Hong Kong’s Anti-ELAB Demonstrations: Tools, Platforms, and Tactics

It has been almost three months since between 240,000 to a million Hong Kongers marched in protest against an extradition bill many feared would lead to an unacceptable weakening of Hong Kong’s legal independence from Beijing as per the “one country-two systems” principle enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. While this bill was proclaimed “dead” by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on 8 July, protests have continued in large numbers, as the city struggles to maintain public order and business as usual.

Technology is increasingly at the center of organising demonstrations the world over. In Hong Kong, encryption and privacy-friendly messaging app Telegram has emerged as the communication tool of choice, and protestors’ behaviour reflects a far more evolved sense of digital hygiene compared to the Umbrella Movement in 2014. At the same time, novel uses of technologies continue to emerge, such as the use of Apple AirDrop to spread leaflets in public areas, and the use of both dating app Tinder and augmented reality game Pokemon Go to rally and energise the movement.

We were keen to unpack these trends and patterns, as well as the broader implications and risks., We invited members from our community in Hong Kong to paint a picture of how various tools are being leveraged and repurposed, in this free-wheeling DAH Speakeasy.

Discussants:

Isaac Mao
Isaac Mao is an entrepreneur, software architect, and social media researcher. He is a co-founder of Musicoin, a blockchain- based music licensing/streaming platform.

Yuen-Ying Chan
Yuen-Ying Chan is a journalist, educator, and the founding director (1998-2016) of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong.

Oiwan Lam
Oiwan Lam is a media activist, researcher and educator currently based in Hong Kong.


Digital Asia Hub (DAH): Technologically speaking, can you describe the differences between the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the on-going anti-extradition bill (“antiELAB) protests? What is distinctive about AntiELAb?

Isaac Mao (IM): Things have evolved significantly. Not just in terms of the general technological advances, but also how people use them.

In the Umbrella Movement, people focused on one place to occupy (hence its moniker) and protest, to disseminate information, and to draw attention to the cause. This time, enabled by new tools, people are organizing in a far more distributed manner. This time, protesters organise “in flashes” i.e. rapidly moving from one spot to another, in small or large groups, then within a short period of time disperse again to a new location, which may be multiple spots or districts across the city. This decentralized fashion is proving to be more powerful and more sustainable in nature.

We also notice an improvement in digital literacy. Security, privacy, and online collaboration are now the basis on which people choose tools. This is in sharp contrast to the kind of tools and choices on offer in the mainland.

Oiwan Lam (OW): During the Umbrella Movement, mobilization was mainly through platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp. This time round, there is a far more diverse menu of tools and platforms, each used in different ways and for different purposes. Some of the important ones are:

  • LIHKG: To discuss strategy. Only users with local ISPs can login to leave comments, thus making it more difficult for users not based in Hong Kong, [and preventing them] from manipulating opinions.
  • Telegram: Several uses, including: disseminating protest information (Public Channel), running task groups/support groups (small private groups), and Supergroups where hundreds of people can subscribe and freely enter to discuss tasks specific to protests, such as “medical team” or “district based Lennon wall team”.
  • Facebook: For general information dissemination (e.g as a live-streaming platform) and for shaping public support.
  • Twitter: For international networking and public opinion, for sharing videos and live-streaming protests to monitor police violence.
  • Instagram: To spread protest infographics, protest messages, digital art etc.
  • District Lennon Wall: for reaching out to grassroot [audiences] and the elderly.
  • Mapping apps: For mapping the Lennon wall districts, [indicating] “blue” (pro-government) and “yellow” (pan-democrats) shops and businesses.
  • CCTV maps – to help people locate and be aware of CCTV cameras.
  • Apple AirDrop: For sharing photos and information with other protesters, or with bystanders in the same location.
  • Wire: As an end-to-end encrypted collaborative work tool.
  • Google Forms: For signature campaigns, for example, a signature campaign now with more than 1000 school and university alumni since the June 9 grand rally.
  • Youtube: Finally, a number of popular YouTubers are tracking and covering the protest closely.

Yuen-Ying Chan (YC):  AntiELAB may be the world’s most sophisticated, hyper-connected mass social media enabled protest in an urban setting.

HK is uniquely positioned for this perfect storm with its high textual and digital literacy, excellent IT and public transport infrastructure, high Internet and smartphone penetration, as well as high adoption rate of social media. To cite some figures, Hong Kong has over 90% 4G and household broadband penetration, with a mobile subscription rate  three times the size of the population.

