When thousands of pro-democracy student activists took to the streets of Hong Kong (HK) in September 2014 to protest against a proposed electoral rule change by Beijing, social media became the vehicle of choice for communication and solidarity (Smith IV 2014).
Unlike the Ferguson riots, Arab Spring uprising and Ukraine revolution whereby social media ignited and fuelled the protests, social media played a documenting function in HK’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’, bringing global attention to the movement and the harsh crackdown on protestors by the HK police (Hilburn 2014). Internet users around the world used social media to show sympathy with HK protestors while rallies of support were held in the US, Australia, Taiwan and Europe (Iyengar 2014).
Despite creating a sense of global solidarity, HK executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee argued the protestors extensive use of social media resulted in the movement being compromised by outside forces, leading to an increasing threat of “foreign interference” in HK’s politics (Ong 2014). The Chinese government was quick to understand the threat of social media, blocking Instagram on the mainland and removing posts from the Twitter-like service Weibo that showed support for the protest (Fandino 2014). In addition to online censorship, sophisticated malware targeting HK protestors’ iOS devices was speculated to be a state-supported attack against the pro-democracy demonstrators (Fandino 2014).
In this way, the HK protests not only highlight the evolving efficiency of China’s notorious firewall, but also reveal the potential impact of foreign observers on “local” protests. In the social-media age, the world is watching every moment. This, not the street protests themselves, will be the real challenge for China in years to come.
The following SoundCloud podcast I recorded further investigates this topic:
Fandino, D 2014, ‘Hong Kong and China: Two Systems of Social Media, One Country’, Digital America, vol.7, no.5, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.digitalamerica.org/hong-kong-and-china-two-systems-of-social-media-one-country-daniel-fandino/>.
Hilburn, M 2014, ‘Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests’, Voice of America, 1 October, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.voanews.com/content/social-media-documenting-not-driving-hong-kong-protests/2468696.html>.
Iyengar, R 2014, ‘Global Support Pours in for Hong Kong Democracy Protests’, Time, 29 September, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://time.com/3444225/hong-kong-democracy-protests-global-support/>.
Ong, L 2014, ‘Hong Kong Lawmaker: Occupy Central Protesters’ Use of Twitter, Google Maps Evidence of ‘Foreign Interference”, Epoch Times, 1 November, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1056411-hong-kong-lawmaker-occupy-central-protesters-use-of-twitter-google-maps-evidence-of-foreign-interference/>.
Smith IV, J 2014, ‘FireChat: The App That Fueled Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution’, Observer, 10 October, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://observer.com/2014/10/firechat-the-app-that-fueled-hong-kongs-umbrella-revolution/>.