Two months ago a bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong’s criminal suspects to China led to a revolt that is still going on. The 5th of August, some 64 days after the main protests started, saw Hong Kong’s first general strike in over 50 years. There have been brutal government attempts to stop the revolt with continual clashes between protesters and police. Most alarmingly was the deployment of pro-Beijing triad gang members attacking protesters travelling home at Yuen Long station on the 21st of July. With no end in sight, the military is on standby. On the 1st of August, the Peoples Liberation Army provided the internet equivalent of an aggressive military parade through publishing a video of the Hong Kong PLA practicing anti-riot measures.
Tufekci’s text Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest provide the conceptual lens through which to interrogate the efforts of Hong Kong citizens. She argues that the emergence of social media networks, in particular Facebook, opened ‘masses (to) the networked public sphere that had previously been available only to a marginal, self selected group of people who were already politically active’. In the case of Hong Kong, networked social media allowed vast swathes of internet users to signal their aversion towards the extradition bill leading to an initial march of 240,000 people on the 9th of June. A common facet of these rapid movements is they are fragile and lack leadership and thus fail to convert public energy into tangible goals and political change. Tufekci argues that the ‘strength of social movements lie in their capacities to set the narrative to affect electoral or institutional changes and to disrupt the status quo’.
This essay will analyse the impact of social media networks on the Hong Kong revolt through both it’s narrative and disruptive capacity. Hong Kong is the ideological checkpoint Charlie between authoritarian and liberal values. While, the former has more powerful tools of disruptive weapons the latter narrative commands solidarity for protestors throughout the world, with liberal media groups buoying the efforts of Hong Kong citizens and scrutinizing the actions of the Chinese. The battle is facilitated by and through information technologies, the harnessing of which is directly correlated towards the movements narrative and disruptive capacities.
Tufekci argues that a successful anti-authority protest movement can be determined through the impact of its narrative capacity claiming that ‘if there is a broad claim to be made about digital technologies and social movements it is that these tools often greatly enhance narrative capacity’. The Hong Kong protests provide examples of how social media is used to set the protest narrative and consolidate support and solidarity through Western social media networks. In turn, pro-Beijing movements provide counter-narrative strategies to impact both the domestic and international view of events in Hong Kong.
The Financial Times mentions how the Civil Human Rights Front uses Facebook posts and mainstream media to advertise weekend rallies. The group, followed by 96,682 Facebook users, actively posts statements, rebuttals and reports from which Hong Kong citizens can understand how to fight and articulate why they are doing so. For instance, a post on August 3rd allowed the Civil Human Rights Front to respond to Police claims that that general strike on the 5th was irresponsible, revoking these claims because ‘the basic law gives Hong Kong freedom of assembly to strike’. In doing so the Civil Human Rights Front empowers people willing to strike whilst providing mainstream media in Hong Kong and the rest of the world with the ability to follow the hourly narrative of protest.
Amongst protestors, the LIHKG, Hong Kong’s answer for Reddit, is used for people to share information. The FT writes that the ‘ability to upvote popular topics means more widely accepted ideas about the next steps to take in the Hong Kong protests often trend at the top of the forum’, suggesting that the narrative capacity has taken on a co-operative function. One member described how the forum empowered those whose contributions in the physical world may be ignored because of ‘their social status or background’. The ability to participate in the narrative of protest strengthens the domestic narrative as the internet allows marginalized individuals to become stakeholders in the organization and enactment of revolt.
Networks allow the world to watch and respond to the protests in real time. The BBC reported how images and hashtags were used to demonstrate global solidarity. Social media users in and outside of Hong Kong posted pictures of blooded bauhinia flowers. This punchy symbol of support was flanked by the two hashtags #fightforHongKong and #HongKongProtest. Twitter has also been used by politicians like Jeremy Hunt to express ‘UNWAVERING’ support with Hong Kong protests. Therefore, networked sympathizers can demonstrate soft support for Hong Kong through social media statements, hashtags and images.