AntiELAB may also be the first rebellion playing out on real-time video. In addition to TV and online media outlets, traditional print media such as the SCMP have been carrying protests and press conferences live online. Online real time access have encouraged citizens to view and participate via comments, as Isaac and Oiwan have outlined above.

Finally, in-spite of the encroachment of Chinese interests on Hong Kong’s news businesses, the territory’s tradition of freewheeling media (for example, there is no license requirement to become a reporter), press freedom, and free access to the internet, makes for a thriving social media ecosystem.

While organising is taking place online, people still need an enabling physical environment to implement plans. Social media has become a powerful organizing tool in building communities in Hong Kong because of the relative freedom in the offline world, which was not the case in the so-called “Twitter Revolution” or the “Facebook Revolution” in the Middle East. During uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, there was very little physical space available for anti-government activities. In Hong Kong, social media enables not only the demonstrations, but also the myriad Lennon Walls across the territory. This mix of attributes raises the question of whether the model could be replicated elsewhere.

DAH: Clearly Telegram stands out. Can you explain how it is being used?

IM: I didn’t expect Telegram would prove to be so useful in this movement, especially since it was not recommended at the start as the most secure tool. It’s been naturally selected by most people as the communication tool of choice, and so far has proved to be very functional and effective.

For example, as Oiwan mentioned, functions like “supergroup”(which allows up to 100k members) and “channels”(an unlimited number of subscribers) super charged organizers — all without a centralised structure. People have adapted to challenges too: after a few public group admins were arrested, people quickly learned how to hide their personal information and re-organize their information channels.

DAH: You also mentioned a forum called LIHKG. Can you describe it and its role?

IM: Like the PTT (bulletin board system) in Taiwan, LIHKG emerged as a grassroots forum in Hong Kong in 2016, and plays a very important role enabling grassroots users to share information and to debate. It can be seen as a thread-based discussion, like Reddit, so people can easily trace its branches and poll popular opinions (in contrast to other social media or chatting tools). However, It still suffers pitfalls common to other media platforms: for example, it is easy to form echo chambers.

There is one episode worth highlighting. A Chinese mainlander group called “Diba”, which has a similar social structure to LIHKG, but uses Facebook Group to organize patriotic online trolling, declared it would smash LIHKG. However, LIHKG users were able to defend themselves by doxing the personal information of some top organizers of Diba. Ironically, the doxing was made possible due to information available on public websites in China with weak data protection and privacy standards. The attack was finally aborted and LIHKG continues to function.

DAH: We’ve seen numerous instances of disinformation spreading online. How does the movement organise to guard against misinformation? 

IM:  This too is done in a distributed and non-commercial manner. In public channels, admin(s) post information in real-time, almost 24 hours a day. This includes protest site updates (photos and videos), resource needs (what is needed when and where), casualties, updates on police activities, etc. To collect and confirm information, admins communicate with other groups constantly, including on private channels, to authenticate and verify. Like a Blockchain ledger, every subscriber (which may include government authorities) can see the information, but the constant back and forth validations across the platform builds trust. This has emerged as a working model where activities are transparent and secure, all facilitated by Telegram’s built-in features.

Twitter and Facebook’s weakness in this regard stands out. There are poorly organized information structures, running on a commercially driven algorithm, lacking a bold vision to evolve. It is very easy to see how disinformation spreads wildly in the absence of more intelligent compilation, which these social media platforms can but don’t do.

YC: Fake news and misinformation seem to be more rampant on Facebook and WhatsApp. Organisers of the movement on LIHKG and Telegram know that their plans and actions rely on good information, and are therefore incentivised to be on guard to rebut fake news and misinformation.

OW: There is a Telegram channel called “Verified antiELAB” channel that mainly collects evidence and information from trusted media outlets (such as video clips), as well as a Facebook page ”Kauyim” run by anonymous ex-journalists since 2014 to rebut fake news spread by both protesters and government supporters.

A special task team has been set up to collect footage from both mainstream and citizen video-streaming footage. This team is working closely with the legal team by providing evidence to defend the arrested.

For example, on 11 August, a protester was arrested in Causeway Bay. The video team reviewed all the footage taken near the spot of arrest, and quickly found that a police officer had placed a rod into [the protestor’s] backpack during his arrest. The video went viral the next day.

