In some ways, Hong Kong’s democracy movement was particularly well suited to this moment. Social media had already proved to be an integral part of the movement’s leaderless structure. It also proved a useful way of avoiding the violent crackdowns and repression that many protesters experienced on the streets. “When political movements have been repressed in the past … people take digital refuge,” Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. In the case of Hong Kong, he added, “they retooled; they hid their identities; they went to encrypted communications.”
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Of course, some notable differences exist between physical street protests and their online alternatives. The obvious one is that digital campaigns don’t have a physical impact in the way street protests do. Though online rallies can be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world, they cannot tangibly disrupt—those who don’t want to see a demonstration can simply choose to ignore it, something, for example, commuters in central London could not do when climate-change protests took over parts of the city last year. Governments, meanwhile, have less incentive to respond to an online campaign than they do to a physical one happening on their doorstep. Moreover, while online petitions can gauge public support for an issue, they can’t showcase it in the same way. Absent images of scores of people flooding streets or surrounding buildings, these digital campaigns are unlikely to attract the same level of press coverage either.
Still, keeping a movement solely online has some advantages. Unlike with a traditional demonstration, online activists don’t have to worry about seeking government permits to assemble, nor do they have to fear a physical crackdown. What’s more, they are not geographically confined: Online rallies can span an entire city, country, or even the globe, depending on who’s taking part. Social media has the added advantage of ensuring that a particular message can spread further and faster than ever before.
Though the internet does offer some alternatives for protest movements, online activism isn’t easily employed everywhere—especially in places where street protests aren’t just a method of signaling dissent, but the dominant form. Such has been the case in Algeria, where twice-weekly demonstrations against the country’s military-backed regime were called off last month for the first time in a year to comply with lockdown measures. The Algerian government has since imposed a year-long ban on street protests and imprisoned many of the movement’s participants, prompting human-rights activists to accuse the government of exploiting the pandemic to quell dissent.
“That’s a movement in particular where the regular public protest had really been the kind of tentpole,” Jonathan Pinckney, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, whose research focuses on nonviolent action, democratization, and political violence, told me. “Everything had revolved around those Tuesday and Friday protests, so that’s a situation where I think it will likely be challenging for the movement to adapt.” The democratic threat facing protests in Algeria exists elsewhere. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has passed legislation that enables him to govern by decree indefinitely, giving him the power to prevent public demonstrations. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte authorized a shoot-to-kill order for those who defy the country’s coronavirus lockdown, including would-be protesters. In places such as these, the digital sphere offers a safe alternative to physical protests. But in some parts of the world, the online sphere can prove to be just as vulnerable. This is particularly true in authoritarian states, where online surveillance and internet shutdowns are commonplace. “There is a huge level of protest that happens in Iran that’s just online that few of us see through a variety of different platforms,” Brannen said, noting that “the Iranian government is looking heavily to the Chinese and the Russians to help support and stamp out that digital piece.”