What the future holds for digitally networked movements

Lessons from the Hong Kong networked protests for the world

People attend a protest in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong. Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong kicked off a new mass rally as they defy increasingly stern warnings from China over weeks-long unrest that has plunged the city into crisis. AFP photo

Many a pixel has already been rendered pertaining to the why of the situation in Hong Kong. Let’s consider some of the ‘hows’ and extrapolate their implications on the future of similar mass-mobilisations in the context of the Internet.

A framework

In her 2017 book, Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci identifies 3 overarching themes that grease the wheels of networked movements. These can be summarised with the acronym OIL – online, informal and leaderless, with each having its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

A ‘leaderless’ movement cannot be derailed by targeting leaders but it means no one has the moral authority to negotiate on its behalf when there is a genuine attempt to engage.

An ‘informal’ movement can be more inclusive and participatory but lacks the necessary organisation to adapt quickly eventually ending up in a ‘tactical freeze’.

An ‘online’ movement is not restricted by geography, can be amplified, and scales quickly. However, depending on the tools being used, participants are susceptible to being tracked/trolled with real world consequences. They are also vulnerable to being flooded with misinformation/drowned out or cut-off by Internet blockages/shutdowns.

Evolution of OIL protests

Earlier OIL protests such as Arab Spring, Occupy Central (Hong Kong) had relied on public platforms such as Facebook, Twitter for information dissemination. WhatsApp and Firechat (which enabled offline messaging) also played a part in Occupy Central, though neither supported end-to-end encryption then. In contrast, in Hong Kong 2019, most sensitive communication reportedly happened over end-to-end encrypted tools like Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp. Special attention was paid to Operational Security or ‘Opsec’ hygiene so that different types of information couldn’t be pieced together to determine participation. The protestors did this by keeping a ‘low-online-profile’, covering faces in public spaces, using lasers, spray-painting cameras, leaving behind cell phones/using alternate sims and transacting in cash to counter surveillance.

The evolution of on-the-ground coordination with use of hand-signals for communication, supply-chains for logistics and coordinated movements to counter tactical aggression suggest improved behind the scenes organisation even before the latest round of protests. It has deliberately remained leaderless/faceless so that specific individuals cannot be targeted later as was the case in the 2014 Occupy Central movement.

This iteration seems to have shifted deeper (off public platforms) online and become more formal/coordinated.

How will the counter-mobilisation play out?

There will be downstream effects of these networked movements using encrypted platforms as it becomes harder for the state to identify specific targets. Its response, online, can be to target particular services via cyber-attacks or attempt to manually penetrate these channels to intercept or corrupt information flows. On the ground, this will translate to a harsher counter-mobilisation response. We’re seeing evidence of this in Hong Kong already. Telegram was under a sustained denial-of-service attack which originated in China. Attempts were made to force protesters to unlock their devices that were locked by biometric mechanisms like fingerprint and facial recognition. The Hong Kong police continues escalating its level of aggression as the protests continue. Such responses, though are operationally intensive and short-term measures.

To stay ahead, it is likely that the growing clamour to break/weaken encryption will rise to a din. Key disclosure laws, which require turning over encryption keys to authorities are already in effect in Russia and China. Many other countries (including the US and the UK) are calling for the ability to either ban or break encryption. Australia has set off down this path. Intermediaries can be co-opted too. There is rising consensus to force platforms to control the spread of misinformation which has led to concerns among free-speech activists. Pre-emptive censoring of content, if available, can be weaponised to curb the rapid information flows. Profiling citizens through mass surveillance to proactively identify dissidents may become the norm.

This could have far reaching consequences on networked communities. Opsec will require them to function as smaller cells instead of one big network. They will have to use increasingly technically sophisticated communication methods to evade detection. This increased entry barrier could shrink the network. While such networked movements can be considered an agglomeration of sub-networks, they can sustain themselves even with weak inter-links due to their concentration on a limited number of platforms. They will need stronger bridges between cells if they are to avoid splintering. These bridges could function online/offline or as hybrids. Their offline penetration may be able to offset shrinking networks. Radical tendencies could also emerge in smaller, more secure cells, especially, if the links between cells remain weak, or as a strategic measure aimed at more effective results.

The Indian case

India’s response to networked mobilsation has been Internet shutdowns despite ninety-seven per cent of Internet users using mobile devices for connectivity. Across 2018 and 2019 there have been nearly 200 such cases. Although, only a small portion of internet shutdowns were targeted at urban centers where the adverse effects would be more pronounced. Questions are being raised about the effectiveness of such measures and whether they curb or contribute to violence. Therefore, a reliance on Internet shutdowns is not a tenable long-term strategy. WhatsApp, the default communication tool, reportedly has close to 400 million users in the country and supports end-to-end encryption. The state is aware and already taking steps to ensure the balance of power remains in its favour. Draft Intermediary Rules put out last year called for traceability on all platforms, prohibiting information considered a risk to public health and safety and time-bound content removal.

In a case pertaining to traceability on Whatsapp, the Madras HC has asked the company to respond when it comes to technical feasibility. Last year, a tender was put out for a ‘social media analytical tool’ that would monitor individual views on official policy. In June 2019, the NCRB invited open bids for an Automated Facial Recognition System. On the flip-side, there is limited evidence to suggest that networked movements in India have the same level of digital/Opsec hygiene that we’ve seen in Hong Kong. With an uneven field, pushed into a corner, the response could be difficult to predict.

(Prateek Waghre is a student of the Technology and Policy programme at Takshashila Institution)

(The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH)

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