However, in the past few months, the police have penetrated into a number of super big public Telegram groups to spread mis/disinformation among protesters, during protests. In spite of the measures described by Isaac and Ying, it is very difficult to counter such kind of disinformation, and police penetration into protesters’ communication network has somehow contributed to a crackdown on 11 August.

DAH: We’ve seen protestors wear masks or use umbrellas to protect their identity from police and government surveillance. How effective is this defense? 

IM: The use of masks was very controversial at the beginning, but quickly people realized, in the face of prosecution by authorities in the future, such measures are smart and justified. We know there may be some AI-powered surveillance tech (such as facial recognition) that the government may have imported from the mainland. But even without that level of tech, basic video evidence can be very unfavorable to a protester facing formal charges in court one day. Likewise, in the virtual world, civilians need to take basic steps to maintain anonymity and to ensure their own security.

OW: Protesters avoid using their Octopus card (a multi-purpose payment card) for travelling and shopping, as police can use the record on the card as evidence of presence at a protest site. Protesters are worried about facial recognition technology, which reportedly is increasingly being used on the mainland. It is possible that the Hong Kong police may also be using similar technology but this has not been verified. There are also some unverified reports that police are asking local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hand over mobile phone user information to them – it is technically possible for the police to scan the mobile phone signal in protest area, zoom in on numbers, and then track the owner via the ISP. As a defence, people are resorting to short-term prepaid cards (not tied to an ID).

The digital security problem also has offline consequences. When arrested, some protestors are forced by the police to unlock their phones, putting members of private protest groups at risk.

Doxxing is used by both camps, pro-government and protesters, as a way to hurt each other. Protesters expose police officers’ information, while the pro-government camp capture individual comments online, and pressure their employers to punish them. At least two secondary school teachers faced pressure from education authorities after they posted comments attacking the police on Facebook.

DAH: Finally, social media serves to mobilise people and to energise the message, but what about after the “revolution”? The so called “Arab Spring” is a cautionary tale. How can Hong Kong build consensus? 

YC: Already, building consensus has become more challenging as the movement grows and evolves. In the early days in June, a mantra of the protest movement was “brothers climbing the mountain in their own ways,” meaning that protesters would pursue the same goal with their own tools and methods. In later postings, protesters admit that the approach was easy when there was only one mountain, i.e. pushing the government to withdraw the extradition bill. When the demands multiplied in the later days, participants repeatedly called for everyone to refocus.  As the movement grows, coordinating actions has also become more difficult. For example, on 5 August, simultaneous actions included a general strike, blocking of subway trains, and seven rallies around the city leading to confrontation with the police. The news of the strike was completely overshadowed by the other action flash points.

Recent news reports have noted the tension within the movement, and the difficulty of forging consensus. Reuters called the movement a “rudderless revolution”  whose decentralized nature has made it  “increasingly hard for the protestors themselves to manage.” A CNN report on the violent turn of the protest at Hong Kong’s airport remarked that “a key problem in leaderless protests, (is that) when no one else in control, whoever shouts loudest tends to get their way.” It also stated that “[t]he incident showed clearly the growing rift in the mass movement between those supportive of increasingly violent and radical action, and those who wish to keep protesting peacefully”.

Meanwhile, activists have found it necessary to present some form of collective expression as members of LIHKG started to host press conferences to explain their cause, and to answer questions from reporters.

OW: The movement is still evolving, operating so far according to principles such as, “brothers climbing the mountain in their own ways”, “no argument among brothers”, “be water” etc. A cohesive strategy is yet to emerge. Following the crackdown on 11 August, it appears that communication channels have been compromised by police officers disguised as protesters trying to direct the protest, therefore the principle “no argument among brothers” no longer works.  As Ying pointed out, LIHKG-based protesters have started to hold press conferences, but consensus has yet to emerge.

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Speakeasy captures freewheeling interviews and conversations in our virtual salon. Click here for more interviews, and to browse other content.

Disclaimer: Yuen-Ying Chan is a member of the Digital Asia Hub Board, and Isaac Mao is a member of the Digital Asia Hub Steering Committee. They both serve in their personal capacity.

Dev Lewis

Dev Lewis

Fellow and Program Lead at Digital Asia Hub
Dev’s research interests include AI policy and the digital economy in the Chinese and Indian context. He is also a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. Dev has an International Relations degree from Roger Williams University and studied Mandarin in Shanghai and Zhengzhou. He frequently writes for several regional publications and think tanks, and previously spent time at Gateway House, a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai, and Infosys China, an IT services Multinational.
Dev Lewis