April 4, 2016

Digital Protest

“Digital Protest” has broadly two sides to it, the first being the use of digital technology within the context of traditional ‘Physical’ Protests and the second as virtual acts of protest in the digital space itself. Although the two often merge and overlap, it’s worthwhile distinguishing them to understand the nuances of how they are being used and what challenges activists who engage in digital protest face.

Digital Technology as an aid or tool within Physical Protest

When the use of Twitter was highlighted as a key enabler of the Arab Spring, the politically disruptive nature of digital technology seemed to enter a new era. Digital technology can empower protestors and activists significantly, not only changing the nature and organization of the physical protest itself but the impact and reach it has over society.

On the former point, digital technology has been a gift to protest organizers both in the planning phase before a protest as well as during the actual protest itself. Social media in particular allows activists to mobilize supporters and share event details with them, briefing them on the specifics so as to ensure a cohesive and effective march. In more innovative ways, the internet has also introduced the potential for “flash protests” or gatherings which can be organized spontaneously in reaction to a particular news event. During the protest itself, messaging and communication platforms can be particularly effective in managing logistics, people movement and transport. This could be seen clearly during the FeesMustFall protests in South Africa where decentralized groups of activists were able to call for supplies (such as water, food and sunblock) to sustain the long protest action they embarked on. Communication technology also allows protestors to call for legal assistance or medical aid if Security Services (or other protesters) turn the protest violent and people are injured or arrested.

Over and above logistics, Digital Technology also gives protestors the ability to shape the narrative around the protest, capture violent police or counter-protest conduct and extend the reach and impact of their protest dramatically. If one looks again at the South African student protests in 2015, the footage captured of police and private security initiating violence contradicted initial reporting by media and statements by university and police authorities that students had started the violent action themselves. Rather than students allowing themselves to be painted as randomly violent, activists were able to share their perspectives about the protests and reframe the public narrative to be more sympathetic and supportive.

The ease of sharing media also allows activists to radically extend the reach and impact of their protest, potentially allowing others to follow the protest actions anywhere on earth and organise similar protest action or support-drives locally. A strong example of this was Occupy Wall Street where through the use of social media, the original handful of protestors were able to snowball their demonstration, first attracting unconnected protestors to the original protest and then sparking off similar protests and occupations in other cities all over the world. The images and videos broadcast by protesters across the internet turned a small, spontaneously organized protest into a platform which significantly shifted the political discourse to engage with inequality and financial corruption.

Governments have already become attuned to the power of digital technology to aid protestors however and in many cases have moved to repressive policy or legislation to blunt the force of this tool. Examples include Turkey’s banning of Youtube and Twitter as a result of its Gezi Park Protests or Burundi banning social media during its spate of unrest in 2015.

Digital Technology itself also poses some grave challenges to Physical Protestors. IMSI Catcher surveillance technology such as Grabbers and Stingrays mask themselves as cell-phone towers, causing protestors’ cell-phones to connect and share private information such as the Sim Card ID, meta-data about phone calls made and in some cases, the actual content of text messages sent and received. This allows security services to scan a crowd and create a database of who was present, who they contacted and potentially what they said. (For more information see the Protest Tech page).

Other technology of increasing concern is Facial Recognition Software which analyses video footage and photos of protestors to identify them and record evidence of their participation. All this information can be used to target and intimidate protestors, potentially landing them on “watch lists” or on the receiving end of harassment from security services. Although early in its deployment, this surveillance technology may have a profound chilling effect on the right to protest and should be closely watched.

Protest in the Digital Space itself

Virtual Protest in the Digital Space is considerably varied and can be conducted by virtual-only protest movement or integrated into movements who engage in physical protest as well.

Some digital protest is specifically aimed at spreading information which may be difficult for activists to spread through traditional media and mobilizing people on mass from there to take action. Some of the actions activists mobilize for resemble traditional activities such as signing petitions, boycotting products/companies or urging people to write to a political representative to take action. Once again, the fact that Digital Technology allows protestors to reach a large (potentially global) audience easily has also had a significant effect on the way movements work, allowing activists to mobilize supporters and allies in disparate locations concurrently. Over and above the fact that the problems activists face may be multi-national in nature (such as human rights violation committed by a corporation in different states), when combined with new digital tools such as crowd-funding, movements can build more dynamic and extensive bases of supporters from which they can sustain and drive their protest activities.

Protest in the digital space can also have a more confrontational aspect, such as hijacking a twitter hashtag, creating parody accounts, Google Bombing (“google Santorum”), digitally occupying a targeted group’s forums, or spamming a site’s message board. As countries are increasingly creating legal frameworks to regulate the online space, some of the above mentioned practices may become or may already be unlawful and lead to activists finding themselves liable for civil damages or criminal prosecution should they use these tactics. For example, some groups are lobbying for hashtags to be protected under trademark law, which would effectively make Hashtag Hijacking unlawful.

While these practices would generally for now still be considered legal, there are some unlawful digital protest practices such as swatting, hacking, doxing and DDOSing which are often highly problematic and stray outside of the area of acceptable legal digital protest.

The debate around use of the latter group of protest practices became especially scrutinized during the GamerGate incident in the US, where many feminist activists were doxed, swatted and harassed by Men’s Rights Activists.

Excluding the more problematic forms of digital protest, activists would do well to incorporate these digital protest methods into their strategies considering how much of society’s attention is focused on digital spaces and how much support can be rallied for a movement.

Text provided by Michael Laws (michaell@lrc.org.za)