Leaderless rebellion: how social media enables global protests – FT

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“A single spark can start a prairie fire,” observed Mao Zedong in 1930, as he tried to convince his followers that revolution was possible in China. Almost a century later, Mao’s observation comes to mind as little sparks set off mass demonstrations across the world.

The Financial Times writes ” The rallying power of social media is a crucial enabler for leaderless movements. When the Hong Kong demonstrations broke out in June, Joshua Wong — the most high-profile democracy activist in the territory — was in jail. In Moscow, a month later, the Russian government moved swiftly to arrest Alexander Navalny, a leading opposition figure, but demonstrations continued without him. In Lebanon, France and Chile, authorities have searched in vain for ringleaders. Across the world, demonstrators are using similar technologies to organise and spread their messages. Messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption — such as Telegram — are hard to spy on and are very popular.

Facebook groups and Twitter allow amorphous protest movements to crowdsource ideas and articulate grievances. Social media also allows a movement in one place to take inspiration from news of revolts in another. The occupation of the airport in Barcelona last week was a tactic borrowed from Hong Kong. Hong Kong demonstrators have been seen carrying the Catalan flag. The Sudanese and Algerian uprisings this year borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans — in a similar fashion to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.

The often leaderless quality of the revolts also makes them hard to either suppress or negotiate with. Different mass movements claiming to represent the “will of the people” can have contradictory demands — so the gilets jaunes’ demand for lower fuel taxes contradicts the calls from another mass protest movement that has taken to the streets across the west, the climate activists of Extinction Rebellion.

Without firm leadership, there is also a risk that demonstrations will degenerate into violence between police and protesters — alienating middle ground supporters and making it easier for governments to justify a further crackdown.

This was the pattern in France — and now in Hong Kong and Chile. But it is not always the case. Demonstrations in Russia and Algeria have remained largely peaceful. The biggest risk for the leaderless revolts, however, is that they will simply fail. Of the uprisings this year, probably only the revolt in Sudan achieved a clear success — with the toppling in April of the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.

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