Leaderless rebellion: how social media enables global protests
“A single spark can start a prairie fire,” observed Mao Zedong in 1930, as he tried to convince his followers that revolution was possible in China. Almost a century later, Mao’s observation comes to mind as little sparks set off mass demonstrations across the world.
In Lebanon, the trigger for protests was a tax on WhatsApp messages. In Chile it was a rise in metro fares. In France, the gilets jaunes protests that began last year were set off by a rise in petrol taxes. Elsewhere, the roots of popular revolt are more clearly political. In Hong Kong, it was an attempt to allow extradition of criminal suspects to China. In Algeria, where mass protests have been going on for most of the year, it was an announcement that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing president, intended to run for a fifth term.
The mass protests that have broken out during the past year in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East share other important characteristics. They are usually leaderless rebellions, whose organisation and principles are not set out in a little red book or thrashed out in party meetings, but instead emerge on social media. These are revolts that are convened by smartphone and inspired by hashtags, rather than guided by party leaders and slogans drafted by central committees.
The rallying power of social media is a crucial enabler for leaderless movements. When the Hong Kong demonstrations broke out in June, Joshua Wong — the most high-profile democracy activist in the territory — was in jail. In Moscow, a month later, the Russian government moved swiftly to arrest Alexander Navalny, a leading opposition figure, but demonstrations continued without him. In Lebanon, France and Chile, authorities have searched in vain for ringleaders.
Across the world, demonstrators are using similar technologies to organise and spread their messages. Messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption — such as Telegram — are hard to spy on and are very popular. Facebook groups and Twitter allow amorphous protest movements to crowdsource ideas and articulate grievances.
Social media also allows a movement in one place to take inspiration from news of revolts in another. The occupation of the airport in Barcelona last week was a tactic borrowed from Hong Kong. Hong Kong demonstrators have been seen carrying the Catalan flag. The Sudanese and Algerian uprisings this year borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans — in a similar fashion to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
The often leaderless quality of the revolts also makes them hard to either suppress or negotiate with. Different mass movements claiming to represent the “will of the people” can have contradictory demands — so the gilets jaunes’ demand for lower fuel taxes contradicts the calls from another mass protest movement that has taken to the streets across the west, the climate activists of Extinction Rebellion.
Without firm leadership, there is also a risk that demonstrations will degenerate into violence between police and protesters — alienating middle ground supporters and making it easier for governments to justify a further crackdown. This was the pattern in France — and now in Hong Kong and Chile. But it is not always the case. Demonstrations in Russia and Algeria have remained largely peaceful.
The biggest risk for the leaderless revolts, however, is that they will simply fail. Of the uprisings this year, probably only the revolt in Sudan achieved a clear success — with the toppling in April of the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.
Chile: can’t pay, won’t pay
As a Chilean TV reporter attempted to interview protesters heading towards a demonstration in Santiago on Wednesday, one young girl elbowed him and shouted directly into the camera: “Turn off your televisions, the media lie! Get your information from social media!”
Social media has not only enabled Chile’s protesters to organise themselves better because there are no clear leaders of the demonstrations that spontaneously broke out in the country this week, but also because there is no single cause that unites them.
What started as a complaint about a rise in metro fares has ballooned into a multifarious protest over a host of grievances. “One protester might be banging their pots because of pensions, another because of student debt, and yet another because they just can’t take it any more,” says Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile. “We each have real complaints. If you target the message correctly, you can gather all those complaints into one cause or movement.”
Given that the demands of the protesters are diffuse and often symbolic makes it hard for the government of President Sebastián Piñera — which has offered some concessions — to provide solutions. Worse still, it is not even clear who they need to negotiate with.
Catalonia: links to regional power
The protests in Catalonia have been in part co-ordinated by an anonymous online platform known as Tsunami Democràtic, but the role of the regional government is also highly contentious.
