This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Online activist community

Study finds Zapatista guerrillas lynchpin in global network

Published: September 12, 2002

Contributing Editor

The World Wide Web has provided an online community for a vast number of unrelated activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs), facilitating communication between them and integrating them into multinational entities that can operate on a global scale, according to a study by a UB communication researcher.

The study has identified the use of the Internet by Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas as the lynchpin in the network, which, the authors found, helped galvanize representatives of the organizations for the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle and subsequent protests against the WTO in other cities around the world.

Conducted by Alexander Halavais, assistant professor of communication in the School of Informatics, and Maria Garrido, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, the study found that the Zapatistas have had a "profound impact" on the development of the global communication network used by a vast number of activist NGOs.

"We know that the means of accumulating political power has changed," Halavais said, "and now we can see how advances in communication technology provoked this change by facilitating cheap modes of interaction between groups that in the past had been largely marginalized.

"Globalization has fostered a relative decline in the power of states," he added, "while nourishing the strength of non-state actors. It has so far increased interdependency among international NGOs and helped draw together a variety of hitherto separated groups and individual actors across the globe."

The goals of the NGOs in the study include, but are not limited to, supporting the international redistribution of capital and opposing the economic and social policies and practices of many multinational corporations, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

The study concluded that:

  • The Zapatista movement has had an important impact on the very structure and organization of the NGO region of the World Wide Web

  • Zapatista-related Web sites have helped integrate a network of hundreds of disparate NGOs into a global union and made it much easier for them to communicate with one another

  • The resulting NGO communication network permits collective response to political and economic threats posed to the groups by states and multinational corporations. It also has permitted them to develop joint political actions, such as the ongoing worldwide demonstrations against the policies and practices of the World Trade Organization and the World Monetary Fund.

  • If Zapatista sites were removed from the network they examined, the researchers say the NGO sites would be much more balkanized and could communicate among themselves only through the most circuitous of routes.

The study underwent peer review for publication in "Cyberactivism: Critical Practices and Theories of Online Activism," a book forthcoming from Routledge Press.

Halavais said that before 1994, international communication between like-minded non-state actors like NGOs was an expensive and complicated procedure. Consequently, they had no presence on the international stage and could not present their concerns and goals to a world court of public opinion.

The Zapatistas campaign calling for the redistribution of land, wealth and power in the Mexican state of Chiapas, the home of thousands of poverty-stricken indigenous Mayan Indians, began in 1994, the same year the World Wide Web was founded.

Because of the Web, the Zapatistas were able at little expense to communicate with the international public audience and develop a unique and powerful global network of political support for their work.

"Groups with similar economic, social and political points of view, many of them NGOs working for economic rights, women's rights, refugee aid and cultural development," Halavais said, "went to Web sites set up by Zapatista supporters to find out who they were and what was going on.

"The Web is a 'free' medium, so an effective communication network with a global reach developed as the NGOs linked online first to the Zapatista sites, and through them, to one another."

Halavais said because of the success of later global political operations involving many NGOs, social scientists postulated that a new worldwide NGO coalition had formed in response the success of the Zapatistas, whose own network served as a communication model. They had no concrete evidence to support this hypothesis, however.

To find if such evidence existed, Halavais and Garrido applied principals of social network analysis to more than 100,000 Web pages, 392 Web domains and several million hyperlinks. All were connected to major Internet domains that offered information about or support to the Zapatista movement.

"Exchanges over email on listservs provide more dynamic information, but the World Wide Web has several advantages," said Halavais. "Because establishing a hyperlink is a conscious social act executed by the author of a Web site, we may assume some form of cognitive, social or structural relationship exists between the sites.

Quoting Xerox PARC researchers Lada A. Adamic and Eytan Adar, he said: "You are what you link."

Halavais and Garrido began their search by going to the center of the Zapatista network, the Web site of Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (ZLN at, considered the most important public organ of the Zapatista movement.

They collected the first 250 pages of the ZLN site and used a custom Web crawler to snowball sites from those pages to Web sites to which they were was linked. The linked sites or domains belonging to activist NGOs were coded as to type.

For the purposes of the study, "activist" NGOs were defined as clearly non-commercial, non-university and non-governmental groups with a particular social mission and a significant and obvious "real life" component.

The Web crawler remained within hundreds of these specified NGO domains and crawled their first 250 pages as well to examine links from them to the domains of other organizations.

Three hundred ninety-two domains identified as those of activist NGOs domains were grouped into 13 heavily interlinked domain clusters, each cluster devoted to a specific concern, such as economic development, peace, human rights, women's rights, health and family planning, Zapatista information and Zapatista global support.

The number of hyperlinks from each domain to the others group were counted. Cluster analysis was used to "map" the hyperlink connections between domain clusters.

Each of the three principal Web domain clusters—the human rights cluster, the Zapatista global support cluster and the Zapatista information cluster—were found to have at least 50,000 hyperlinked connections among the domains within the cluster.

Some domain clusters had few links to them, but were identified by the researchers as important because they are the most likely to be "passed through" by a visitor on his or her way to sites in the central group.

Establishing the existence of a communication network among these organizations is important because it suggests a cause-effect relationship between the birth of the network and the later activities of the groups belonging to it, such as coalition-making and joint planning of political and economic actions.

"The first visible demonstration of the power the coalitions developed was the large, dramatic and broad-based anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November and December of 1999 that involved hundreds of NGOs, along with individuals, student groups and others," Halavais said.

"The NGOs were from all over the world and had different specific agendas. They shared an interest in environmental preservation, indigenous rights, allocation of resources and other concerns, however," he said, "and they had clearly coordinated the Seattle demonstrations, producing results that were spectacular, in part because they were so unexpected."

Since the Seattle demonstration, the global networks have fueled protests and public actions across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand against social, economic and political practices that the governments of many nations had taken for granted.

"The Zapatista movement not only helped NGOs from all over the world come together on the Internet," he said, "it also provided a model of how new technologies could be utilized to provoke change.