THE MOB that rampaged through the Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6th would acknowledge little in common with the pro-democracy activists who invaded Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) in July 2019. They were trying to overturn a free and fair democratic election—which was precisely what the Hong Kong protesters wanted to be granted. But the two sets of malcontents were similar in at least one way, which they shared with most of the protest movements that swept the world in 2019 and early 2020: they relied heavily on digital media for organisation, publicity and communication; and that reliance has made them easier to trace as the authorities seek retribution.

From demonstrations against police brutality in Nigeria to anti-mask activism in America, protests around the world have had different catalysts and ambitions, fallen on different sides of the political spectrum and occurred under wildly differing forms of government. But they have often been leaderless, horizontally structured and heavily reliant on digital media. In many places, though, they share another similarity: they are struggling to sustain momentum as coronavirus restrictions continue to constrain activism and as incumbent governments get better at countering the 21st-century digital tools used by protesters.

The internet and, in particular, social media have opened new vistas for protesters and have transformed street activism. An adage of Bruce Lee, a martial-arts star—“Be formless, shapeless, like water”—defined young Hong Kong protesters’ tactics in 2019. They eschewed the immobile sit-ins of the past for fluid, nimble-footed provocations, communicating on encrypted apps such as Telegram. They confounded authorities with their flash-mob tactics, rapidly mobilising in thousands to shut down the city airport or sing their anthem in shopping malls. Extinction Rebellion, an environmental movement, embraced similar techniques to bring British cities to a halt during their climate protests.

These movements, though typically dominated by the young, have been multi-generational, multi-class and multi-ethnic. Most lacked obvious leaders (or are, as many prefer it, “leaderful”). Rather than following a charismatic figurehead, they have united around icons as diverse and bizarre as milk tea; a rubber duck; and a “pussy” hat (a pink design, with cats’ ears, inspired by notorious recorded remarks by President Donald Trump). This has enabled them to survive despite the arrest of prominent campaigners. Wong Yik-mo, of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, currently in exile in Taiwan, says that if China arrests 1,000 “leaders”, “another 1,000 will emerge to take their place”. The Hong Kong authorities, who, also on January 6th, rounded up dozens of pro-democracy activists for their involvement in an unofficial virtual “primary election” last year, seem ready to test the hypothesis.

Digital dexterity also provided protesters with a degree of protection. Warnings can be pinged instantly to thousands. In Hong Kong, HKmap.live tracked the real-time movement of police, vehicles and tear-gas through crowdsourced data (though, under pressure from the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, Apple removed the app). This matters: consequences can be dire. Protesters have been tortured in Belarus and shot in Nigeria, Chile, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere.

In 2020 the global wave of protests crashed into two big barriers. One was covid-19. Social-distancing measures helped governments squash the huge street demonstrations of 2019. Some movements persisted and some—in Belarus, for example—were launched. Activists devised novel, creative ways to continue campaigning, such as doing so on the multiplayer Nintendo game “Animal Crossing” or waging “editing wars” on Wikipedia. Yet most activists agree that online campaigns are not enough to bring change.

The second barrier is more enduring and more fundamental: the concerted resistance of many of the targets of protest—often using the activists’ own tools, and deploying them with ever-increasing sophistication. As Piyanut Kotsan, director of Amnesty International Thailand, comments: “Both sides are using social media. Facebook pages, press meetings, even Telegram, can be compromised by the government.” In Hong Kong, as in Thailand, protesters were arrested before actions started—clear evidence, says Mr Wong, that online-messaging groups were infiltrated by “spies”.

During the protests, China allegedly tried to create splits between non-violent and radical elements, pumping out huge amounts of propaganda in an attempt to tar protesters as rioters or stooges of foreign powers. In August 2019 Facebook and Twitter blocked hundreds of accounts they said were connected to China’s state-backed misinformation campaigns. In this, China is not an outlier. In an inventory it compiles annually, the Oxford Internet Institute, a department of Oxford University, found the number of countries with organised misinformation campaigns had risen to 81 in 2020, up from 28 three years ago. Social media can also be used to trace activists. In Egypt, for example, after a flurry of small anti-government protests in September the government blocked social-media platforms and arrested hundreds for their activity online.

Curbing online access is a common tactic. In Belarus mobile signal was cut off for a few days amid the widespread protests after the presidential election in August; in India, Iran and Egypt, internet access was severed during demonstrations in 2019. Like protesters, “authoritarian regimes learn from each other and duplicate each other’s tool kits,” says Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. “In last year’s inventory, we found the first evidence of training sessions…Learning how to rent tens of thousands of fake users from a troll farm, then how to use those trolls to go after a particular target.” Demonstrators have in turn found innovative ways to stay connected despite internet and app shutdowns, turning to offline applications that use Bluetooth like Bridgefy and Firechat, or even organising through Tinder, a dating app, or “Pokemon Go”, a game.

Twenty-first-century protesters may be technologically adept and globally connected, and therefore hard to repress, yet governments, too, are increasingly run by digital natives; and they have resources and manpower the embattled protesters do not. As Hong Kong has just shown, when their opponents use digital media in ways they find threatening, such as holding an election, they can simply criminalise the activity. In many places, neither side looks ready to back down. But the contestants do not seem evenly matched.

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