The pro-independence Catalan administration is furious at prison sentences handed out this month to nine separatist leaders for their part in an illegal 2017 referendum and declaration of independence. As a result, Quim Torra, the head of the regional government, has urged the demonstrators to take to the streets and has himself participated in blocking a highway.
He has declared his support for Tsunami Democràtic, which has used Twitter and Telegram to instruct activists where to protest, and the so-called Committees for the Defence of the Republic, a network of radical separatist groups also involved in the demonstrations.
Politicians in Madrid speculate that Tsunami Democràtic was set up to distance Catalan separatist leaders from legal responsibility for the protests. Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s centre-right opposition, has called on prosecutors to investigate any links between Mr Torra and both groups.
Government officials also suggest that Tsunami Democràtic may have had outside help, hinting that its sophisticated app, to which the authorities have now banned access in Spain, may have been developed with the aid of Russia.
Catalan separatists dismiss such suggestions as smear tactics. “The central government has made us separatists, by insulting us, by not treating us seriously,” says Jordi, a middle-aged professional at last week’s protests who did not want to give his surname.
In recent days the violence has subsided and relatively established Catalan activist organisations — principally two NGOs called Omnium and the Catalan National Assembly — have taken the lead in organising demonstrations planned for this weekend.
Hong Kong: shapeless protest
“Be formless, shapeless, like water” has been a rallying cry of almost five months of protests that have rocked Hong Kong. The slogan, originally coined by the city’s most famous son and kung-fu movie star Bruce Lee, embodies the nimble and creative strategies of protesters who have no leader and mostly mobilise through social media.
Hong Kong’s worst political crisis in decades, triggered by the controversial extradition bill, has evolved into a youth-led movement demanding universal suffrage. Many protesters experienced their political awakening during the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2014 now known as the Umbrella Movement — which ended in failure, with several of its leaders imprisoned.
The protesters learnt their lesson. Now, demonstrations are largely leaderless and decentralised with activists using social media to co-ordinate and mobilise anonymously in the shadow of China’s rapidly-expanding surveillance state. Once an idea gains traction online, smaller groups spin off to co-ordinate specific actions.
Posters are shared in Telegram chat groups to thousands of followers, who print them out and post them around the city. Crowdfunding campaigns have raised more than $15m to pay for medical bills, legal fees and advertisements in international papers. And in a city where the iPhone is ubiquitous, Apple’s Airdrop function allows information to spread rapidly at protests, where people track police movements with regularly updated live maps. GitHub pages compile video feeds from news broadcasters for supporters watching at home.
As the movement has evolved, radical protesters also use social media to gauge public opinion, adjusting and explaining the intensity of their violence to avoid alienating moderate supporters.
Lebanon: protest over WhatsApp
The protests sweeping Lebanon were sparked by a government plan to place a tax on WhatsApp calls but quickly morphed into a revolt against the country’s leaders, blamed for bringing it to the brink of economic collapse.
In towns and villages across the country, Christians, Sunnis, Shia and Druze have come out in a leaderless uprising to demand the ousting of all leaders, with no exception. “All Means All” is one of the slogans emblazoned on placards.
Twitter hashtags such as #LebanonProtests have helped mobilise protesters, spread news and share memes, videos, opinions and above all scathing sarcasm targeting politicians seen as kleptocratic, arrogant and inept. And after more than a week on the streets, there is no sign the protests are fizzling out as the Lebanese continue to demand the resignation of the power-sharing government headed by Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni Muslim prime minister.
Many are calling for the abolition of the political system intended to ensure a share of power for each of the country’s religious communities, arguing that it has given militia leaders from the civil war which ended in 1990 and their clans feudal-like powers over the country.
An often-repeated demand is the replacement of the government with a cabinet of technocrats to steer the country towards elections on the basis of a new nonsectarian electoral law.
Mr Hariri unveiled a package of economic measures which promise some reforms and do not include any new taxes. But this has been deemed inadequate by the protesters.