This blog post is the third of a four-part series on Rising Voices’ Digital Security & Language research study that explored the intersection of digital security and linguistic rights in collaboration with 18 researchers, from 18 different language communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This post shares how women leaders, social justice activists, and Elders are custodians of language and details their experiences and perceptions of safety online in Latin America and Africa.
Illustration by Kennedy Gitau for Rising Voices
Online experiences of women leaders in Chi Xot, Guatemala
In 2021, Saqb’ix, a Kaqchikel Mayan activist from Chi Xot, Guatemala set the internet ablaze with a chair and a protest sign. On March 12, 2021, the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, was set to visit the Simajuleu de Chi Xot village to kick off the construction of a highway that would connect the neighbouring municipalities. The core purpose of this project was the extraction and exploitation of resources particularly through open-pit mining. Indigenous activists like Saqb’ix pulled together to put up signs of protest in the area. One specific protest sign caught the attention of Guatemalan social media and sparked similar action around the country. On the chair where the president would sit, activists put a sign that read Giammattei Eleq’on (Thief Giammattei).In 2021, Saqb’ix, a Kaqchikel Mayan activist from Chi Xot, Guatemala set the internet ablaze with a chair and a protest sign. On March 12, 2021, the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, was set to visit the Simajuleu de Chi Xot village to kick off the construction of a highway that would connect the neighbouring municipalities. The core purpose of this project was the extraction and exploitation of resources particularly through open-pit mining. Indigenous activists like Saqb’ix pulled together to put up signs of protest in the area. One specific protest sign caught the attention of Guatemalan social media and sparked similar action around the country. On the chair where the president would sit, activists put a sign that read Giammattei Eleq’on (Thief Giammattei).
Despite acts of solidarity and support, Saqb’ix received threatening messages online that consisted of harassment, gender-based violence, and racism. She had to leave her home for a while and seek shelter elsewhere because of the intimidation. Saqb’ix’s story and the danger she faces on digital platforms is one example of the case studies that have been brought to light by the Digital security + Language project. In early 2022, Rising Voices collaborated with 18 language activists from 18 different language communities in order to get to the heart of digital safety and security concerns that are affecting their communities.
This research gave a platform for language activists from across Latin America, Asia and Africa to share their experiences and have their concerns heard, including women leaders, social justice activists, teachers, and elders in the chosen communities. These community members are custodians of language, and their stories are critical to conversations on digital security interventions at the community, national, and global levels.
Online experiences of language activists in Latin America
Like Saqb’ix, Xaxlej Q’os is another Kaqchikel Mayan human rights defender who uses art as a medium for her social activism. She is a singer-songwriter who sings for the freedom and safety of Indigenous women so that they can have a future where their language, land, and bodies are no longer under threat of violence. In 2020, she took to Twitter to denounce the structural racism that still thrives in Guatemala. Her courage to speak out was met with harassment and intimidation in her direct messages.
Digital violence on Twitter against Indigenous language activists is widespread in Chile too. One example are the digital attacks that have been leveled against Elisa Loncon Antileo, a Mapuche woman, academic, and linguist who was elected as president of the Constitutional Convention. In 2022, the drafting of a new constitution in Chile made it possible for Mapuche people to enter into a political and legislative arena where they had always been made invisible and marginalised. Loncon made her mark by using the Convention as a platform to bring the Mapuche language and culture to the forefront of Chilean public discourse. This is ground-breaking in a society still marked by a colonial past that instituted a Spanish monolingual culture and attempted to erase the cultures and languages of Indigenous people. In response to Loncon’s impact, some Twitter users published private information about her online, including her residential address, in an attempt to endanger her safety.
In the Yucatán region of Mexico, LGBTQ+ activists are caught in the digital crossfire between online violence against marginalised linguistic communities and intolerance towards sexual and gender diversity. Researcher and language activist Lorenzo Itzá interviewed a wide range of Mayan activists within the Yucatec Mayan area of Valladolid to learn about their experience of running campaigns on social media. The research revealed a gap in digital security policies, where there are no protections specifically pertaining to LGBTQ+ communities and women, nor to the Mayan community. This makes LGBTQ+ people and women within the community twice as vulnerable to racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic attacks online, which impacts the mental health of those that have been victimised.
In the Mixe mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, Ayuujk speaking communities are bringing retired bilingual teachers into the conversation around digital security and language activism. Tajëëw Díaz Robles is an activist who interviewed three retired teachers from Ayuujk (or Mixe, in Spanish) speaking communities. Teachers are the backbone of Ayuujk literacy. Historically, they were the mediators between Indigenous communities and the Mexican state. Tajëëw explains that, at first, their role was part of the colonial project which entailed assimilating to Spanish language education. However, teachers were also an arm of resistance, creating community initiatives to ensure the survival of the Ayuujk language. While teachers have always been central in demanding the introduction of new communication technologies in the Mixe region, they themselves face digital literacy challenges and sometimes struggle to adapt to evolving technologies.
