your positive feedback – I am happy you found my post interesting. It was difficult to boil down such a complex topic into one post and just a few examples.

    Do you have any thoughts on the role of state media versus citizen media in this context?

  3. Ali Ababneh

    Thank you Julie for a very informative article. Reading this post with all the videos and media included gives the feeling of live coverage actually. Great work.
    For your friend question “Do these people forget about the internet and smartphones?”
    I also asked that question before about other situations in other countries, and a friend of mine answered: “of course they do but they don’t care, tomorrow they will come up with a new story and many others will buy it”.

    1. Julie

      Hi Ali
      Thanks a lot for your feedback! 🙂

      And I guess your friend is right. Actually, it turns out that the CEO of ABC, the Spanish version of Fox News, once said in an interview: “The interests of the Spanish state are more important than the truth”. (I have to see if I can find the link somewhere).
      But it really puts into perspective what happens when state and media are too intertwined. It also touches upon the dilemma of where the media should position itself in such a tense and difficult situation. If all the state media would start criticizing the state in a political conflict, they would also take sides. In this case a criticism of the state would appear as the support of unconstitutional actions. And what would that do to the legitimacy (and state funding) of a channel? It is a very thin line to balance if you as a news media want to act ethically but also survive.

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