Tsunamis, pranks and uprisings

Sedition is an interesting concept, occupying in most legal systems where it exists a place somewhere beneath open treason and armed rebellion. It means an attempt at overthrowing the government, and in the US it’s punishable with up to 20 years in prison. The word sounds a little bit archaic in English, which is unsurprising since the legislation around it stems from the Civil War Era.

The seriousness of the offense contrasts starkly with the carefree, easy-going attitude of most of the participants on the last Capitol attack, who kept posting barefaced selfies during the whole event, made no attempt at disguising their identity, and, save a minority, seemed to not fully grasp the consequences of their actions. The whole thing seemed to have a performative, oniric quality: protestors were mostly content walking around the complex with confused looks, taking small souvenirs such as pieces of furniture or, infamously, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s shoes. There were no public demands, no symbolic gestures or speeches. After making it to the last level’s boss’ dungeon, the boss was nowhere to be found. No victory screen or end-game credits either.

This attitude is of course symptomatic of the pathologies engendered by abusive consumption of super-stimulant simulacra of reality. Videogames, TV and porn: Ersatz-achievement, Ersatz-drama and Ersatz-satisfaction. Aberrant decision-making molded by virtuality and mass psychology, coming to terms with the rock-solid, real, material power of the State.

After these last days’ digital crackdown on dissenters and deplorables of all kinds, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of technologically-enhanced, decentralized insurgency, thanks to the advances in secure communications and growing security and privacy culture. The State too is coming to terms with virtuality and the elusive power of an anonymous, rhizomatic revolution. We already published some thoughts about crypto-insurrection here at The Outpost, about a week ago.

There was a very interesting precedent of this kind of uprising not too long ago: in Spain, of all places. An illegal referendum for the secession of Catalonia was celebrated on October 1st 2017. Spanish anti-riot police were rushed into the scene to confiscate the illegal ballots, with chaos, disorder and forceful dissolution of protests ensuing.

The referendum had been instigated by prolific tweeter, magic aficionado and regional President Carles Puigdemont, who had promised to lead Catalonia to Independence through it. Catalan society was divided exactly in half in Spanish loyalists and Separatists, but only the latter turned out to vote and face the police. The confrontation confirmed their bias against Spain’s alleged authoritarianism: Puigdemont called for civil disobedience, strikes across the country and the blocking of all land communications between Catalonia and the rest of the country, which lasted weeks. Loyalists were hostage to the regional administration, overwhelmingly pro-independence.

Success seemed so close. In a live broadcast statement, Puigdemont proclaimed the founding of an independent Catalan Republic on the night of October 27th. A few seconds later, however, he backtracked and declared it to be only symbolic. “Out of a sense of responsibility”, he said. There was simply no legal or material structure to build the new country on, and no foreign support. Believers were devasted; loyalists found it hilarious.

The comical reactions of this anticlimactic moment were recorded for posterity. Puigdemont proceeded to run away to Waterloo, Belgium, hiding from Spanish police. Some members of his cabinet also fled to places like Switzerland or Scotland; others stayed and were immediately apprehended by police for misappropriation of public funds and sedition against the Kingdom of Spain. Nobody acknowledged Catalonia’s independence, contrary to expectations.

The following months were of disillusionment. The plot had been beheaded, and most of those responsible for it were scrambling to avoid jail. Those who could tried to leave the sinking ship. Only the least capable politicians stayed: those whose entire career had been staked on the Cause. Puigdemont, aiming to regain some degree of prestige, talked about establishing a “Digital Republic”, ruled from Waterloo. Living on illegally deviated government funds and donations by activists, he went back to tweeting and conspiring. Rallies for independence became every day sadder and more histrionic, a hobby for fanatic boomers and disaffected weirdos.

The Catalan Republic had been conceived as a Progressive, Inclusive, Cosmopolitan Paradise against Fascist Spain. Carving a new State out of a millennia-old European nation is hard, though. Impossible, maybe, if you lack natural resources, an appetite for armed struggle, and/or powerful friends abroad. Separatist leaders knew this. Yearly rallies ending in family barbecues, are not the substrate from which States are built. It’s impossible to simply meme the Republic into existence.

