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The War Over Images in Chile

Reports by the mainstream media and uploads on social media tell vastly different stories of the ongoing protests.

Protest march in Santiago in October 2019 (photo by Felipe and Jairo Castilla, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Better and more qualified people can make a political analysis of what’s happening in the ongoing Chilean uprising, but I can say that I feel deeply represented by the protests, with the chaos and overall message it’s sending to the political class. But due to my location in Santiago and the problems with public transportation, I’ve been unable to attend most of the protests in person. I’ve instead been getting information on events through social media, mainly posts by friends and colleagues who are able to keep up the good fight in the streets. I’ve lived enough years in this country to know that television won’t accurately portray what’s been happening each night under military curfew. (It’s been fascinating to see journalists act as if this is actually a good, normal thing.) But I wasn’t prepared for social media to be the only trustworthy source for videos that carefully and responsibly document the protests, as well as abuses by authorities.


Take this video. There is an intent behind the camera, showing how policemen have been repelling protesters with tear gas. (One of those canisters blinded a woman who wasn’t even part of a protest, just on her way to her work.) The captured reality then bites back with violence and impunity. I don’t like to talk about aesthetics regarding this kind of media, but it does feel like a perfect representation of the broader situation in Chile. The ending, an almost abstract swirl of colors, says more about the violence and censorship of the past few months than any condemnation by Human Rights Watch.

Compare that burst of reality, which actually directs violence at the viewer, with what was shown on public TV during the first weeks of protests. In this segment, we can clearly see digital fire added to the image, linked to an awkward movement by a passing hooded protester. Though shot in the same style as most of the videos that have been making the rounds on social media, this one is packaged differently, sent in to a news show already manipulated or being fumbled around by the network itself, as a means to criminalize the people demanding reform.

Another network reused images from a months-old report about a prostitution ring in Santiago for a segment on looting during the protests. (Both videos have since disappeared from the network’s site.) Misinformation has been the bread and butter of many programs, and innumerable professional journalists have been complicit in more than a few ways. Social media videos take other tones and uses, like a desperate call to attention regarding police brutality. In more than a few cases, such evidence has been essential to get military and police on the stand to defend their acts. Other videos are just further proof of human rights violations, like police silencing people as they’re being detained.

Other videos take a more traditional approaches for the sake of clarity and giving a voice to those who aren’t going to be interviewed by journalists on the street. In this video, a Red Cross volunteer testifies about how police stormed their post and destroyed their medical equipment without provocation. This illegal act was not reported in mainstream news outlets.

From the beginning of the protests, smartphone videos uploaded to social media have been essential. I can’t shake the first images of dozens of high school students jumping turnstiles. The video above has stayed with me more than any other. That young woman was shot by police because she was just standing there, because she’s a woman, because she looked like the protesting students. Images like this stoked public outrage and made this protest go nationwide, and delegitimized everything the police have done since.

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