Online activism, defined as the use of Internet infrastructure as a means for activists to communicate electronically with one another to organize movements, has evolved since the 1980s. With movements like the Arab Spring heralded as social media revolutions due to the participants’ widespread use of social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook to mobilize support, we have, no doubt, entered a new age of activism.
Since July, thousands of young protesters have flooded the streets of Hong Kong, peacefully calling for democracy and a right to preserve the autonomy Hong Kong acquired from British rule. Primarily, protesters wished to alter rules to allow a civil nomination process for chief executive of Hong Kong. The movement signifies the largest challenge to China’s authority since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
In recent weeks, Hong Kong protesters have made use of a new app, FireChat, developed in San Francisco. Where many claimed that Twitter guided the demonstrations in the Arab Spring, in Hong Kong, protesters are making use of FireChat, a messaging app that works “off-the-grid”, without Internet connection. As long as people have the app within a 70 meter radius, they have access, through a cellphone’s radio and Bluetooth connection, to public chat rooms created by other users. The app sees spikes in downloads where online connection is threatened. According to Forbes, FireChat was downloaded over 100,000 times in Hong Kong within 24 hours. a phenomenon attributable to the rampant rumors that China was going to remove local Internet and mobile connectivity, as it did during China’s Urumqi riots in 2009.
Previously, the app saw a notable increase in downloads in Iraq in June, when Iraqis faced blocks on Internet access and social media sites due to the government’s attempts to restrict information flow between ISIS members in an effort to hinder their coordination. Similar spikes in downloads were seen in Taiwan, where student demonstrators expected an Internet shutdown, and even in Iran, according to The Guardian.
The app is useful in that it can work offline — mobile phones’ individual signals link to other phones to form a “mesh network” that allows message exchange in public chat rooms. In an interview with Newsweek, Christophe Daligualt compared the app to a large party broken up into smaller groups that one can fluidly move between. In the event of a communications blackout, the uses of the app are obvious: protesters can switch from WhatsApp and mobile texting to FireChat, even if FireChat is not a private messaging app. In Hong Kong it was useful — even though the government has so far not shutdown the Internet locally — since the high volume of people overwhelmed the mobile networks in the city, making cell connection unreliable. Protesters can use FireChat to find others, send out warnings, announce strategies, and make other important communications. FireChat is “an electronic megaphone, that’s more resilient and goes further,” said Stanislav Shalunov co-founder and CTO of OpenGarden to The Atlantic.
There is much to be praised about the so-called “mesh network.” They are ideal for protests: they are reliable simply because of the very nature of the network. Although the Internet is structured around a few main “hubs,” FireChat’s signal system is based around many small nodes, and so it’s more difficult to block en masse.
However, FireChat’s communications, like Twitter’s, are completely public. The company is apparently working on adding encryption, but in the meantime, the public messages render the user vulnerable. FireChat was not made to pass along secure and confidential messages: the model of open communication channels FireChat touts does not call for extreme security. According to University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, “the application does not encrypt any communications, or user data stored on the device.” Every message sent from the app and every chatroom joined is saved on the device, unencrypted.
Global Voices Advocacy warns protesters that locations of users are trackable and there is no way to verify users or the information they pass along. It is easy to impersonate users within the chatrooms. This could be particularly detrimental to protesters listening for tactical plans from prominent demonstration leaders. Even though FireChat does not explicitly portray itself as a secure messaging app, this hasn’t stopped thousands of activists in Iraq, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — places where saying the wrong thing can incriminate you — from treating it as such. In general, activists have to be wary of malicious cyber actors: in September, hackers circulated a fake Android application that claimed to help coordinate the pro-democracy movement. The app instead installed spyware.
New technology is often heralded as an engine for social revolutions. And it’s true, online technology did indeed alter the face of activism. The foundation for electronic activism is exemplified in the first version of PeaceNet, a newsgroup service, which existed pre-modern day Internet and allowed political activists to communicate using Bulletin Board Systems and email lists. The era of text-based bulletin board systems and mass email lists faded in the mid-1990s with the advent of the modern World Wide Web when graphical user interface (GUI) browsers were introduced.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the role of instantaneous global communication through computer networks took off. Online movements today consist of varying degrees of offline and online components. In the late 1990s people saw the oddity of a virtual environment that could offer significant levels of anonymity and allow people to impersonate social identities different from their own. This went along with the understanding that this new platform allowed free and open discourse. which is why at this time widespread use of these media forms by scores of grassroots groups and other political actors erupted globally.
Many people directly on the other side of the argument dislike the emphasis on social media as the instigator of revolutions: Many believe that there are limits to the the effectiveness of technology in activism, and staunchly hold that physical grassroots organizing is key to implementing change. I however, believe that it is narrow to decide now that social media and technology in general are not engines for social revolution. There is no question that the grassroots efforts of those on the ground during the Arab Spring, or the polite student protesters in Hong Kong have not built their protests on the foundation of the early years of civil activism. People are either quick to jump behind the “cyber utopian” worldview or latch onto a staunch belief that technology is simply a tool which will be wielded by grassroots organizers congregating physically in the streets.
However, people should be wary of new technologies all the same: Every technology has an exploitative weakness, and as cyber security increasingly becomes an issue, it’s important for activists to know how to protect themselves virtually.