Hong Kong Teaches Risks in Social Media Mobilization

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu – RC12BDB5C070

New Orleans       Don’t get me wrong.  Any group of organizers that can pull the trigger and pull out hundreds of thousands, then a million, and then possibly two million protestors on the streets out of a total population of seven million deserve wild praise and total respect.  Such organizers can teach all of us a huge amount about how to do our work and make a difference.  All of which makes it worth following closely the courageous campaign in the autonomous province of Hong Kong to block the order from the central Chinese government to extradite individuals charged with a crime to the mainland for trial, undercutting the Hong Kong judicial system and the self-government of Hong Kong, and potentially its base as a commercial and banking center as well.

Even if you have no interest in the issue, the technical lessons are worth careful study. Undoubtedly social media tools were critical implements to the mobilization, but one of the key lessons involves the perils of relying on social media for both organizers and participants unless precautions are taken.

A secure messaging application popular there called Telegram was bombarded by China in a DDos or denial-of-service attack by multiple computers meant to overwhelm the site with high volume traffic and put it out of business.  The apps founder, Pavel Durov, was quoted saying this kind of attack on Telegram was not unusual.  The New York Times reported that a monitor of a Telegram chat room with 20,000 members was arrested by Hong Kong police even though he was not part of the demonstrations and was in fact miles away at his own home.

The police are using digital tools to track protestors and identify organizers, including facial recognition capabilities, that police are also advocating for wide use in Europe and the United States. Protestors are shielding their faces with masks, hats, and glasses to prevent easy identification that could be used for arrests by police later.  On the mainland, the government often stops protests preemptively by monitoring social media.

Telegram does not have what is called end-to-end encryption on their chat rooms, which the even more popular and widely used WhatsApp has.  Protest organizers have resorted to VPN networks and pay-as-you-go SIM cards and have registered foreign and Google numbers to enter chat rooms or communicate.  To skirt WhatsApp encryption, malware disguised as an app has been found phishing users that the Times reported was likely for spying on organizers.

Protestors have been advised to buy individual tickets on the subway so that digital payment cards would not be tracked.  They have tried to stop people from taking photos of the protests or selfies since once they show up on the internet, they might lead to identification and arrests.

At ACORN, we used to constantly warn, “if you live by the press, you will die by the press,” to underline the principle that the face-to-face work in the streets and neighborhoods was our lifeblood and would keep people together whether the press was good or bad about an action or the organization.  Live by the internet and social media, you die by the internet and social media might be the warning worth heeding from the lessons on the streets of Hong Kong for organizers everywhere.

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Hello, Landlords and Your Bankers, Meet ACORN!

New Orleans      Landing in New Orleans at 1:30 AM, the calendar alert said it was ACORN’s anniversary, our 49th birthday.  The real celebration though had already happened the day before in Hamilton, Ontario, as ACORN Canada’s Convention had featured a final day of marches and multiple actions on a gorgeous day in every way.

The crowd shook off their early morning wakeup and packing and rocked the halls of McMaster University as the leaders led the chants before the buses loaded up to take everyone to the rally site at a local park near downtown Hamilton.  This was going to be a day of not one-two punches against landlord renovictions in the city, but almost a one-two-three-four swing of roundhouses for tenant rights and against rapacious gentrification not only in Hamilton but across the country.  As the members were assembling to march, an advance team of several dozen was already at work putting banners on various Malleum properties along the downtown corridor.  Malleum has been a Hamilton-based property owner that has exploited rising rents and evictions on the pretense of renovations to evict tenants.

The first stop on the march of course was the headquarters of Malleum itself which was on lockdown as members streamed up the steps and accessible entry points.  Others hung protest banners over the balcony as members let their voices roar about the “war on the poor.”  The next stop as the march snaked through the streets towards the center of town was yet another Malleum property in development.  A second punch delivered.

Most days this would be a good day’s work by the hundreds of members from around Canada who assembled to make their points heard across the county.  Not today!  The march stretched several blocks in length now and had attracted an extensive police escort as we took the street and left the sidewalk behind.  It should not have been a surprise to bystanders or our escorts once the chants changed to RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, as a predatory lender, that another upper cut was coming in hard as a haymaker.  When we hit the building, organizers opened the doors and all of the members came streaming into the mall entry at the ground level, then down the stairs and around the bend, as building security grabbed their radios and hit call buttons, the ACORN members marched into the bank itself, filling up the space.  The demand was straightforward:  stop lending to predatory landlords evicting tenants in rent gouging schemes!  There’s no more hiding the hand, while the Malleum’s throw the rocks at tenants the banks are enabling.

Not through yet, the march ended in a rally in front of City Hall demanding more protection from city bylaws for tenants in these ongoing battles.  The previous day members had door knocked in three wards initiating phone calls to city councilors and generating hundreds of signatures on petitions for support of rent limits and tenant protections.  One of the councilors came down from city hall to address the members briefly in response.

ACORN at 49, still kicking and swinging at the enemies of low-and-moderate income families.  That’s the way to celebrate any birthday.  For icing on the cake, the busloads of members from Ottawa detoured through Toronto to the headquarters of Timbercreek, a REIT that has resisted our demands, winning a meeting.

How sweet it is!

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