Blazing brightly in the night, a burning arrow tears through the air and sinks into a barricade. Shields bash into bodies as civilians strike back with whatever will hurt their attackers most. The state tries to suppress the populace, but they just keep coming back angrier. Tonight is another night of revolution—that classic routine of history playing out as it usually does.
Well, except this time, the whole thing is also trending on Twitter.
In this initial shock of the information age, the ways we communicate and socially coordinate have evolved majorly, and protests are no exception. Today, memes online and on signs are used as a form of expressing political dissatisfaction. Video games are made to display the struggle of revolutionaries and promote anti-government ideology. Protestors sell themed merchandise on Etsy to fund their movements. Governments, in turn, tweet pleas for protestors to get off the streets. In instances like these, honest descriptions of current events start to sound like a satire of internet culture. While these trends seem fairly inconsequential, they signal that the storyline of revolution is changing, and perhaps drastically so.
The traditional pattern of public protests, then heated clashes, then (perhaps) civil war is oft-occurring and oft-studied. Yet, the fact that research is being unwritten signals an uncertain future, and gives rise to several shapeshifting questions. Are protests actually evolving, or just changing at the surface level? Will technology disrupt the traditional balance of power between peoples and their leaders?
In a modern, plugged-in world so different from the rest of history, what does the revolution of our time actually look like?
Starting The Movement
Revolution begins by spreading the movement’s message, first among a populace to generate interest, and then to governments to create change. The power of the internet allows for these messages to spread among said populaces like never before. Starting in Tunisia, the message of the Arab Spring was spread online, winning the attention of the world and the hearts of their international neighbors. Their campaigns were hugely successful: The Arab Spring cascaded through North Africa and the Middle East, resulting in governmental changes in four countries and government overthrows in six more.
Inspired by the moment, the 2011 Occupy movement was born, and later lead to hundreds of protests in 71 nations using the same methods. Without the connectivity of the internet, such global events could only conceivably occur (if at all) with millions of dollars worth of promotion, the support of traditional media, and a huge amount of luck. But with a globally connected device at our fingertips, a few minutes of smartphone-recorded video of police brutality, such as in the case of Oscar Grant, is enough to provoke multiple riots and an award-winning feature film about the event.
Once a group of people are all united against an issue, they make sure their governments hear them. However, with potentially millions of people needed to galvanize, and government opposition impeding protest plans in the first place, communicating the “whats, wheres, and whens” of a demonstration has historically been a very difficult task. Prior to the information era, activists had to speak to strangers and friends or put up flyers to promote a protest. Today, social media does the same work faster, with nine in ten Tunisians and Egyptians involved in the 2010 Arab Spring having said they used Facebook for protest organization or promotion. On top of being able to message and call anyone from nearly anywhere, protestors can also use encrypted or otherwise protected messaging applications like Telegram or Bridgefy to ensure Big Brother can’t watch over their planning. Bridgefy in particular has been used extensively in the 2019 Hong Kong protests and the Indian Anti-CAA Bill protests, as it transmits information over Bluetooth instead of a central (and thus government-accessible) server.
But regardless of fancy tech, many governments still censor online sites, blacklisting websites hosting dissident speech or tips for revolution. Virtual private networks (tools which allow users to bypass local blacklisting) are banned by several countries including China, Russia, and Turkey. Many countries that do not blacklist critical sites and users still monitor them, and users who spread anti-establishment thoughts within them can look forward to going to jail. At the most extreme end, those who speak out against the Chinese government online while in the country are known to have their posts or accounts taken down right before they disappear without a trace.
Governments also spread anti-revolutionary propaganda through the internet, with special divisions such as Russia’s Glavset or Vietnam’s Force 47. The actual impact of online propaganda is incalculable, but the $200 million USD invested in the U.S.’s online propaganda endeavor suggests that it is very important to the state.
In the most extreme circumstances, internet connections are controlled by governments, allowing them to cut everyone’s connection in an instant. Such a drastic measure effectively halts all internet-based work (which is increasingly encompassing all jobs) and so hurts the economy. For governments with bills to pay, this isn’t an ideal countermeasure to employ against revolt. However, internet blackouts have still been used in multiple instances in places like India and Iran.
Taking The Streets
When the time comes to actually take to the streets, technology gives the government the upper hand. Closed circuit television (CCTV) covers more of the world now than it ever has before, and by pairing it with facial recognition software, states can scan footage of protests to identify those involved. Additionally, RFID chips, small devices put into objects such as bank cards and passports, double as secret agents. During times of civil unrest, the chips can be scanned to determine identities for punitive purposes (As of now, no state is known to have tried identifying protestors through RFID scanning, but the possibility still exists). With modern technology, states can more accurately find active protestors and subsequently suppress them as they see fit.
