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.
4 thoughts on “FireChat – Revolutionizing Activism?”
Interesting post Sean! I like the fact that it allows activists to chat without an internet or phone connection. This is a substantial technological improvement especially for uprisings in countries where there is lots of government restriction.
Recent advances in technology made it possible for major uprisings to make use of game-changing technological developments. The London Riots were reported on by BlackBerry Messenger while Twitter played a significant role in the Arab Spring (Bland, 2014). But none of these revolutions are functional without a network connection, so having a mobile app definitely solves those shortcomings and allows for mobile to mobile communication.
I like the fact that FireChat actually increases the network’s range and strength with every new participant rather than slowing it down, as usually is the case. As app creator Benoliel states, the more people there are in the same location, the more connectivity one gets (Bland, 2014).
Bland, A. (2014). FireChat – the messaging app that’s powering the Hong Kong protests. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/29/firechat-messaging-app-powering-hong-kong-protests
What an interesting article! FireChat is an excellent solution in protests, specially the ones in which authorities try to obstruct communication between the protestors through blocking the Internet. This is remiscent of Spain’s 15 M movement in which protestors launched a twitter campaign, asking people in homes nearby to open up their WIFI acces to allow communication. Nevertheless, FireChat seems like a much better idea, although it is not entirely safe to use. Christophe Daligault, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing of Open Garden, the mesh network that enables people to use FireChat, expresses his worry that FireChat users are not safe from police and government monitoring, as the chat is public. This is an advantage for the police who will try to disperse protests. However, as past challenges in protests were surmounted through innovation, I am sure this will be as well.
Gutierrez, B. (2013). Spain’s Micro-Utopias: The 15 M Movement and its Prototypes. Retrieved Oct. 23, 2014, from http://guerrillatranslation.com/tag/indignados/page/2/
Baraniuk, C. (2014). Protestors adore FireChat but it’s still not secure. Retrieved Oct. 23, 2014, from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-09/30/firechat-app-hong-kong-protesters
Sean, this is a great post and such a hot topic. It reminds me of what Cammaerts says about activism being a force able to ‘change history’ and FireChat is living proof of that. I think it is quite interesting to think about the lessons developing countries can learn from this case. Tools like this can be used also to fight for other causes or achieving certain goals, i.e. letting everyone know about Ebola risk areas or passing on important information in the event of major disaster. Great post!
Great blog, and really interesting read. FireChat could be one way to allow more agency between activitsts. However, as already pointed out here, and as Shirky (2011) argues “the state is gaining increasingly sophisticated means of monitoring, interdirecting, or co-opting (these) tools”. As you highlight, such challenges could be overcome by the fact that connection is not required. One thought I had is that the limited range of use does however also limit coordination activities. It would also be interesting, as Aday et al (2010) talks about, to look at how new media affects group identity and cross-community communication (Firechat has its limits in range, and how does this affect communication of the message to other groups). It has practical use, but Firechat in itself could also not just have limited range, but limited impact to confront “dominant..politics and power”.
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