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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Courts and Presidents Matter Everywhere

Asuncion    Reading the headlines on-line as the Organizers’ Forum convened in Asuncion, Paraguay, it was hard to miss the chaos and clamor of the hearings in Congress on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanagh for the US Supreme Court.  President Trump, never happy if the lead headlines don’t mention him, managed to insert himself into the proceedings by seeming to advocate an end of free speech and the right to assembly with his advocacy that protest should be outlawed at such events or whenever it suits his whim.  Sigh.

I thought of this as we sat in the library of Carlos Mateo Balmelli with our delegation.  As part of our regular order of Forum business, we always try to arrange for a local academic or journalist to give an overview and current context for a new country.  Mateo Balmelli’s name was given to us by some of our contacts, and we were lucky to be able to schedule him on our first afternoon in Asuncion, so there we were.

His first question to us, after our introductions, was to ask if we knew who he was.  I answered that we were told that he was a lawyer and journalist who had once had a radio show that was well-known in the country.  He laughed, and then added meat to that thin soup.  He was a writer indeed with many books to his credit, largely nonfiction, on public and constitutional law, a long interest not only from his background as a lawyer but also from six years studying in Germany where he received his Ph.D.  More to the point, he had a long career as a politician having convened the last Constitutional Convention in 1992 that helped draft the current Paraguayan constitution, and having been President of the Senate and the Congress until 2004.  It also became clear that he had also been a presidential candidate from an alliance that included the Radical Liberal Party only in the last year, losing to the winning candidate from the long ruling Colorado Party.  Suddenly, we had moved from the top row in the bleachers to the major leagues!

We talked about economic development, the role of agriculture, the need for energy subsidies for low income families, and better educational opportunity.  We heard about the relative positions of the parties and the alliances established and disbanded.  Questions arose about media concentration and comparisons with other countries in Latin America, especially Peru where there was a lot of experience in the delegation.

Not surprisingly, given Mateo Balmelli’s history, much of our briefing focused on his concern about the pervasiveness of corruption in politics, where he alleged that politicians were regularly directly bribed by lobbyists and special interests with impunity.  His solution was, not surprisingly, that it was time to update and write a new constitution.  The critical element would be redrafting the relationship between the executive branch and the Supreme Court in the country.  It was harder for us to understand precisely what he would change, since he still advocated their appointments, but the purpose was to provide more legal assurance of checks and balances from the court without executive control.

It was hard not to merge the conversation with the US headlines, where President Trump and the parties seem to want to dilute the checks and balances that come with a more independent judiciary in creating an increasingly partisan court from the George W. Bush election through the current date.

Increasingly it is becoming one world, though not necessarily a good one.

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