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Let's Talk Human Rights

Technology and the Second Wave of Social and Political Movements

By Cali Anne Cleaves

In 2014, the world witnessed the first wave of social and political movements through sit-in protests, such as the Umbrella Movement, in Hong Kong, China. The movement was protesting the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ refusal to change the election process for the government’s Legislative Council. The decision was viewed as anti-democratic and a violation of people’s right to vote and elect representatives for a responsive government. Although intended as peaceful protest, the government’s violent and brutal response involved physical force, guns, tear gas, and detention. This quieted the active protest, while simultaneously fostering the start of a refined second wave. 

At the heart of understanding this second wave of political social movement, is Zeynep Tufekci: a global social activist and academic who researches the intersection of technology and social movements. She has embedded herself with everyday citizens and grass-root social activists in Hong Kong to explore how these intersections adapt the movement and impact the force of this push to reform. Technology has given a historical number of people a social and political voice. In Hong Kong, the movement is demanding the right to elect a government that will represent their newly found voices.

Sustained Protests

Tufekci regularly reverts back to two simple words emanating from her immersion in social movements: “BE WATER.” This describes modern day activism at the intersection of technology and social rights movements. Social media is global and animates people to unify and enact change in response to everyday frustrations. Social media acts as a foundational platform for activists to universally protest various social and political crises without limits as to who and where people can show up and speak out.

Technology enables global force and malleability of protests, so movements no longer need to be in one location or have one leader for people to unify and advocate for reform of oppressive regimes. As these political and social demands are increasingly met with violence and aggression from powerful elite, technology allows movements to adapt towards more sustainable, dispersed, and fluid methods of protest. Draconian governments are ultimately frustrated by these adaptations because unified and sustained protests make government reform inevitable as the government efforts to oppose reform are gradually undermined.

Contemporary Imperfections

Technology has enabled a more globally unified front against draconian governments, and removed identifiable leaders for governments to target for retribution. However, there are clearly weaknesses in the approach. As Tufekci described it, leaderless movements commonly face a “paralysis of decision making” during post-protest phases without a “steering wheel” to guide the group toward the movement’s unified conclusion. Each movement faces moments when a decision must be made on the best approach to reform or advocate change. Examples include: do you compromise with the government and end the protests? Do you continue to push back for more because compromise isn’t enough? Without clear leadership, there is no one to make these complicated decisions at key points in the movement. This can weaken the impact and effectiveness of the movement, or if too many opposing decisions are simultaneously made, fracture the movement altogether. 

Authoritarian Blindness

As activists take advantage of technology, so have authoritarian governments under fire. The Hong Kong government has increasingly relied on facial recognition and photography identification, as well as cell phone tracking technology, to identify people who are important within the movements, and have used social media to flood misinformation in hopes of decreasing activism and controlling the narrative. The government in Hong Kong has also previously shut down public transportation to remove the ability to travel and disperse protests. Other tactics include shutting down the internet to prohibit immediate communications amongst protestors as was done in Egypt.

However, Tufekci sees these technological strategies failing to keep people “in check” because of “authoritarian blindness.” Instead of using technology to understand what their people are voicing to enact responsive change, governments are using technology to further oppress their people. They are blind to how these various technological strategies are cultivating greater unification and adaptive activism, instead of government control. Authoritarian blindness is thus opening technological avenues of evasion for the activists (i.e. the use of non-algorithmic platforms instead of Facebook and Twitter, inclusion of masks to hide their identities, and the easy choice to ignore the flood of misinformation that is disseminated in a different language than spoken by the people). In this way, “authoritarian blindness” in their technological oppression might just lead to government demise. 

What’s Next?

In many places, the first wave of movements ended with old-style authoritarian governments being replaced with more tech-savvy authoritarian governments. Now, Tufekci explains that activists in Hong Kong view this second wave as their greatest chance to achieve their aims. She believes that this movement is not likely to stop until then.

On a larger scale, the question of “what’s next” demands exploring whether confrontational methods will become the norm. Legitimacy of social and political movement methods, Tufekci elaborated on, depends on the political climate and what methods are available. In Hong Kong, the people felt that peaceful methods were ignored and a desperation to be heard gave way to the current unified confrontation that can’t be ignored. Yet in the United States, confrontation might not be the most legitimate method with greater access to effective peaceful methods because of the existence of a more responsive government grounded in public elections; such as the people in Hong Kong desire. We appear to be undergoing a transitional period of social unrest intended to address corruption of the elite and center the voices of and gain more power for the oppressed.

Sure, there are contemporary imperfections with current second wave social movements grounded on new technology, but as long as oppressors act, the oppressed will adapt, and the contemporary imperfections will become the strengths that ideally ultimately lead to authoritarian downfall.

Stay tuned! We will be featuring more reflections, photos and videos from SPHR '19.

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