Taking to the streets and to the internet in Hong Kong

Guest post by Catie Snow Bailard

After four weeks of protest and occupation, which at times have drawn tens of thousands of participants, face-to-face talks between government officials and protest leaders appear to be yielding results. Chinese officials have promised both to issue a public report documenting the protesters’ sentiments and to provide a platform for discussing electoral issues and other concerns of the pro-democracy movement.  In the spirit of democracy, protest organizers are preparing to hold an online straw poll, originally scheduled for October 26th, enabling protesters to vote on whether to accept the government’s proposal. Regardless of the the vote’s result, however, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement intends to continue the occupation.  Led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Occupy Central, the dissidents are demanding universal suffrage and that the government retract its recent mandate that all candidates running in the 2017 election for Chief Executive be approved by a government committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

A quick Google news search reveals the degree to which the Internet has been vital in the organization of the Umbrella Movement, from marshaling and demonstrating support for the movement to documenting police activities and holding government officials accountable for its responses to the protests and occupation. Movement leaders have also used the Internet to publicly issue their demands, and officials have responded in kind, online. Even the hacktivisit group Anonymous threw its hat into the ring, hacking into Hong Kong and Beijing government websites to release sensitive information about the protests into China (where news coverage is highly skewed against the protesters).

Activist movements, such as the one in Hong Kong, highlight the integral role that the Internet and modern day communication technologies, such as smart phones, play in organizing and implementing protests.  For example, smart phones reduce reliance on “brittle planning,” which characterized the types of plans that rely on traditional landline telephones. Whereas protesters previously had to rely primarily on word-of-mouth once they left their homes, mobile phones have greatly diminished this limitation—protesters now use mobile phones to send texts and post messages through social media to change protest venues, tactics, or timing in response to changing circumstances.  Smart phones also yield essential visibility for the movement to audiences outside of the protest movements, particularly with photographs and videos.  Pictures and video posted to social media have been key to rallying support from both domestic and international sources, reporting developments from the ground, and documenting police abuses.

As these protests take center stage, there is one important component of the role that these technologies play in such movements that tends to be largely overlooked—their effect before protesters take to the streets.  While it is clearly important to understand how Internet use can streamline political organization once people are moved to action—which up until now has been the primary focus of scholarly research—the discipline has paid less attention to whether Internet use influences citizens at the foundational, antecedent stage of political action.

The Internet’s capacity to alter the information and expectations that shape citizens’ evaluations of their government can, and often does, lead to political organization and action.  After all, the impetus to act politically—from day-to-day civic activities to the more extreme cases of protest and revolution—begins in the minds of men and women. Democracy’s Double-Edged Sword examines how Internet use influences citizens’ evaluations of their governments’ performance, particularly how Internet use and digital era communication affects the quality of democratic practices available in a given nation. In this vein, I argue that Internet use meaningfully alters not only the quantity and range of information but also the criteria through which individuals evaluate their governments—shaping their evaluations and satisfaction accordingly. This is an important consideration, since it is these evaluations that can and will encourage men and women to act and organize toward political ends.

The findings uncovered by my research substantiate the Internet’s clear, consistent, and considerable influence on democratic satisfaction and related evaluations. Whereas the Internet is correlated with enhanced satisfaction in advanced democracies, its use depresses satisfaction in nations with weak democratic practices—the types of evaluations that can foment and focus public discontent that fuels protest movements, such as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. However, further findings yielded by my research also reveal that one democratic gain, such as more critical evaluations of poorly performing governments, does not automatically set off a chain of entirely pro-democratic gains in citizens’ attitudes and behaviors. Rather, the Internet’s influence on evaluations, and subsequently on behavior, is a complex, contextually dependent process that in some instances will prove a double-edged sword for democracy and democratization.


CatiBailarde Snow Bailard is an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and the author of Democracy’s Double-Edged Sword, published by Johns Hopkins.  An interview with Bailard can be read here.  To register for Professor Bailard’s November 3rd GWU book talk click here.