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

This was an assignment that I did before a year ago. In this article, I used some economic framework to analyze the biggest social movement ever happening in Hong Kong. For clarity, I make some modifications.

Though I already acknowledged  the virtue of press freedom and power of media, It was writing this assignment that made me feel 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.

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 following 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. By the analysis 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 originated from “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” proposed by Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Occupy Central, a peaceful but illegal occupation on the street in Central, served as an ultimatum to express the desire for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Despite attracting organized student groups like Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, the early declaration of this plan and following long discussion and deliberation on the Internet made it somehow harmless and predictable without concrete pressure onto the government (Hilgers, 2015). Occupy Central itself spread an idea of civil disobedience and networked already organized activists only. Furthermore, different from what Morozov (2011) claimed, the activists’ networks also did not consciously ignited and organized Umbrella movement, but rather followed (or supported) this unexpected and spontaneous social movement. It may serve as an important precondition of revolutions for the prevalent mass discontent generated by growing economic inequality and rejection of true suffrage by National People’s Congress on August 31st (Kaiman, 2014; Hilgers, 2015). However, it did not necessarily give birth to popular uprising against political status quo. Combined with the discussion above, the success of revolutions actually needs a critical event to launch the revolutionary bandwagon (Kuran, 1991) since to engage in public opposition, an individual puts a heavy weight on the size of opposition, not only considers the trade-off between external payoffs (e.g. personal rewards and government persecution) and internal costs of preference falsification (e.g. inconsistencies between true preference in heart and public expression). 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 for suppressing one’s true preferences. An individual goes to protest only when one’s external payoffs falls below internal costs. As more and more individuals choose to participate (it means that the revolution threshold is crossed), the revolution bandwagon then breaks out. A little spark can trigger a huge wildfire. However, the threshold is endogenous rather than fixed in the whole process.

Using this “revolution bandwagon" framework, there are four variables lowering the threshold in Umbrella movement: dissemination of concepts of civil disobedience, organized activists’ networks, increasing economic inequality and political decision by central government. Despite this, without the critical event of 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. And here the role of social media emerged. It facilitated the circulation of civil disobedience belief, showed the images of polices’ overreaction and injured 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 conditions, 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 forms of media have the same effect.

Though social media seemed only to play a supporting role in activating Umbrella, it is critical in sustaining the whole movement by its decisively different characteristics from traditional media. It induced mass self-communication and spread 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), by social media, movements participants could react quickly to the high uncertain situation and also incur the utility simply in the process of generating contents and expressing personal opinion by gaining shared-minded people’s recognition, both of which created self-enforcing cycle in encouraging collective action similar to Olson (1965)’s articulated social selective incentives., a popular public forum, got 2.9 million pages view a day after the police’s tear gas attack and became the powerhouse of latest updates and protest tactics sharing (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 attributes, social media is also able to provide alternative interpretations of the same event and weaken the control deliberated by traditional media and government. It can further impact mainstream public opinion conversely and seize agenda-setting power (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Castells, 2007; Omidyar, 2014). For example, 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 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 created by mass self-communication, social media makes people oscillate between hyper-emotional mobilization because of sensational images and paragraphs and rational ignorance brought by cognitive costs and scarcity of attention, which hinders deliberation and deep discussions. The satisfaction of linking like-minded persons and low costs muting, un-following and blocking dissidents lowered people’s incentives to learn the truth and further strengthen biases (Glaeser, 2003). The echo chambers emerged and an open whole public sphere turned into fragmented private sphere coexisting but distanced, which eventually led 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 government noticed the potential of social media to tacitly set political agenda, and then created its affiliated organizations to step in and maneuver (Castells, 2007; Omidyar, 2014). In Umbrella movement, it was clearly that social media became a chaotic battleground of protesters, anti-protesters and the government with claims and counterclaims, truth but also rumors, and in turn social divisiveness intensified and even violence erupted offline. For example, though the government reported deteriorating performances of emergency medical services because of the sit-in and road blockage (Lam, 2014), an article written by an emergency service officer on, a citizen media platform, indicated the official account as misleading “partial truth”. The circulation of unverified rumors and smears stimulated by social media also unexpectedly undermined the activists’ credibility and split the movement itself. The rumors implying the infiltration of Chinese Communist Party into the volunteer duty team flooded on social media and caused the distrust between protest organizers and masses (Lam, 2014). In addition, lots of fan pages supporting police and opposing the demonstrations appeared and mobilized 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 persisted. Instead of presenting public voice equally and including marginalized citizens, social media is actually in favor of those already politically engaged, knowledgeable or available participating in social media but excluding those information-poor, unfamiliar with or too busy to be 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.





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