Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have filled the streets of San Juan and other cities around Puerto Rico for several consecutive nights, demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
The mass mobilizations were sparked by the revelation over the weekend that the governor had used a private chat service to coordinate political attacks with cabinet officials and top aides. The group also gleefully shared bilious, ugly opinions of Rosselló’s critics and peers, often using misogynistic and homophobic labels to deride others.
Everyone else who appeared in the leaked chat transcripts, which were published Saturday by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, has since resigned or had their contractual role in Rosselló’s government terminated.
The governor himself, however, has thus far resisted the mounting calls for his resignation. He has alternately apologized for the language he and others used in the chat, insisted that nothing about the communication was illegal, and explained that the tone and vitriol of the conversation are merely the product of a group of people working “18-hour days” to try to bring Puerto Rico back from the shattering calamity of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
But the protests have grown in size for days. Wednesday evening’s crowd in the walled city of Old San Juan was staggeringly large. One amateur, unverified estimate — crafted by a local musician with engineering training who used an open-access web tool for estimating crowd sizes based on Google Maps data — put Wednesday’s march at 382,000 people. That would mean an eye-popping 1 in 10 human beings living in Puerto Rico was in the streets calling for Rosselló to step down.
Professional crowd-size estimators in the U.K. did not immediately return ThinkProgress’s inquiry about the validity of the amateur estimate. Most major English-language news sources to cover the protest have used the phrase “tens of thousands.”
Whatever the true number, the nature of the protesters’ demands has centered almost exclusively on the insulting and offensive language in the chats. Rosselló and others refer to women in degrading, sexualized terms and direct homophobic slurs at the singer Ricky Martin and the CBS journalist David Begnaud at various points throughout the transcript.
The focus on the patriarchal disdain — as well as on some ugly jokes about dead bodies piled up in morgues after the storm — may just be the start.
One early pickup of the leaked chats alleged that the governor’s team had used it “to operate a ‘troll network’ to discredit negative press coverage.” There is no solid evidence to support that alarming portrayal of the Rosselló group-chat. But the allegation is reminiscent of sweeping, concerted, and nefarious “psy-op” manipulations of the electorate in Mexico that likely swung at least one national election there in recent years, as well as of Russia’s interference in recent American political fights using bots, cut-out accounts, and carefully targeted disinformation.
The investigative journalists who broke the Rosselló story have not depicted the group-chat as part of such a fake-news dissemination racket. But various exchanges within the leaked text do give the impression the group played fast and loose with public perception using digital tools.
The men frequently show themselves obsessed with online polls — often posted by news organizations on Facebook and Twitter — and hint at an ability to manipulate them toward the desired result.
In one instance, Rosselló flags a news station web poll that had just begun on the odds he’ll be re-elected. Edwin Miranda, CEO of the digital advertising firm KOI-IXS and the longstanding top communications contractor to Rosselló, responds by promising that his firm is “giving it to ’em by air, land, and sea” on the poll.
Miranda has claimed that people suspicious of that remark and other exchanges about web polls simply don’t understand technology, telling NotiCel that sophisticates like himself “know that polls on social media can’t be manipulated in the way people are insinuating.”
The website for Miranda’s firm was down at the time of publication, replaced with a message about unspecified maintenance. But an archived version shows that KOI-IXS, which serves a wide range of clients elsewhere in the U.S. besides his close work with Rosselló, has marketed itself in part by promoting the potential for artificial intelligence to “make advertising feel more human.” (Caches of the site suggest that it was still up on Sunday as news of the leaks spread, but had been taken down and replaced with the site-maintenance message by sometime Monday evening.)
In another notable exchange, the governor appears to expect that some significant number of people on social media can be activated to support him or attack his critics on an at-will basis. Such web-mob harassment tactics were characteristic of the troll-farm that secretly stole Mexico’s national election in 2012.
The comment comes after a colleague shares a back-and-forth on Twitter between Democratic National Committee head Tom Perez and former New York City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Perez had endorsed Rosselló’s call for statehood, and Mark-Viverito tweeted sharp criticism of Perez over that position. Her accusation that Perez was misusing the DNC platform in service of “those [Democrats] who are lining the pockets of the party” caught Rosselló’s attention. He sent Mark-Viverito’s tweet to the group chat and told his “bros” that “Our people should come out and defend Tom.”
The second half of Rosselló’s order to mobilize “our people” in support of Perez is more germane to what’s driven hundreds of thousands of residents into the streets to demand the governor’s resignation.
Rosselló didn’t just want his Twitter supporters to “defend Tom.” He also wanted them to “caerle encima a esta puta” — to ‘[jump all over//come down hard on//get on top of] this whore,’ more or less. It wasn’t enough to defend statehood on the merits or argue in support of Perez’s political decision to make statehood a DNC position. People needed to harass and attack the woman criticizing him for it.
The ugly and recurrent slurs littered through the conversation have galvanized the protesters in the week since. They’ve also cast Rosselló himself in a Trumpian light, as journalist Cristina del Mar Quiles wrote in a column highlighting the governor’s directive to sic a twitter mob on a woman opposed to his political objectives.
At present, it is that nasty, virulently derisive private speech toward women, LGBTQ community members, and others outside the boys-club ethos that’s catalyzing the mass outrage — fueled by months of privation and hardship in the wake of Maria — visible nightly in San Juan and other cities across the territory.
This article has been updated to include more information about cached versions of Miranda’s website, which was down for maintenance at the time of publication.