From Hong Kong To Venezuela: How Messaging Apps Are Powering People-Driven Movements

Posted on September 7, 2015 in Society

By P.V. Durga:

From Robespierre’s speech in 1794 that demanded the execution of the king during the French Revolution to Ambedkar’s struggle against India’s deep rooted caste system, revolutions, whether they were for the better or for worse were always characterized by a personal touch. Ones who led them used their oratorical skills coupled with inexorable passion and managed to draw crowds into their fold. Apart from their promising ideas, it was the personalities of these leaders that swayed the masses. But today, the face of protests has undergone a complete transformation. You don’t need blaring sound systems and elaborate podiums to express your dissent to the government or mobilize crowds anymore. An app on your phone should do the trick.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Communication tools such as WhatsApp, Firechat, and Zello have altered the very dynamics of revolutions, including the radicalization of crowds and the manner in which protests are organized. In Ukraine and Venezuela, group chat apps such as Zello have been instrumental in the citizens’ uprising against the government. Zello essentially works like a walkie-talkie that allows its users to broadcast their voice messages to groups with the help of their phone’s data connection. During the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Firechat was used extensively. It is an app that enabled protestors to stay in touch and, organized in the event of authorities shutting down cellphone services. Back home in India, the increase in use of communication technology in protests is being perceived as a “technological revolution”.

The popularity of communication apps in protests today is indicative of the increase in awareness about issues among citizens. Inefficiencies of the authorities and injustices come into the limelight within seconds, and people have been able to come together and stand up for a cause at a short notice. The use of communication technology in protests and revolutions has shown a trend of changing the means to reach the same end, with personality driven revolutions taking a backseat, and an increasing focus on the issue at hand.

However, given the impersonal nature in which protests are organized and carried out these days, mob mentality poses a serious threat. Mischief makers seem to be taking full advantage of this feature as proven by the numerous riots that were fueled by the misuse of communication media. On 4th January, 2015, there were rumors of a clash between two groups in Mumbai that were doing the rounds because of a video of a riot, and a picture of a victim that were being circulated on WhatsApp and other instant messaging applications. It was then found that the image was that of an accident victim, and that the video was an edited version of one that was shot in Karnataka. Even in 2013, a video of two men being lynched was circulated on WhatsApp. This in turn intensified the Muzaffarnagar riots. It was found that the video in reality was two years old and was recorded in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Even recently, internet services on phones were cut off in Gujarat in order to “check rumors that could exacerbate tension”, after Hardik Patel called for a Bandh in Gujarat as part of his campaign for reservations for the Patel community.
There is no doubt that communication technology has expedited the spread of ideas and enabled citizens to engage at a deeper level with the authorities by questioning them fearlessly but there is a need to keep a watchful eye on the misuse of technology that runs parallel to such movements. Given the highly volatile nature of protests, which often lead to violent clashes, the unchecked use of technology might end up reducing them to law and order problems.