2019 was the year of mass protests in more places around the world than in any other 12 months in history. Without attempting to determine what fuels most protests, a few global drivers are reasons for protests anywhere, such as declining freedom, rising inequality and climate change. But besides declining freedom in the physical sphere, freedom in the digital sphere is equally declining. There is greater discontent with traditional top-down power and the deliberately leaderless form and decentral ways of communication of many of 2019’s protests suggest that momentum is growing for decentral political systems and digital systems.

 

Our observations

  • In 2019, we witnessed mass protests in more countries simultaneously than at any other time in recorded history. We saw protests in Algeria, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Ecuador, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Hong Kong, Hungary, Lebanon, the Philippines, the UK, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Zimbabwe. Many protests either resulted in bringing down leaders, making them resign or reconsider their policies.
  • The 2010s may be remembered as the decade when the global 1% accumulated unprecedented wealth. As this 1% became richer, 49% of people below them (including almost everyone in the U.S. and Europe), lost out, seeing their incomes stagnate. As a result, dissatisfaction with the wealthy elites who are in power is growing, corruption and precarious living conditions are becoming increasingly unacceptable. All of this creates the feeling of being left behind. The result is a backlash against billionaires and a more resentful electorate that can be tempted into casting protest votes.
  • Also, in the 2010s, the world became less free. In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal spanned countries from long-standing democracies like the U.S. to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.
  • Technology is crucial to protesters when it comes to organizing themselves. In 2011’s Arab Spring, protesters in the Middle Eastern countries used mobile phones and social media to communicate and gather. In 2019, encrypted apps, such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and AirDrop, were popular. These apps offered a more secure and anonymous way to communicate and reduced the need for a single leader to mobilize groups.
  • In 2019, there were more internet shutdowns than ever before. An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of the internet, and digital communication in general, which makes those services inaccessible by a specific population. It can be used by governments or authorities to exert control over the flow of information. Shutdowns thus impact citizens’ freedom of expression and the right to information and may even result in an increase in violence.
  • Similarly, the Freedom on the Net 2019 report shows that global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019, largely as a result of social media increasingly being used by governments around the world as a conduit for mass surveillance and electoral manipulation.

Connecting the dots

It has been decades since the world has experienced such a simultaneous expression of people power. With anti-government protests raging globally, what defines people power? In his book Languages of the Unheard(2013), philosopher Stephen D’Arcy argues that a riot is the last resort of the excluded and oppressed, that rioting is rooted in the unwillingness to be ignored. Similarly, in Camus’ definition, true rebellion is an affirmation that the individual person has worth that should be respected and valued. “I revolt, therefore we are”, wrote Camus. As individuals feel suppressed, ignored, unheard by those in power, be it because they don’t have enough economic power in contrast to a few wealthy or because they don’t feel represented by their leaders (because of endemic corruption in Lebanon, suppression in Hong Kong or a metro fare hike in Chile), taking to the streets is the last possible way to make their voices heard. Looking to popular culture to understand certain themes of our time, the 2019 movie The Joker symbolized the ongoing protests. As the movie was feared for its evocative power, cinema chains in the U.S. already banned masks, costumes and toy weapons at screenings of Joker. Indeed, the Joker mask was much-used during protests last year, serving as a timely symbol for vulnerable groups in society to express their feeling of being treated as or viewed as clowns (or deplorables). The Joker face is not necessarily politically right-wing or left-wing, but the face of anger over social neglect by those in power. When people experience a sense of powerlessness, feel as if their votes do not matter, or when using conventional political channels seems futile, this drives them to the streets. Moreover, both Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution, and Paolo Gerbaudo, author of The Mask and the Flag,believe the 2019 protests signaled a greater discontent with traditional top-down power and have the potential to change politics, demanding a new social contract.

Due to the decline in freedom in both politics as well as in the digital sphere, people have no alternative but to take to the streets. Some years ago, many believed that the internet gave us a means to make our voices heard(e.g. the optimism about social media supporting protesters during the Arab Spring). However, the digital sphere has proven not to be free from authority at all. Instead, governments around the world have tightened their grip on the internet. Citizens around the world became much more aware of how all our behavior on the internet is monitored, tracked, and even used to steer us. 2019 showed the most internet shutdowns globally ever recorded. Rights to associate, assemble, express opinions and participate are under attack because activists face online profiling, surveillance, and hacking by authorities. In the media, we witnessed hard repression during the protests in the form of police violence, but this online repression is less visible and more effective, as it actually undermines protesters’ ability to communicate and organize.

The internet was once meant to be a democratic and free space but is now increasingly used to target activists. The answer to this increasing control and feeling of being unheard in the political and online sphere can be found in the way protesters are organizing themselves. The protests of 2019 have altered the tactics, tools, and structure of civil resistance. Protests were often leaderless, decentrally organized and drew people in who did not consider themselves political activists in the first place. This was also reflected in the tools they used to organize themselves. HKmap.live, for instance, was used by protesters in Hong Kong, worked via Telegram and showed them where other protesters or police troops were located. Apps like FireChat were often used, relying on wireless mesh networking to enable smartphones to connect via Bluetooth or WiFi, helping protesters circumvent authoritarian grip on the internet.

Still, authorities are often successful in undermining these technological means used by protesters. For instance, Apple was forced by China to take down HKmap.live. Also, governments spread information on the internet to demonize protest movements, suggesting that protests were manipulated by threatening outside forces. For instance, the Chinese foreign ministry suggested that the Hong Kong protests were “somehow the work of the U.S.” and in Latin America, theories were spread that foreign socialist regimes were creating unrest across the continent. However, the deliberately leaderless form and decentral ways of communication of many of 2019’s protests can be taken as signs that momentum is growing for decentral political systems and digital systems. Indeed, in Hong Kong, protesters adopted a phrase of Bruce Lee’s to “be formless, shapeless, like water,” in order to be impossible to suppress, a slogan that was adopted by protesters in Catalonia and Chile as well. These 2019’s protests show that the 2010’s marked the beginning of decentral people power.

Implications

  • The 2019 protests might fuel the creation of more and more advanced decentral applications that are easy to use on a mass scale. In a sense, the numerous mass protests around the world function as a sort of pressure cooker for digital innovation.
  • The climate crisis is a shared formative experience for young generations around the world. As they are able to connect globally as never before, this has already led to climate strikes across the globe, such as Fridays for Future. Climate activists also call for more decentral forms of power, proposing, for instance, to install a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological issues.