Online experiences of language activists in Africa
Illustration by Patricia Sucely Puluc Tecúm for Rising Voices
In Kenya, Gîkûyû speakers and language activists are using Twitter as a platform to engage with each other and advocate for the use of Gîkûyû in digital spaces. They are gathering around hashtags such as #Kikuyutwitter in order to create a sense of online community and share their language as a vessel of their culture. Njeri Wangarî, a Gîkûyû poet, writer, podcaster and digital activist, led a research project that investigated the social media posts of five digital Gîkûyû activists. Her research showed that the activists felt like they were shouldering a communal responsibility to showcase their culture and disrupt the online dominance of Western culture.In Kenya, Gîkûyû speakers and language activists are using Twitter as a platform to engage with each other and advocate for the use of Gîkûyû in digital spaces. They are gathering around hashtags such as #Kikuyutwitter in order to create a sense of online community and share their language as a vessel of their culture. Njeri Wangarî, a Gîkûyû poet, writer, podcaster and digital activist, led a research project that investigated the social media posts of five digital Gîkûyû activists. Her research showed that the activists felt like they were shouldering a communal responsibility to showcase their culture and disrupt the online dominance of Western culture.
However, the use of local languages in Kenya has been politicised and coded as divisive, particularly during election seasons. During Kenya’s general elections in 2017, it was noted that social media was a breeding ground to sow intolerance and incite violence amongst different linguistic communities. One of the participants in Wangarî’s research stated the following: “Somebody felt that my use of Gîkûyû to express myself is tribal and primitive and went ahead to threaten physical harm.”
In South Africa, the digital divide between well-resourced suburban areas and peri-urban township areas has meant that teachers in under-resourced schools are faced with inadequate connectivity as well as digital security challenges. IsiZulu speaker, artist and language activist, Siya Masuku, conducted research at Emseni Primary School in Soweto (South of Johannesburg). The internet only became truly accessible at the school in late 2022. Before then, the teachers had to pay for their own data in order to do their jobs. The teachers also did not have access to their own personal devices. They share six laptops and mobile phones that are the property of the South African government’s Basic Education department. Having to share these devices raises the risk of sensitive information such as passwords being compromised. Passing the devices between users also means that there’s no digital privacy for this group of teachers.
Overcoming digital security challenges: lessons from language communities around the world
Despite these overwhelming challenges, these human rights defenders and custodians of language are finding ways to overcome the barriers to digital safety and proficiency. In Guatemala, the Kaqchikel Mayan women have learned how to protect themselves through community workshops and self-care circles. As Saqb’ix puts it, “We seek to support and share based on friendship and sisterhood; we share various forms of self-care and collective care against harassment and gender violence.”
Saqb’ix and Xaxlej Q’os use digital security tools such as Signal and Tor to ensure the privacy of their messages. They also put in place precautions that protect their identity and sensitive information by deactivating their GPS, not posting updates or images in real time, and changing their public usernames or stepping back from digital activities when necessary.
In Chile, Elisa Loncon Antileo has responded to online attacks by centering the Mapudungun concept of love, “poyewyn.” Loncon has mobilised this concept by making speeches that call for tenderness and care in the face of violence. Loncon has called on Chileans to be a united front by respecting and accepting diversity. In her words, “a homogenising Chile is very damaging, because it does not accept that we can be different.”
In Kenya, Indigenous Gîkûyû speakers and language activists are using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to conceal their identities. In addition, they are speaking out on public platforms to raise awareness and create solidarity in the face of constant threat.
In the Yucatán region of Mexico, Yucatec Mayan activists are protecting themselves by covering the camera and disabling the microphones on their devices and using privacy settings to limit who has access to their content on social media. However, the research in this activist group found that very few people had received the necessary digital security training from organisations that specialise in this arena.
The findings from the Digital Security + Language project point to the power of local, participatory research methods led by researchers that are embedded in the communities being studied. Perceptions around who language activists are, and their role in shaping the landscapes of digital security and language justice are expanded. The stories of these activists reveal a shared practice and politics of care in pursuing language justice. Their approaches to carrying, defending, and strengthening the use of Indigenous languages deepen our knowledge of what activism grounded in care can look like, and prove crucial as beacons for guiding impactful, sustainable, and relevant interventions.
More about Rising Voices’ Digital Security + Language research study:
The project points to the power of participatory research in surfacing the complexity of linguistic rights-related questions in the digital safety and security field, as each researcher approached the topic from a unique starting point in relation to their own experiences and understandings.