Under the Umbrella: Impacts of Social Networks in Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

By Pauline Luk

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people occupied major commercial districts in Hong Kong for 79 days from September 28, 2014. After half a year, there has been no major change in Hong Kong since then. However, the roles of social media and the impact of social networks in the Umbrella Movement have given insights on how younger generations in society voice their political concerns and attract global attention. During the movement, new ways of communicating within personal social networks could be observed. People used the Internet and mobile phones intensively.

The political background

The Umbrella Movement was a pro-democracy social movement. The reasons for people going on the streets are diverse. The main call was for the direct election of the leader, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, in 2017.

Hong Kong was a British colony before 1997 and was governed by British-appointed governors. There was no election of governors in the past. Direct elections in the first legislative council took place in 1991. Hong Kong people hoped to have a full democratic system after the handover to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, which is the constitution of the territory, provides for the selection of chief executive and members of the legislature ultimately by universal suffrage.

The Umbrella Movement was triggered by the announcement of a conservative decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s largely ceremonial parliament. In the decision announced in August 2014, candidates will need to secure support from at least 50% of members of a nominating committee, and the number of candidates will be capped at two or three. This contradicts pan-democratic parties’ expectation of increasing the number of candidates and the representation of members in the nominating committee. Currently, the chief executive is appointed by the central government of China via a 1,200-member committee that is heavily weighted in favor of Beijing backers and business leaders. The Umbrella Movement was started by a crowd of students boycotting classes and demonstrating outside the government headquarters.

The movement was named the “Umbrella Movement” after TIME Magazine issued a story on it, featuring a cover photo of a man holding two umbrellas, standing in the mist, after the police had used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Massive international news coverage followed.

During the movement, people used the Internet and mobile technology to communicate. This has subsequently changed the ecology of social networks. Many people functioned as connected individuals, no longer defined by their membership in a single group, but by the intersecting networks to which they belong. Each network connects people to a wider world that gives individuals new information and experience.

Analyzing Facebook’s impact on social networks

Online social networks profoundly affect human communication. Facebook, as the most widely used social network site in the world, is a site for comparing opinions on current affairs and organizing social events. Facebook activities give participants access to different kinds of people and diverse worldviews.

During the Arab Spring, activists used social media to express their views and orchestrate resistance. This generated polarized opinions for or against the government. Social media are not drivers of the demonstrations, but tools used to share details about protests and generate support. Facebook helped transform informal networks, establish external linkages, and draw global attention during the Egyptian revolution.

People used status updates to start a conversation and strengthen bonds between individuals. Posting a profile picture on Facebook is a reflection of one’s online identity and can strengthen connections with one’s close offline friends.

We have recently surveyed 503 respondents to show how protesters used social networks to participate in the Umbrella Movement. Most respondents (75%) were aged 19-39 and 92 percent had some university education. More than 75% of them support the movement. The research reveals a number of interesting findings about the relationships between people in networks.

One Facebook user had a list of 2,064 friends, of whom 33 percent used their profile picture to show their attitudes toward the Umbrella Movement. Supporters used yellow ribbons and umbrellas as icons. Opponents used blue ribbons to show support for the government and the police. Some people were neutral; they chose green ribbon, rainbow patterns, or doves to express their positions.

Some people on Facebook “unfriended” people with different political views and even posted announcements on their own wall of such “unfriending.” Since some of those “announcement posts” were posted after the unfriending was done, this can only have been a warning to other friends with different opinions.

In our survey, we found a slight preference for talking to friends rather than family members. This can be observed by a Facebook “letter to parents” page on which hundreds of youths wrote letters explaining to their parents and asking for their support. However, not all such letters on Facebook were read by their parents, because many young people were not willing to be “friends” with family members. For one reason, whereas they could “unfriend” a friend of a different political persuasion, they could not “unfriend” family members.

Urban neighborliness had always been relatively weak but during the movement protesters who lived on the streets built special relations with their new “neighbors.” Protesters described those in nearby tents as neighbors and friends. Though they had been strangers before, as protesters they would help each other to look after personal belongings. Some of them kept in contact even after the occupation.

Hong Kong has 4.4 million Facebook users out of a total population of 7.1 million; this is 63% penetration. Of these, 86% use mobile devices to access Facebook. Among all Asian countries or regions, Hong Kong ranked third in the use of Facebook.

Networking without WiFi

Our survey result showed that the majority of people used Facebook (87.9%) and WhatsApp (76.7%) during the movement, but another mobile application, FireChat, was used by 10%. It uses a wireless network to enable a smartphone to connect via Bluetooth, WiFi, or other connectivity networks without an Internet connection. Because of FireChat, the limitation of Internet services could not stop people from communicating. People invariably explore alternative technologies that allow them to connect with their social networks.

Respondents also used social media for specific purposes during the Umbrella Movement. For example, 92% of respondents shared a post, 84% updated their status, and 83% posted comments. In comparison, inviting a friend to join the protest was relatively low at 30%.

With the high number of respondents sharing a post on social media, thousands of photos and videos were uploaded during the movement and sometimes spread. For example, a giant yellow banner with a slogan “I want real universal suffrage” hung from Lion Rock, an iconic mountain that can be seen in most parts of the city center. The government removed it within 24 hours but its image went viral. Similar banners have been posted in real and virtual spaces.

Power of Mobile Networks

Smartphones are widespread in Hong Kong, with 96% of Internet users using them every day to get online. Many protesters were summoned to the street by friends using social media. One photo showed protesters holding mobile phones as torches to light up the main roads during a pro-democracy street concert.

Social identity is a result of interacting with other users in a personal social network. Not only does social identity exist in real life, but also in the virtual world. This explains why profile pictures on Facebook were changed to the colors representing either support or opposition to the Umbrella Movement.

Students’ organizations called for boycotting classes and encouraged people to post their own past photos in school uniforms as their Facebook profile to show support to the students. This campaign attracted many people to change their profile pictures, even before the Umbrella Movement formally started.

Conclusions

Social media became a battleground for people to disconnect from personal contacts with people who disagreed with them. It was common during the movement for people to unfriend others and avoid using social media to communicate with family members.

Facebook enabled new neighborhoods to form, as participants made new contacts and kept in touch with new acquaintances. Informal networks of friends and relatives emerged.

As was the case during the Egyptian revolution, the Internet was important in mobilizing participants in the Umbrella Movement. The Internet helped to maintain both strong and weak ties to a social movement. Mobile phones also accelerated the mobilization of participants, a majority of whom used Whatsapp and accessed the Internet from mobile phones. Volunteer-operated charging stations in the protest sites enabled them to keep going. As people posted updates on Facebook to let friends know they were in the protest sites, this attracted other like-minded people to go onto the street.

Individuals turned to their social networks for support through comments, sharing, and discussions. Protesters mobilized resources from their supporters through social media. They posted photos of people donating food, water, umbrellas, masks, mats, tents etc. on social media, and this attracted more people to donate and volunteer. During the first week, they had already collected and distributed abundant supplies from the public.

Though the Umbrella Movement was loosely organized by a few pressure groups, certain student leaders were repeatedly interviewed by mass media and recognized as leaders. The use of mobile and Internet networks kept the movement alive for 79 days.

Pauline Luk is a Ph.D. candidate in communication studies, National University of Singapore.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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