Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes



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

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.”

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.

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.

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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