From the blog

Social Media, a vital tool in modern day protests

  • Social

17 Oct 2014

Social media has become a critical communications tool for protestors across the globe. In particular, students in Hong Kong have taken the use of social media to a new level.

One of the defining features of social media compared with other traditional, more closed methods of communication, is its egalitarian nature. People from diverse backgrounds can argue, debate, discuss and meet, regardless of their day-to-day social confines.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the role digital platforms have played in the #occupy protests of recent years.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong have leaned on these free-to-access social media services for everything from the announcement of meeting times and locations, to co-ordination of food supplies to those in the streets. But more than that, they’ve revealed a social change; an urge for large-scale protests to be managed in a non-hierarchical way. To reflect the flat nature of the social tools used to organise them in the first place.

This democratic organisation isn’t something peculiar to the #occupycentral movement. Similar protests in London and New York, and other social uprisings like the one which led to Syria’s civil war, have all used Facebook in particular to co-ordinate moments of action.

But what’s felt different about Hong Kong’s movement is the conscious use of digital platforms to manage, en masse, the full scope of the activity.

For example, the online, free-to-access Google Docs has taken the place of an event planner for the protestors. As people contribute to the spreadsheet with the requirements of each protest location, others step in to provide what’s needed. It could be water, it could be goggles to protect against tear gas. One of the most popular uses of Google Docs has been to co-ordinate the provision of food to the protestors. Time will tell if #occupycentral is successful in its aims, but it’s certainly been one of the best-fed protests.

Protestors have also managed to use new technologies to avoid disruption. A previously little known app, Firechat, was downloaded more than 100,000 times last Saturday amid rumours that the phone networks would be forcibly shut down. Firechat allows people to send messages directly from phone to phone using Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth, circumventing the mobile phone networks. Despite the rumours, the networks weren’t switched off, but the sheer number of people accessing them meant they stuttered to a halt anyway. Firechat gave people a method for distributing information despite the crippled networks. Facebook and Twitter are so pervasive these days in most activism that it seems barely worth singling them out: but their usage has evolved.

Whereas once organisers would report the details on these platforms and followers would distribute the information, pages and feeds have now become places of curation.

@oclphk, a popular Twitter account with almost 20,000 followers and a high Klout score for engagement, has become more a home of news dissemination, retweeting the observations and announcements from across the protests.

It’s less organisational than you might expect for an account so clearly at the heart of what’s going on. Whereas once social media activism was for early adopters, the use of these services is now just part of the communications vocabulary, just another tool in the messaging box.

As ever though, there’s always another side to the story.

That social media has facilitated the protests in Hong Kong there’s no doubt. But that’s not been without its issues. There have been reports that the popular messaging service Whatsapp has been rife with misinformation, spread by anti-democracy supporters.

China has responded to the social media coverage of these protests by blocking Instagram (most of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are already shut down in China), and there are reports that the state media is claiming some of the images which have leaked through depict celebration rather than frustration.

Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (which has about twice the number of users as Twitter) is also reportedly being censored, leaving Chinese users unclear about the reality of what’s happening in Hong Kong.

It’s clear that the use of social media is a vital tool in any modern protest – for both sides. While democratic electoral reform may not be achieved in Hong Kong in the near term, the world is watching this battle play out minute by minute in social media and that has certainly helped level the playing field.