Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes

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When objects like umbrellas and leaf blowers are subverted into objects of resistance, they change into very shareable.

A video body captured in Hong Kong in August 2019 exhibits a bunch of pro-democracy protesters, smoke pluming towards them, racing to put an orange site visitors cone over a tear-gas canister. A video taken 9 months later and seven,000 miles away, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, exhibits one other small group utilizing the identical maneuver. Two moments, two continents, two cone placers, their postures almost equivalent.

Images of protest unfold on social media reveal many different matching moments from reverse sides of the world, they usually usually characteristic on a regular basis objects wielded ingeniously.

Leaf blowers are used to diffuse clouds of tear gasoline; hockey sticks and tennis rackets are brandished to bat canisters again towards authorities; high-power laser pointers are used to thwart surveillance cameras; and plywood, boogie boards, umbrellas and extra have served as shields to guard protesters from projectiles and create barricades.

An Xiao Mina, a researcher on the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has studied these echoes. In the summer time of 2014, when the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Black Lives Matter protests within the United States that adopted the police killing of Michael Brown have been happening, she famous that the protesters spoke a standard language, even sharing the identical hand gesture characterised by the mantra “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Occasionally, there was even direct acknowledgment between the disparate teams, “as when Ferguson protesters donned umbrellas against the rain and cheekily thanked protesters in Hong Kong for the idea,” Ms. Mina wrote in her 2018 ebook, “Memes to Movements.”

But usually, she famous, the photographs’ similarity was unwitting. In their unfold, their simultaneity and their oblique affect on one another, the protest movies had all of the traits of memes, these models of tradition and habits that unfold quickly on-line. The identical cultural switch that offers us uncanny cake-slicing memes and viral challenges additionally advances the language of protest.

“We live in this world of attention dynamics so it makes sense that tactics start to converge,” Ms. Mina mentioned. She known as the photographs’ tendency to construct on one another “memetic piggybacking,” and famous that on a regular basis objects which might be subverted into objects of protest are “inherently charismatic.”

Franklin López, a founder and former member of, an anarchist video collective that has filmed dozens of protests, mentioned that “videos shared through social media and mainstream media reports become rough ‘how-to guides’ on protest tactics.”

“You see peeps in Hong Kong using umbrellas as countersurveillance tools and folks over here will say, ‘hey, brilliant idea!’ and you’ll see umbrellas at the next militant protests,” he mentioned.

Of course, it’s not simply social media mimicry. Ms. Mina identified that “activists from around the world do actively learn from each other and exchange tactical tips.”

On the subject of direct communication between teams in Hong Kong and the United States, Mr. López mentioned: “Texts outlining not only tactics and strategies but reports of what worked and what didn’t are shared and translated, but also talked about in in-person events, film screenings and internet talks.”

In June, for instance, Lausan, a bunch that fashioned through the Hong Kong protests that seeks to attach leftist actions in varied nations, was a number of a webinar. It offered a discussion board for Hong Kong and American activists to share methods.

Katharin Tai, a doctoral candidate in political science at M.I.T. who research Chinese overseas coverage and the intersection of worldwide politics and the web, separated data sharing between Hong Kong and the United States into two classes.

One was group-to-group sharing of techniques between the units of protesters, although she famous that as a result of each protest efforts have been non-hierarchical, they weren’t essentially organized from above.

The second, she mentioned, included the interpretation of useful graphics and data — say, which form of gasoline masks finest shield towards tear gasoline — which might be then posted on-line. “That’s the less organized way, where they’re just kind of pushing it out into the ether,” she mentioned.

The social web has sped up a protracted historical past of direct and oblique dialogue between protest actions all over the world.

Mark Bray, an organizer of Occupy Wall Street and a lecturer at Rutgers University, mentioned that sharing or imitating protest methods and techniques is “as old as protest strategies and tactics are,” however that social media “has exposed people to more different tactics.”

“In that sense, like all kinds of new communications technologies, it has shortened the perceived distance between movements around the world,” mentioned Mr. Bray, who’s the writer of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” a historical past of that motion.

Anastasia Veneti, who teaches at Bournemouth University in England and makes a speciality of media protection of protest actions, mentioned that pictures and video which were produced and circulated by the protesters “have influenced professional photographers who have begun to produce similar images.”

“With this global wave of post-2010 activism, we’ve seen that this paradigm or media framing has started to change and to a great extent, this change is to be credited to the fact that protesters themselves are better organized thanks to the use of new media technologies,” she mentioned.

Matching protest photos usually are not solely discovered between Hong Kong and the United States. They crop up in Mexico and Greece, Kurdistan and Catalonia.

But Hong Kong does play a central function within the activist creativeness, students and activists mentioned, thanks each to the tactical ingenuity of protesters there, in addition to Western media’s willingness to cowl pro-democracy demonstrations extensively.

Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who research digital activism, famous that even nonpolitical publications have been moved to cowl the Hong Kong protests. “Because Hong Kong is seen as a Western-style democracy that’s being eaten up by its authoritarian parent, there’s no controversy in reporting on it,” she mentioned.

Asked whether or not Hong Kong loomed significantly giant within the eyes of skilled protesters, Mr. López answered emphatically: “Hell yeah!” He known as the protests in Hong Kong “epic.”

“More than anything the discipline, organization and persistence of these folks has been awe inspiring,” Mr. López mentioned, including that the folks of Hong Kong “are showing us what is possible.”

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