Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes

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

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July 31, 2020

A video frame captured in Hong Kong in August 2019 shows a group of pro-democracy protesters, smoke pluming toward them, racing to place an orange traffic cone over a tear-gas canister. A video taken nine months later and 7,000 miles away, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, shows another small group using the same maneuver. Two moments, two continents, two cone placers, their postures nearly identical.

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Images of protest spread on social media reveal many other matching moments from opposite sides of the world, and they often feature everyday objects wielded ingeniously.

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

An Xiao Mina, a researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has studied these echoes. In the summer of 2014, when the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States that followed the police killing of Michael Brown were taking place, she noted that the protesters spoke a common language, even sharing the same hand gesture characterized by the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Occasionally, there was even direct acknowledgment between the disparate groups, “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 book, “Memes to Movements.”

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But often, she noted, the images’ similarity was unwitting. In their spread, their simultaneity and their indirect influence on each other, the protest videos had all the characteristics of memes, those units of culture and behavior that spread rapidly online. The same cultural transfer that gives us uncanny cake-slicing memes and viral challenges also advances the language of protest.

“We live in this world of attention dynamics so it makes sense that tactics start to converge,” Ms. Mina said. She called the images’ tendency to build on each other “memetic piggybacking,” and noted that everyday items that are subverted into objects of protest are “inherently charismatic.”

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Franklin López, a founder and former member of Sub.media, an anarchist video collective that has filmed dozens of protests, said 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 said.

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

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On the topic of direct communication between groups in Hong Kong and the United States, Mr. López said: “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 example, Lausan, a group that formed during the Hong Kong protests that seeks to connect leftist movements in various countries, was a host of a webinar. It provided a forum for Hong Kong and American activists to share strategies.

Katharin Tai, a doctoral candidate in political science at M.I.T. who studies Chinese foreign policy and the intersection of international politics and the internet, separated information sharing between Hong Kong and the United States into two categories.

One was group-to-group sharing of tactics between the sets of protesters, though she noted that because both protest efforts were non-hierarchical, they were not necessarily organized from above.

The second, she said, included the translation of helpful graphics and information — say, which sort of gas masks best protect against tear gas — that are then posted online. “That’s the less organized way, where they’re just kind of pushing it out into the ether,” she said.

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The social internet has sped up a long history of direct and indirect dialogue between protest movements around the world.

Mark Bray, an organizer of Occupy Wall Street and a lecturer at Rutgers University, said that sharing or imitating protest strategies and tactics is “as old as protest strategies and tactics are,” but 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,” said Mr. Bray, who is the author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” a history of that movement.

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Anastasia Veneti, who teaches at Bournemouth University in England and specializes in media coverage of protest movements, said that photographs and video that have been 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 said.

Matching protest images are not only found between Hong Kong and the United States. They crop up in Mexico and Greece, Kurdistan and Catalonia.

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But Hong Kong does play a central role in the activist imagination, scholars and activists said, thanks both to the tactical ingenuity of protesters there, as well as Western media’s willingness to cover pro-democracy demonstrations extensively.

Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who studies digital activism, noted that even nonpolitical publications were moved to cover 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 said.

Asked whether Hong Kong loomed particularly large in the eyes of experienced protesters, Mr. López answered emphatically: “Hell yeah!” He called the protests in Hong Kong “epic.”

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

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