As governments used Covid to restrict protest, activists took the battle online – but where in the cybersphere might the fight be erupting next? We speak to the pioneers on the digital frontlines, from Nexta’s Roman Protasevich to Myanmar’s Nandar
It’s April 1 2021, and the Myanmar military has just switched off the internet.
Nandar, a 25-year-old activist whose street in Yangon is frequently patrolled by the army, is suddenly unable to run her feminist podcast, and assist in the resistance movement that has set fire to the city.
Since the military coup was introduced in February, young protesters like Nandar have been forced off-grid in the face of industrial-scale cybersecurity measures like these. Taught by a fellow human rights advocate to use encryption software like VPNs and switch SIM cards, she found new ways to circumnavigate the army, coordinate rallies and communicate. “Because of this takeover, we saw the solidarity and strength in young people,” Nandar says from the base she fled to from Yangon. “More and more people are thinking of means to connect and revolutionise the movement. There is hope in that.”
When protesters were able to physically organise in Myanmar, they formed flash-mobs, dressed as ghosts, body-builders and beauty queens to distract guards, and threw a three-finger salute in the air – a Southeast Asia-wide symbol of pro-democracy, stolen from the dystopian future of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books.
In April 2020, anonymous activist group Justice For Myanmar used leaks and open sources to expose corruption and big-business collusion across the military. By the summer, the platform was blocked and shadowbanned from above. “They also have used trolls to attack and spread misinformation about us, often with anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech,” explains Justice For Myanmar’s spokesperson Yadanar Maung, who, like Nandar, finds hope in the hyper-connectivity of generation-Z. “As a result of the shutdown, the majority of people have lost access to their only sources of information on Covid. (But) as long as the military remains in power, the people will always find new ways, and new space, to resist.”
In 2021, there are tensions like these all over the world – between the state, the internet, and the activist; the hacker, the gamer and the censor. It’s arguable, even, that a perfect storm of lockdowns, new frontiers in cyber policing, internet shutdowns, pro-democracy protests, social media and social distancing has fast-tracked real world rallies out of being. But is digital protesting better or worse for our freedoms? And is it safer?
Dissent was long headed this way argues Tony Lin, an ex-researcher at the University of Hong Kong, where he specialised in internet censorship. It faces an existential crisis in China, especially. “Even before Covid, protests in China have already largely shifted online – offline protests are extremely risky,” and not only for fear of infection, he says. Pro-democracy protests turned bloody in Hong Kong, as they continued through lockdown last year. For Lin, a new surge in internet censorship followed the pandemic, China’s biggest international PR crisis in living memory.
Part of what Lin describes as “a national effort to rewrite history,” saw the state erase a March 2020 interview with Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, in which she discussed seeing her colleagues dying of the virus in front of her. People on WeChat reacted fast, rewriting the article in emojis, Elvish, morse code, QR code, braille and ancient languages to evade censors and spread the word. In August, a WeChat article that was deleted from the internet – letters literally covered by a series of black blocks – turned into a viral protest post, cosmically titled “■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■“.
For those who’re already applauding China’s COVID-19 responses, CN is still heavily censoring info. A magazine’s feature on a whistleblower is being taken down from the entire CN internet. Ppl have to turn article into EMOJI to avoid censorship. Chinese readers can u decode it? pic.twitter.com/4p4vgXJ3I5— Tony Lin 林東尼 (@tony_zy) March 10, 2020
Internet psywars with the CCP are nothing new for activists in China, but they helped pave the way for international rebellions as protests continued pivoting digitally during lockdown. “There has always been little space for public dissent in the PRC, and the little space once allowed has been rapidly shrinking under the current leadership of the China Communist Party (CCP),” observes Josh Rudolph, an editor at the China Digital Times.