Not all government surveillance measures can be countered, but those that can often are. Throughout 2019, Hong Kong protestors have wrapped ID cards, passports, and bank cards in aluminium to prevent RFID scanning from reading them and revealing their identities. Gas masks for tear gas are a historic symbol of protest, but now doubly serve as effective facial recognition deterrence. Those who can’t afford gas masks alternatively use face masks for identity protection (and, by printing slogans on them, further promotion). When certain terms are no longer safe to write online, protestors simply use codewords. Even behind China’s Great Firewall, dissenters speak against the government online by using innocent euphemisms like “check the water meter” (meaning a police house call) or “using the internet scientifically” (meaning using a virtual private network).
Protestors can’t fully combat their governments cutting all the connections, though. But many don’t have to fear their Wi-Fi cutting out. To date, internet access has never been cut to combat civil unrest in heavily internet-dependent economies like South Korea or France. For those in developing nations, however, internet shutdowns are a major threat that is impossible to navigate.
For the most part, the nature of actual physical confrontations have not changed, but the information age has led to a few developments. In Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, civilians used remote controlled, cellphone triggered bombs to attempt to kill police officers. Conversely, the Hong Kong police have deployed bomb disposal robots. Demonstrators also use the internet to gain and share crucial information for more intense demonstrations. In the same protests, protestors made and used a smartphone app to keep a common log of active police deployments. While the application was eventually taken down from the App Store by Apple, it was able to provide protestors with vital information for avoiding (or, for some, attacking) police forces while it was active.
Search engines are also a valuable resource for those combating strong government resistance; a single Google search can unveil DIY instructions for making petrol bombs and gas masks. Hong Kong police expressed concerns about petrol bomb instructions being circulated via the internet and urged the public not to make bombs. (Presumably, the police force only urged the public as a consequence of them being legally unable to censor the internet).
This second stage of demonstrations and riots is tipped slightly in favor of the establishment by the hand of modern technology. Should reforms not pass or public indignation refuse to die down, the final stage begins—war.
If worst comes to worst, and civil war breaks out, technology offers the government an unprecedented scale of power. Live video feeds attached to drones can reveal the locations of insurgents and their arms. The United States has used Predator drones for such purposes in Afghanistan and Iraq, though these can be and have been hacked to provide satellite data to insurgents. The U.S. is also the largest global investor in armed drones, which can replace conventional fighter planes and engage combatants while preventing pilots from entering the line of fire. As armed drones cannot feel pain, get tired, or become scared, they can subdue or kill state enemies with much more ease than human operators. Of course, individuals are theoretically capable of producing similar machines to fight the government, but doing so would be quite challenging, and therefore quite unlikely. Thus, all the populous can do when governments resort to such measures is wait, and hope the robotic army never arrives.
When rubber bullets are exchanged for metal ones, the information age makes crushing a rebellion a drastically easier feat. The third act of the revolution, the war, is cut short by the government’s deep pockets and digital war-chests.
The Fight For Tomorrow
What do the revolutions of our time look like? In Hong Kong, millions wear masks to protect their identities from facial recognition AI, and operate phone-operated bombs being detonated to kill police. In North Africa, social media-organized protests have led to the overthrow of governments. In the U.S., viral videos that spur riots and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage. In China, censored search results and online dissenters disappearing without a trace. In India, frequent internet shutdowns and social media accounts being forcibly deleted at the discretion of the government. In the Middle East, attempted coups that cause extremist uprisings, foreign intervention, and the largest wars of modern times.
The information age has given governments great power. Governments now possess an unprecedented ability to discern the identities of dissenters through CCTV, facial recognition, and scanning social media. With these tools, they can identify protestors faster than they ever could traditionally, and then do what they are known to do to dissenters. Should a conflict escalate to war, governments can use modern technology to locate and engage combatants faster and more effectively than ever possible in a non-electronic era.
However, protestors have never been as empowered to battle the status quo as they are now. The revolution is televised, and the world is watching, donating to the cause and intervening politically. Organizing and promoting demonstrations is now significantly easier than it ever has been. A simple hashtag can spread a cause across an entire geographic region. If fighting starts, instructions on “when, where, and how” to fight back can be disseminated to millions in a matter of seconds—entirely encrypted. If knowledge is powerful, those with working internet connections have an unprecedented level of power with which to change the world.
At the end of the day, all protestors in the past and present are and were people doing their best to change the world as they see fit with whatever tools they had. Information technology is the newest big leap for humanity, and the tools it provides us have radicalized the processes by which we radicalize. Similarly, all governments past and present are and were doing their best to suppress the breakdown of social order, however possible. With modern technology, doing so is sometimes harder and sometimes much easier than only a few decades ago. However, for all the twists the modern era brings to revolution, its core elements remain the same.
No matter what merch protestors wear, how often they tweet, or how their governments respond, the tradition of revolution continues worldwide: a struggle between the people and their leaders for the reins over the future, with both sides having a decent shot at victory. People still fight, destroying public property and attacking ideological opponents. Governments still use tear gas and rubber bullets and send in their forces to maintain peace. Signs are still carried around city squares, and the groups they target still ignore them until they’re unable to. Perhaps in the future, developments in technology will push one side over the edge into total domination, and protest as we currently conceive of it will cease to exist. However, for the time being, this time-honored tradition appears to be here to stay.
Photo courtesy of Maxlmn via Wikimedia Commons