Sitting in his house in a northern district of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Latuff watches televised news reports on the continuing uprisings that have taken North Africa and the Arab world by storm. As he watches the grassroots revolutionaries of the Arab Spring trumpet their accusations and project their values with wild looks in their eyes, he notices a cartoon he drew in his room the previous morning. It is bobbing up and down amongst a turbulent sea of civilians over 9000 kilometres away, yet he remains unperturbed. Anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, staunchly pro-Palestine and an intrepid political cartoonist, Carlos Latuff is an ‘artivist’ born in the digital era, an employer of the web as a “theatre for virtual guerilla tactics.” He has been sharing his work via the World Wide Web since 1996, almost straight after he first encountered the internet. He was looking to send his work as a tool for protest to people involved in the Zapatista movement 15 years ago, and realised the power of the internet as a vehicle for solidarity. Since then, Latuff has gone on to be a stalwart example of what has come to be known as ‘cyber-utopia.’
During our interview he is keen to get across that what he does is definitely not for “professional purposes.” He explains that even if he wanted it to be, it couldn’t be, because no mainstream media would ever publish his highly provocative images. For money he draws pictures for leftist trade-union publications in Brazil. Latuff’s works focus heavily on the issues of dictatorship and oppression and he tells me that he sees his work as “a means of describing what Michael Moore referred to as the ‘Awful Truth.’” He is an advocate for those who want to condemn the actions of authorities but are not in a position to do so. His works are potent enough for him to have become a minor celebrity in Cairo, be blacklisted from Israel, and arrested three times in Brazil. I ask him whether he ever fears for his wellbeing, and his response is at once nonchalant and heroic: “Yeah, I mean maybe I could get shot, but really, I do not care. The important thing to remember is this: they can kill me but they cannot kill my art.” Latuff’s work is public property. I see on many platforms that he uses, notably Twitter, that he urges the viewer to download whatever they like and use it however they please [in their fight for democracy]. On one he writes “Make these cartoons to reach people with no access to internet.”
There has been an abundance of dialogue in recent months about the role that social media has played in protests the world over. Opinions have differed wildly. Following the London riots, David Cameron suggested social media bans for ‘potential rioters’ whilst revered author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell told the world that the grievances that push people to the streets are far more important than any tool used to ‘organise’ protest. Both suggestions were met with significant public alarm. The media has been rife with buzz terms such as the “Twitter Revolution” and “Digital Democracy” as people refer to demonstrations coordinated in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Moldova, Greece and beyond, and it is unarguable that both Twitter and Facebook were fundamental facilitators of the London riots. But this is precisely the point: social media is a facilitator rather than an instigator of revolution. Even internet tycoon Mark Zuckerberg agrees: “It would be extremely arrogant for any specific technology company to claim any meaningful role....The thing that was both necessary and sufficient was a population of people who felt very strongly that change needed to happen." (e-G8 Summit, Paris, May 2011)
Numerous suggestions have been put forward as to why social media cannot succeed in genuinely tackling global political issues. Amongst them is the obvious problem of omitting the less tech-savvy (including entire generations) from attempts at social change that inevitably involve them. Proven too is the notion that successful movements require charismatic leaders and genuine human interaction rather than just virtual revolutionary figures that encourage armchair activists. Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Centre for Civic Media (inventors of new technologies that support and foster civic media and political action, and fill the information needs of communities) pointed out that not even the globalising phenomenon of the internet can fully remove linguistic and cultural barriers to international communication and political action.
Carlos Latuff however, is an exception to this latter rationale, as the essence of his work is its ability to transcend language and culture, and to communicate with us all. Of course this means that he has also earned himself critics and in some cases, adversaries. He has been accused of anti-semitism, which he strongly denies, and has also caused unhappiness amongst some Egyptians who would prefer to see brave native cartoonists garnering similar support. Despite these issues, you can still see people in Tahrir Square brandishing his cartoons, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon wearing keyrings of his images, and shops in Jerusalem selling t-shirts printed with his work. He has been described as the “unlikely star of the Arab Spring”, but now that I think about it, it’s not all that unlikely.