Case Study: Occupy/Umbrella Movement (Social Media and Social Movement)

This was also the assignment that I did before but in the semester before last semester. Other than the modifications I will post later, I will also post an article about media. But since I am a bit busy, I decided to post my past work first. For clarity, I make some modifications.

Although before this course, I already knew about the virtue of press freedom and the power of media. Just in writing this assignment, I suddenly felt that there should be a role for media in an economy and economic development since the media has just too strong power.

It spreads new information and educate citizens.
It shapes peoples’ beliefs and expectations.
It stimulates (political) institutional change.
It supervises government and reduces corruption.
It serves as a coordination mechanism in the society.
It can also cause serious division and conflicts.

So it calls for an economic explanation, although it is actually not so often explored by economists. Of course, there are still some economists exploring this new but cool area. I will introduce them afterwards also.

Original Title: Would the Occupy/Umbrella movement have occurred if social media platforms did not exist? What can we learn about our public sphere in the social media era through the case of this movement?

The considerable scale and achievement of Arab Spring brings the mythology of social media revolution and influences people’s perception profoundly on ensuing political movement over the world including Euromaidan in Ukraine, Sunflower movement in Taiwan and Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, etc. People entrust hope for freedom, democracy and transparency to social media and believe that social media per se has the power of liberation and decisive capabilities in summoning democratic revolutions; without social media, political movements may not emerge (Omidyar, 2014). However, an outbreak of unexpected political revolutions actually has far more complicated reasons behind instead of technology alone. In the context of Umbrella movement, the essay tries to delve into the relationship between social media and political revolutions and then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of social media being public sphere.

Umbrella movement originally comes from “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” proposed by Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Occupy Central serves as an ultimate means expressing the desire for universal suffrage by peaceful but illegal occupation on the street in Central. Despite attracting collaboration from organized college student groups like Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, the long process of discussion and deliberation on the Internet makes it operate in a somewhat toothless and predictable way without concrete pressure toward the government (Hilgers, 2015). Occupy Central itself becomes an idea carrier of civil disobedience only. Furthermore, different from Morozov (2011), the building of activists’ networks triggered by Occupy Central merely serves as a preparation for an unexpected revolution and does not ignite Umbrella movement. According to Kaiman (2014) and Hilgers (2015), it was the mass discontent generated by current economic stagnation with growing inequality and rejection of true suffrage by National People’s Congress on August 31st that triggered Umbrella movement. Despite the prevalence of mass discontent as a precondition of revolutions, it does not necessarily give birth to popular uprising against political status quo. The success of revolutions actually lies within the launch of revolutionary bandwagon (Kuran, 1991). To engage in public opposition, an individual not only faces the trade-off between external payoffs (like personal rewards and government persecution) and internal costs of preference falsification (the inconsistency between private true preferences and public expressed ones), but also depend on the size of opposition. The larger the size of opposition, the lower the external costs of participation in political movement. The higher the anti-government feelings, the more discomfort an individual suffers to suppress his/ her true preferences. An individual goes to protest on the street when his/ her external payoffs falls below internal costs. As more and more individuals choose to participate (cross the revolution threshold), the revolution bandwagon just breaks out. A little spark then has the power of triggering a huge wildfire. Furthermore, the threshold itself is not fixed and can be affected by exogenous circumstances. In Umbrella movement, there are four elements lowering the threshold: the dissemination of concepts of civil disobedience, organized activists’ networks, deteriorating economic situation and political decision by central government. However, without the police’s overreaction by spreading pepper spray, batons and tear gas to the in-strike students storming the Civic Square, public’s strong sympathy would not be aroused and the revolution bandwagon would not appear. Here the role of social media kicked in. It facilitated the circulation of information regarding civil disobedience, showed polices’ overreaction and scattered protesters, reduced preference falsification through encouraging self-expression, and helped consolidate activists’ networks (Srivastava, Browning, Khan & Li, 2014; Hilgers, 2015). However, since “old media" could achieve the same purpose, social media only played an auxiliary role in sparking the movement. In conclusion, the occurrence of mass political movement has numerable underlying preconditions, but social media is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition (Shirky, 2011). It indeed strengthened emotional mobilization in Umbrella movement, but without social media, Umbrella movement may still occur, as other tools have the same effect.

