Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish sociology professor and Princeton University Fellow, says people sometimes ask her bemusedly, “but there were protests before Facebook?” “Sure,” she replies, “but how did people hear about it?”
Tufekci is, in fact, a living example of how a protest, unfolding in real-time, can be reported online with a remarkable intensity. Yesterday evening she found herself in the middle of a police surge at Gezi Park. She was caught in the tear gas plumes and later tweeted about the events she witnessed, saying “my lungs & eyes are still burning.”
Photographs spread on social media of the demonstrations (and the police response) in Turkey, and have captured media attention worldwide:
But Twitter is far from the only technology in use here. Simply put, 21st Century protest finds the digital world indispensable. Take Zello for example. It’s an app which uses a smartphone’s mobile broadband connection to facilitate walki-talkie style communications between individuals. Last week it became the top app download in Turkey thanks to its popularity among protestors. As well as encryption and VPN tunnelling, Turkish protestors have also built custom Google Maps to help them track the movements of police in Istanbul.
Drones nicknamed Occucopters have in the past assisted Occupy demonstrators in keeping an eye on police movements near to a protest area. This video from Poland gives a good example of the perspective that can be gained from a drone’s live video feed in such situations:
Of course, protest doesn’t always take the form of rallies in city streets. On January 18, 2012 over 100,000 websites “blacked out” to protest against the American Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The same tactic was resurrected in Singapore last Thursday. Bloggers in the country staged a blackout after new regulations were launched which demand that certain news sites obtain licenses from an official media regulator.
But authorities and regimes also use technology to their advantage. Tweets have landed Turkish protesters in jail, while in Egypt and Syria, internet blackouts or partial shut-downs were implimented in order to frustrate communications between demonstrators. Even in Western nations, advanced methods of surveillance such as facial recognition-based identification could be used to trace attendees of a rally. Simply put, technology has changed the global visibility of protest. It’s impacted our awareness of movements both in foreign countries and at home. When demonstrators have had their internet connections cut by oppressive regimes, we have been starkly aware of how important the communications infrastructure is for the upkeep of democratic principles.
All the while, the arms race between protesters and state actors continues to unfold. An arms race in which one party constantly tries to outwit the other with gadgetry. Protest itself is something which freely flexes digital muscles. It is slippery, fast-moving, sometimes encrypted – scattering itself through dark and light corridors of the web. In a sense, protest partly lives in that (cyber)space and this constantly impacts how events in the physical world unfold. Thus, both demonstrator and regime have become augmented, and the fabric of protest itself digitised, as angry and insistent online as it ever has been in the streets.
Follow Chris Baraniuk on Twitter here @machinestarts