“Thank you Nintendo, for releasing this game with good timing,“ Joshua Wong said to US Gamer magazine back in April 2020, about the console’s sandbox multiplayer, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In New Horizons, players can invite up to seven people onto an island territory – and decorate it with banners, placards and pictures (the movement’s “FREE HONG KONG, REVOLUTION NOW” slogan became iconic in the game). Free from the all-seeing-eye of state censors, it was the perfect space for activists like Wong — who was a prominent figure in Hong Kong's 2014 pro-democracy ‘Umbrella’ movement – to hang out with friends he couldn’t see in real life, chill, chant, and take turns bludgeoning Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
Animal Crossing isn’t the first game to have been hijacked by digital rallies in China: in 2019, protesters dressed in politically-territorial colours took to the streets of Grand Theft Auto V with guns and petrol bombs. But it was the first time that the state took notice of a video game as a genuine political threat. The game was temporarily banned by the CCP last year and Wong, perhaps its best known player, was charged with ‘alleged subversion’ alongside 53 members of the pro-democratic camp, and jailed.
Across the Pacific, while 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests charged through the American summer, Adelle Lin’s Animal Crossing island made international news. Lin’s territory, the Isle of Buns, was built for a June 20th service to lives lost – a slow walk to a memorial plinth on the island. “We would gather near the airport until everyone arrived – I had signposts for wayfinding in case people got lost,” the New York-based AI engineer recalls of the day. “The memorial was placed at the end furthest from the airport so it wasn’t obvious where people were heading. The final section of the path is very narrow and enclosed by cliffs, so you have to enter in a single file. It is meant to embody the feeling of oppression, where you have to keep moving forward without knowing where you’re going, otherwise you get stuck.”
Through 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons became the second biggest-selling Nintendo Switch game ever, breaking sales records across the world. Meanwhile the Isle of Buns, at heart a DIY digital BLM protest, raised over $11,000 for charities through Twitch donations and fund matching. “I think there was a lot of frustration that people were experiencing at the time around our administration and the injustices that the systems had been producing, and it was a moment of catharsis for people,” Lin analyses. “People weren't able to shout with their voices, but it was great to see how creatively people were expressing themselves with those limitations.”
“I used to look down on digital activism stuff” says Hiba Ahmad of Save Nour, an activist group whose efforts to protect a cash-and-carry store in London’s Brixton Market from developers migrated online last year. “But with a good camera and nimble Twitter fingers, you can become a real pain in the arse for some really powerful folks – and mobilise many, many others to do the same.” In April last year, after signing up to a live online DJ set by the Market’s owner Taylour McWilliams, the group flooded the Zoom feed, holding protest signs and spreading messages via the event’s chat box. When McWilliam’s company Hondo Enterprises took over the Market’s lease in 2018, it evicted 30 local artists and was linked to the closure of nearby nightclub the 414.
“We have barely scratched the surface of what borderless, permissionless, immutable encrypted communications networks can do to undermine oppressive regimes” – Bronwyn Williams
Ahmad and co appropriated a disruption tactic started by right-wing trolls last year called ‘Zoombombing’, where digital event links are shared to coordinate attacks and spread reactions across socials. “We showed up early to the event as 'club goers' (and dressed accordingly). Some of us are not exactly fans of house music (sorry!), so my household decided to record a loop of us dancing,” recalls Ahmad. A few months after Save Nour’s ‘positive Zoombombing’ experiment found its way into the New York Times, the shop’s eviction notice was nixed.
What started as a small action organised on WhatsApp escalated into a viral social media story — “from a geographically-narrow one (that) local people and foodies were interested in, to something music artists and fans, anti-gentrification activists, local politicians, national politicians, meme pages, and all sorts of other folks, both in and outside the UK, got involved in,” says Ahmad. More than that, Save Nour now recognises that activism’s digital shift allows for more precise protest targeting. Those responsible for shutting venues down and affecting local livelihoods are real people with real Instagram accounts. If you’re lucky, they might even think they are real DJs.
If the lockdowns brought activist groups to strategies they might once have overlooked, they have arguably made protesting easier and more engaging for young people too. Aksi Kamisan is Indonesia’s longest-running human rights protest, which normally takes place in silence outside Central Jakarta’s Presidential Palace. “The floodgates of participation have been flung open when it comes to digital,” says Aghniadi Aghniadi, who helped to organise the first ‘silent’ online Kamisan rally via Instagram Live on March 19, 2020. “Based on the posts that we share on social media, the demographic of people who commented on all the posts, who say their opinions, is getting younger and younger… People in their twenties are more comfortable speaking on issues usually reserved for activists, NGOs or political parties. They are now more aware of how it would impact them.”