Seeming only to serve a supporting role in activating Umbrella movement, social media is critical in sustaining the whole movement by its decisively different characteristics from traditional media. It enables mass self-communication and real-time updated information compared to a unidirectional technical architecture and slow circulation of information in traditional media (Castells, 2007). According to Bennett and Segerberg (2012), the process of generating contents per se becomes social media users’ personal expression in order to gain shared-minded people’s recognition, and quick updates facilitate the communication between participants, both of which in turn create self-enforcing cycle in encouraging participations in the collective action similar to the effects of social selective incentives articulated by Olson (1965). HKGolden.com, a popular public forum, got 2.9 million pages view a day after the police’s tear gas attack and became the space of getting the latest updates and sharing protest tactics (Siu, 2014). Also, up to September 30, the early days of the demonstrations, the number of tweets about Hong Kong had reached more than 1.3 million and “at the height of the riot police operation, 12 tweets about Hong Kong were being posted every second” (Lee, 2014). With these aforementioned innovative technical attributes, social media is able to provide alternative interpretations of the same event and weaken the filters and control deliberated by traditional media and government. Furthermore, it can impact mainstream public opinion conversely and even seize the power of agenda-setting (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Castells, 2007; Omidyar, 2014). In the event of “Seven policemen in the Dark Corner”, the clip of police beating the protesters was displayed wholly in the broadcast of TVB initially but faced modification afterwards under the pressure from editors and managers. However, the unmodified clip and several snapshots of those had already been recorded and circulated on the social media, resulting in the investigation and prosecution of the police involved and TVB’s decline in credibility (Steger, 2015). It is shown that the existence of social media enables bottom-up agenda setting and makes citizens possible to reach the ideals of the public sphere with open exchanges of political thoughts and ideas, inquiry, communication, and deliberation, and formation of public opinion via rational debate (Papacharissi, 2002).

Despite the aforementioned versatile functions of social media, it is actually a double-edge sword. Its strengths simultaneously symbolize its weaknesses. With excessive and fragmented information flow triggered by mass self-communication, social media actually makes people tend to be rationally ignorant or conversely hyper-emotionally mobilized without deliberation and deep discussions. The incentives of forging links between like-minded persons and low costs to mute, un-follow or block dissidents strengthen peoples’ biases create echo chambers and coexisting fragmented private spheres instead of an open public one, which eventually lead into polarization in public opinion (Papacharissi, 2002; Ghonim, 2015). As Ghonim (2015) said, “Today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations.” In addition, the potential of social media to influence public opinion and tacitly set political agenda attracts the government and its affiliated organizations to step in and maneuver (Castells, 2007; Omidyar, 2014). In Umbrella movement, social media became a chaotic battleground of protesters, anti-protesters and the government with claims and counterclaims, truth but also rumors, which in turn intensified social divisiveness and even triggered violence offline. According to Lam (2014), the government reported deteriorating performances of emergency medical services because of the sit-in and road blockage. However, an article written by an emergency service officer on inmediahk.net, a citizen media platform indicated the official account as misleading “partial truth”. The circulation of unverified rumors and smears stimulated by social media also has an unexpected consequence of undermining the activists’ credibility. The rumors implying the infiltration of Chinese Communist Party into the volunteer duty team responsible for the order flooded on social media and cause the distrust between protest organizers and mass (Lam, 2014). In addition, lots of fan pages supporting police’s responses and opposing the demonstrations appear and mobilize anti-occupiers to disturb the assemblies, tear down the tents or even physically assault the protesters (Kuo & Timmons, 2014; Lee, 2014). Last but not least, digital divide still persists. Instead of presenting public voice equally and including disengaged citizens, social media is actually in favor of those already politically engaged, knowledgeable or availably participating in social media but exclusive of those information-poor, unfamiliar with or too busy to surf in the Internet (Papacharissi, 2002). Despite weaker voice of anti-occupy on the Internet, it did not necessarily indicate public preferences in reality.According to HKUPOP (2014), after 51 days of Umbrella movement, 70% of interviewees hoped to end occupation and most of them did not engage in the demonstration actually, inconsistent with the still stronger voice of maintaining occupation on the Internet.

In conclusion, social media is a powerful tool in coordinating participants and facilitating the flow of information, but by itself it cannot create a movement without mass discontent, established activists’ networks and revolution bandwagon. Also, with its own attributes, social media still have difficulties in being an ideal public sphere.

References:

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