When pro-democracy activists took to the streets in Hong Kong in September, the sheer number of protestors disrupted phone networks in the protest area enough to make mobile communication impossible. Enter: FireChat, a relatively new messaging app that relies on Bluetooth instead of wifi or 3/4G internet used by popular messaging services like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.
FireChat sets up a network of Bluetooth-connected phones in which anyone can communicate with anyone else within range, not only allowing protestors to stay connected and informed with one another but also bypassing authorities’ enforced network restrictions . This has (potentially, at least) significant implications for activists everywhere.
In Alternative and Activist New Media, Leah Lievrouw defines alternative/activist new media as media that “employ or modify the communication artefacts, practices, and social arrangements of new information and communication technologies to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing society, culture, and politics.” FireChat definitely fits this criteria. More specifically, FireChat would be classed by Lievrouw as an example of ‘mediated mobilization’, which “takes advantage of web-based social software tools … to mobilize … networks to engage in live and mediated collective action.” If anything, FireChat exceeds the parameters of Lievrouw’s definition as the app does not require to web to mobilize activists.
In Hong Kong, a large proportion of activists installed FireChat as rumours spread that authorities would close down mobile networks to stem the protests – a move that was made famous by Egyptian authorities during the Arab Spring and which has been previously employed by US authorities. The network shut-down never eventuated, perhaps because the authorities knew protestors would use the app should the network go down. This is an example of what Lievrouw discusses as alternative/activist new media projects constituting and intervening in mainstream media and culture.
Videos from the Hong Kong protests show FireChat being used by activists to ask and answer questions concerning supplies, allowing fellow activists to bring food and water to those in need. However, despite FireChat’s opportunities of allowing – for perhaps the first time – technology to be controlled purely by activists (i.e., with no government or private organisation’s influence), not all are convinced by FireChat’s potential for activists: Bluetooth communications can be intercepted by governments, and it has a range of approximately 10 metres, limiting the possibilities of impacting anywhere other than the immediate vicinity of an event. Nevertheless, communications through FireChat cannot be stopped, and the app works anonymously.
It will be interesting to see how FireChat is utilized by different groups over time, but for now we can say – at the very least – that it has helped the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests, as Lievrouw would say, “confront dominant … politics and power,” an important aspect of activist new media.