The strategy had been to provoke hard repression. Separatist leaders had hoped to goad the Spanish government into sending the military to try and stop the coup. A couple corpses littering the streets would have been ideal, granting legitimacy to the struggle and maybe forcing the EU to intervene. The Spanish called the bluff, however, when anti-riot police failed to kill anybody on October 2017. Independence was in dire need of martyrs, and none could be found.

On September 2nd, 2019, seemingly out of nowhere, an anonymous platform with the name Tsunami Democràtic (“Democratic Tsunami” in Catalan) suddenly exploded in Separatist social media. The organization released a manifesto appealing to civil disobedience and non-violent struggle as a reaction against the imprisonment of Separatist leaders. Actions immediately started, consisting mostly on occupying government and financial buildings, hindering communications and transportation services, and hanging posters and signs. Public and private property was joyfully burnt and and destroyed.

The most interesting feature of Tsunami Democràtic, however, was its release of an Android app to coordinate protests. To activate it, users had to use a QR code provided directly by another member, screen to screen. This way, they avoided infiltration by security forces, which had cracked down on allied, grassroots organizations such as Antifa or local CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Republic). Each member could only invite a limited number of people, making it almost mole-proof.

The app tracked members’ GPS location and had access to their camera and microphone. It was not open source, making impossible to know if the data it collected stayed inside the mobile device, or if it was sent to an external server somewhere else. By sending users personalized prompts about protests in the vicinity, they could join actions in real time. Its spontaneity made it almost impossible for police to react against roadblocks, occupations and riots: actions started and ended everywhere, all the time.

The app was developed on Flutter, a Google UI framework, and built on the software Retroshare, which uses peer-to-peer mesh connections. Its architecture seemed designed specifically to protect its creators’ identity. Nobody knew who planned the events: as an organization, Tsunami remained anonymous. Users were asked to show up at a certain time and place, and there they went, blindly. Members confirmed their arrival to a protest on the app, and checked out after leaving. Options were installed to inform about police presence. When activated, the app transformed the user into a single node within a network of personal contacts that stretched all the way to the anonymous planners of the action.

A fully-fleshed human botnet, according to University of Barcelona professor Enric Luján. For a movement that took pride in defending democracy, the dark core that decided which actions to perform remained inaccessible and unknown to the majority of supporters. The organization’s protocols were extremely vertical, opaque and detached from the local reality. A deterritorialized leadership could issue orders from anywhere; even from outside the country.

The app was so successful that the only thing the Spanish government could do was to shut down the URLs were the app could be downloaded, and ask GitHub to remove it from its software repository. This forced Spain to join the likes of China and Russia, whose governments are among the few to have made this type of request for similar reasons. An indisputable propaganda victory.

The end of Tsunami Democràtic, however, was as anti-climactic as Catalonia’s Declaration of Independence. On December 18th, 2019, a momentous action was announced: “something” was about to happen at Football Club Barcelona’s stadium, and it involved drones. Another Declaration of Independence, this time for real? A call to arms? A bomb? Not at all. Some balloons were released, a few flags and signs here and there. No master plan. No 4D chess. Just a regular, conventional protest at the stadium.

The unimpressive show felt like pouring cold water on the fiery spirit of the separatists. Protests attended, personal risks taken and trash containers burnt for nothing. By January 2020, new actions were announced through Twitter, but were received with extreme disdain by former supporters, and so far have not materialized. Tsunami’s Telegram channel went down from its 400,000 subscribers then, to about 1700 last December.

Spanish agents eventually traced the app’s VPS to somewhere in Bucarest, Romania. An odd place, 3000 km away from the action. No suspects belonging to the technical elite behind Tsunami could be found. Were they from Puigdemont’s milieu? Did the “fool of Waterloo” have some powerful, secret connections after all? The strategy was obviously the work of professionals, and was packed full of doctrine for hi-tech 4th Generation Warfare. It would be fantastic if this had been a massive exercise in real conditions: an immense practical joke, played on millions of hopeful dupes. It is worth to remember in these times, however, that both sides have to laugh for the prank to be funny, and that dying for somebody else’s agenda is very rarely a funny thing.

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