For Aghniadi, there are pluses and minuses here for democracy. Such as Myanmar, the Jakartan state ramped up censorship measures and pro-government propaganda as businesses became wholly reliant on the internet last year, and vast three-finger-salute protests lit up New Guinea. A 2020 report by Freedom on the Net gave Indonesia a censorship score of 49 out of 100, classifying the country's web freedom as only “partly free”, down from 2018 by two points. It meant that while netizens could continue to protest safe from state violence and the virus, they were likely being watched. Aghniadi and other Aksi Kamisan protesters moved conversations from WhatsApp to the better-encrypted Signal, but when it comes to protesting online, especially on platforms like YouTube, anonymity can fall away.
“Even in an absolutely autocratic regime like Belarus, they just can’t control the internet. It is probably ahead of the whole world, because we showed that“ – Roman Protasevich
Roman Protasevich thinks it’s misleading to look at post-COVID online activism as a wholly youth-led movement. Until November 2020, he worked as editor-in-chief of the independent Belarus media network Nexta, whose Telegram channel became the main source of information-sharing in the middle of the biggest anti-government protests in the country’s history. Started by Polish blogger Stsiapan Putsila in 2015, when he was just 16, Nexta works by gathering information from inside sources, tip-offs and protesters and organising it into a feed.
“At the peak of it all, we were getting around 1000 messages, photos and videos a minute” says Protasevich, who alongside Putsila was classified a ‘terrorist-extremist’ by the KGB in November, and on Sunday was arrested mid-flight, prompting an EU air sanction over Belarus. “The interesting thing that happened last year is that a lot of people in their 60s or 70s came to the messengers and social media. Everybody knew that Nexta was the only platform to get real news, to see what is really happening, especially when the internet was completely shut down,” he says of the protest movement, which started in August 2020. “Now in Belarus, it's not shocking to see a 65 year-old using Telegram with a VPN.”
For Protasevich, Nexta grabbed the coattails of a new speed, a groundswell for information that can’t be stopped. 2020 represented a paradigm shift for news culture steered from the bottom up. “It showed a new era of spreading democracy through social media,” he says. “Even in an absolutely autocratic regime like Belarus, they just can't control the internet. It is probably ahead of the whole world, because we showed that it can't be contained by authorities. If we don't (encourage people to) stand up for their rights, who will?”
“We have barely scratched the surface of what borderless, permissionless, immutable encrypted communications networks can (and will) do to undermine oppressive regimes,” says Bronwyn Williams, a trend analyst whose book The Future Starts Now is out via Bloomsbury UK. She points to cryptocurrencies to widen communication possibilities for future generations, where money and ideas can drift freely through the digital shadows. (In 2017, for example, an activist uploaded a picture of the 1989 ‘Tank Man’ military atrocity into every Bitcoin blockchain server in China). Williams thinks there’s a future in avatar activism too, where digital personas like animated ‘VTubers’ are able to spread messages and cultivate social clout on YouTube, away from any obvious physical danger.
For Nandar, though, the trajectory forward is simpler than all of this. Like Protasevich, she can see that the genie is out of the bottle, that what 2020 – maybe the most censorial year in recent memory – represents is a fundamental failure of information control. Because we have shown that we can take a hold of the truth and spread it, we can start to saw the edges off dominant narratives. “Because of this revolution, people have learnt that women are as capable as other groups of people, and that (stigmas around) LGBTQI+ people also have shifted,” she says. “This revolution has made many people see them as important members of society, and I think that meant so much. It kind of empowered us, and it will empower generations to come.”
As global lockdowns slowly evaporate into the clouds, they leave democracy forever transformed. And as activism continues its immutable shift from the physical to the virtual – online, offline and in the collective imagination – future generations will remain a step ahead. Nothing will be as it was before.