Kecheng Fang is a 2014 AnOx alumnus and a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. In this article, he explores the technologies being used by members of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution for democracy.
The collection and communication of information is vital in social movements. As media technology advances, protesters are continuously adopting new methods for mobilization and organization. Journalists, including citizen journalists, are employing new technologies to cover different movements. Several creative applications of new media technologies have emerged in Hong Kong’s ongoing Umbrella Revolution. These technologies are not determinant factors in this democracy movement; however, they do help coordinate the movement, shape collective identity, raise international awareness, and connect the online and offline spheres.
1. Drone Footage Went Viral
Currently, the most stunning images of the movement are from footage filmed by a drone. Slowly taking off from the crowd, the drone captured pro-democracy banners on buildings and overpasses, as well as protesters waving at the camera. It then floated further up over the highway and between the skyscrapers, providing a bird’s-eye view of the massive scale of the movement. Night fell and the scene became even more amazing, with lamps lighting up the metropolitan streets flooded by tens of thousands of protesters.
The footage was recorded by Nero Chan and uploaded to his Facebook page. Chan is not a professional journalist, and some media reports even called him a “bystander.” Nonetheless, his drone footage went viral and was shared by many traditional media organizations as well as by social media users worldwide.
Drone journalism has been attracting greater attention over recent years. Professional journalists and amateurs alike have been experimenting with this new area of journalism, leading to the foundation of a Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011. The possibility of using drones for journalistic purposes during social movements, natural disasters, and other settings is exciting and more accessible than ever due to the decrease in drone prices. The drone used by Nero Chan in Hong Kong is Phantom 2 model produced by DJI, currently priced at USD $1,159, about the same as a MacBook Pro. Moving forward, however, government regulations and restrictions on drone journalism may surface.
2. The Internet-free Chat App
During social movement, due to the high density of people on the streets, mobile internet connection may be significantly slowed down, and it is highly possible that some governments will shut down or restrict internet access. In Hong Kong, these concerns fueled the usage of an “off-the-grid” messaging app called FireChat, resulting in more than 210,000 downloads within two days.
FireChat allows people to communicate with other users through Bluetooth or peer-to-peer WIFI, even if there is no cellular data or WIFI available. FireChat can also be used anonymously. Each device becomes a node in a decentralized network. More devices make the network more stable, rather than cause congestion. The only restriction is the physical distance between devices (a maximum of about 220 feet), which is generally not a problem in cases such as this movement.
(Screenshot of FireChat uploaded by a Hong Kong netizen)
FireChat has not become a crucial tool in the Umbrella Revolution, for the regular network has not been shut down. It does, however, provide a useful alternative network for future movements. At the same time, FireChat raises new questions about the spread of rumors and the issue of security in a decentralized network.
3. Connecting Supporters All over the World and Protesters on Streets
Retweeting is not the only way to participate in the movement if you are not in Hong Kong. People can send their messages to the protesters in Hong Kong via a website called Stand By You. Messages are then projected on a LED billboard on the street or a wall for protesters in Hong Kong to read.
“Lots of people were stopping to look, some stood there for half an hour to read the messages,” a local artist involved in the project said. These messages, sent from both Hong Kong and other parts of the world, aim to encourage protesters. Even in the digital media era, physical entities that can be seen and touched are still very important in offline collective actions. This project connects the online and offline sphere, creating an imagination that supporters all over the world are present, “standing by you.”
4. Fact-checking and Crowdsourcing
The spread of rumors is inevitable in social movements. Some rumors emerge by chance; some are deliberately produced by certain people and organizations. Regardless, the desire for truth and reliable sources amongst protesters, journalists, and other parties is great.
HK Verified, a project started by group of second and third year journalism students at the University of Hong Kong, is devoted to addressing this problem. They provide independent verification of information and publish the verified information in both Chinese and English on their Facebook page, which gained more than 100,000 likes in four days.
Besides fact-checking, it also provides a Google Doc to collect “reliable and verifiable” information from netizens. Using crowdsourcing for this purpose is both creative and challenging; for example, it is not an easy job for students to legitimize themselves as reliable verifiers. Another Facebook page “Occupy Central Myth Killer” is performing a similar function by publishing information about rumors that are proven false.
5. Using Big Data Collected from Social Media
Data collected from social media is increasingly used by researchers and mass media. Based on data provided by Weiboscope, a censorship-monitoring project at the University of Hong Kong, The Economist’s “Daily Chart” blog published an infographic on September 30th showing the sharp increase of internet censorship on September 28th, the most tumultuous day of the protests. Before that day, about 4 posts out of every 1,000 posts were deleted. On September 28th, that number rose to 15.
Founded in 2011, Weiboscope is not a new project. At this time, however, its data is telling an interesting story about what is happening on China’s social media websites.
Many other media organizations are also producing similar “big data” projects, such as South China Morning Post’s infographic on how Hong Kong’s #OccupyCentral became a global topic on Twitter.
In addition to these new technologies, some relatively older ones also play an important role in the Umbrella Revolution. For example, Apple Daily’s 24/7 live streaming of the movement is a great channel for real-time information. Interestingly, Chinese netizens (perhaps including 50-Cent Party members) have been posting a huge amount of polarizing comments in the video’s real-time comment section. In a sense, this makes the comment section another “virtual” battlefield.
I am not in Hong Kong, so the above information is mostly second-hand, and the examples above are certainly not exhaustive. Please leave a comment if you know of other projects or products in this movement. I will keep updating this list.