The global support for protest arms Hong Kong citizens with the monitoring and scrutiny of the mainstream liberal media. Protestors are allowed to fight with the confidence that their mistreatment will be covered critically throughout the world. social media footage of Triad gangs beating up protestors broadcast throughout the world provoked outraged headlines such as Vice’s ‘Hong Kong’s Mafia-Like “Triads” Are Terrifying Pro-Democracy Protestors’. While demonstrators don’t have the mainstream capacity to hold the Hong Kong government to account the world is watching and will cover social media accounts and videos of protest and brutality. Rather than intimidate the narrative of protest, images of Triad gangs may well serve as evidence to inflame and invigorate a global echo chamber in support of Hong Kong citizens.
The Chinese government has explicitly used intimidation to confront the global media narrative. Firstly, The Hong Kong People’s Liberation Army video that showed training for anti-riot protestors, including the scene ‘snipers are in position’, uploaded with English subtitles. This propaganda video was itself a narrative weapon used to provide a counter weight towards the internet’s view of events providing English translation to lure and intimidate a larger internet and mainstream media audience. Beyond this, social media censorship is also being used to scupper social media narratives. Pak Yiu, an Associated Foreign Press journalist, reported that protest images were being ‘actively censored’ on China’s Facebook equivalent WeChat. The Chinese state has thus used an aggressive social media strategy both internationally and domestically to block the narrative of protest entering China while attempting to bully and curtail global support.
China are well known for their surveillance capabilities. In 2014, then FBI director James Comey described the two kinds of companies in the US as being ‘those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese’. Tufekci writes how ‘no other country practices the tactical agility required for effective censorship in the digital era as well as China’. Therefore, the success of Hong Kong demonstrators is largely based on their ability to circumvent government disruption – a strategy that protestors are very conscious of.
Encrypted, anonymous communication has been the key for Hong Kong protestors. According to analytics platform AppAnnie, the ‘most downloaded app’ in July 2019 was Telegram. This app is like WhatsApp but offers more protection with encryption, a self destructive timer on messages and the ability to hide your phone number. One protester described how the ‘existence’ of protests was mainly because of Telegram. Awareness of outmanoeuvring government surveillance appears to be one of the main battles for protestors with someone describing how ‘we know that our biggest ‘enemy’ is IT security. As long as Big China doesn’t understand how it works, its safe for now’.
Chinese attempts at preventing disruption have been directly targeted at Telegram. The app was hit by a cyberattack on the 12th of June, momentarily bringing down global servers. The attacks IP address was located in China. The crowdsourced momentum of these revolts makes it hard for authorities to recognize the movement’s hierarchy. As a result, police are physically attempting to access protesters phones to identify and prosecute Telegram co-ordinators and monitor webs of subversive networks.
Social media shaming and trolling have also been used to intimidate disrupters showing solidarity with the movement. A BBC article explained how Chinese students in Australia declared support for Hong Kong protests ‘found pictures of themselves being shared on Chinese social media sites next to threatening messages’ with comments describing how they would ‘face consequences’. Another Hong Kong supporting Chinese student was doxxed, with passport, marriage certificate and student ID details posted online. A Weibo comment warned ‘don’t worry there won’t be a peaceful life for him in Brisbane’. These digital attacks demonstrate the difference between the physical and online divide. Despite being able to study in harmony, the Hong Kong protest has exposed warring echo chambers with optimistic liberalism confronting hard nosed authoritarianism.
The events in Hong Kong demonstrate an intensely strategic digital war. Without serious diplomatic and military intervention, the liberal media has provided narrative assistance towards the efforts of Hong Kong revolters. Care packages of attention have condemned state brutality while offering profile pictures and hash tags of encouragement. So long as the protesters continue to garner the reporting of the liberal media they will feel emboldened and justified in their efforts. The narrative power of this media is far more globally attractive than that of the Chinese and Hong Kong state, whose domestic and global strategy for undermining the protestors is through censorship and intimidation. While the intoxication of profile pictures and hash tags may suggest naïve Young American activism, the use of Telegram to circumvent state attempts at surveillance exemplify the sharpness of serious guerrilla fighters. The Hong Kong freedom fighters face the world’s most powerful surveillance state. In what seems like a David versus Goliath struggle, the ability to dodge Chinese cyber infiltration could well determine the movement’s longevity and success. As the violence spills onto Australian soil, it is clear we are witnessing the first major modern resistance to Chinese authoritarianism.