Alfred Hermida, author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
China has reacted to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong by doing what authoritarian governments always do when faced with an inconvenient truth: try to control the message. With the street demonstrations in Hong Kong showing no signs of abating, Beijing has set its sights on the social media tools favored by many of the civil disobedience movement, Occupy Central. It blocked the popular photo-sharing site Instagram and curtailed on messages circulating on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter.
The country is already notorious for having one of the most sophisticated systems to filter Internet traffic, blocking access to anything that questions the omnipotence of the Chinese Communist Party. As the Great Firewall of China expands its reach, activists are doing what they have always done and finding ingenious ways to get their message out.
In Hong Kong, it is a smartphone app called Firechat. The app allows people to create an instant social network by connecting smartphones to each other, even if the mobile network is shut down. There has been a surge in downloads from Hong Kong as protesters out on the streets look for ways to bypass censorship and share their experiences, frustrations and aspirations.
The smartphone is just the latest weapon in the hands of social movements challenging the hegemony of state media. Through history, people have seized on the most suitable and appropriate communication tool to foment dissent. At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago, activists used fax machines to share reports and photos of people killed in Beijing. The technology was just a few years old at the time but the fax machines in offices near the square and in universities were marshaled to confront the fiction in China's state media.
The difference today goes beyond just tools. The difference is the scale and reach of tools that connect to each other and the world. Fax machines have one fundamental drawback. One machine can only speak to one machine at a time. And more importantly, you have to know the fax number of the other machines. Today, the communication technologies favored by protestors from Tahrir Square to Gezi Park to Occupy Central empower activists to reach and connect with more people in more ways at more times than ever before.
Historically, governments had the upper hand when it came to information as they can fall back on an established and well-organized propaganda machine. The smartphone, the Internet and social media level the playing field by reducing many of the hurdles that make it hard to start a movement, galvanize sympathizers, co-ordinate action and amplify a message. Protesters have ready-made access to an instant communication network using a device in their pockets that can help turn sporadic protests into a groundswell of opposition.
Smartphones and social media do not create protests movements or overthrow governments. But information is power. In the cat and mouse game of controlling access to information, such technologies go a long way towards evening the odds away from the Goliath of the state in favor of the David of dissent.