The Art of Propaganda in the age of social media
The “Umbrella revolution”, named after the protection the demonstrators used against police tear gas, triggered an unprecedented response from the citizens of Hong Kong. From the day the police fired 87 canisters of tear gas at unarmed students, debates broke out between friends who sympathised with the pro-democracy demonstrations and supporters of the police force.
Never has there been a political issue so divisive in Hong Kong, with people openly venting their political frustrations by sheer numbers – even the ones who appear seemingly apolitical had something to add to the conversation. These heated arguments, often in 15-20 long threads, led to subsequent un-following, un-friending on Facebook and even removal (or departure) from WhatsApp groups amongst those who had differing views on the political debate.
Through social media, everyone had a soapbox to vent their opinions, share videos and posts they felt that added to their plight. Beyond the call for genuine universal suffrage, the movement is as much a fight to protect the rights people currently enjoy in Hong Kong, as it is to safeguard the freedom of speech, of expression and of the press. Can they imagine a world with state-controlled media, blocked searches, and restricted access to certain websites and apps?
Over the past couple of years, the increasing presence of the Chinese state has been apparent. The government has employed many tactics to maintain control of the press and the spread of pro-democracy messages and news. Last year, outrage was provoked over free-television licensing when newcomer HKTV was denied of its TV licence bid, allowing TVB – the main commercial TV station in Hong Kong – to continue its strong hold on the news. Dubbed CCTVB (mocking its relationship with the state-owned CCTV station in China), the locals maintain their scepticism over the neutrality of the station’s reporting.
The democratisation of journalism
The rise of citizen reporters, however, means that news is no longer distributed through the traditional channels of television, print and online. Twitter, weibo and Facebook, in particular, are filled with streams of people’s own raw footage capturing the turn of events of the Umbrella revolution. In one video – a burly man was overheard saying that it would cost $300 HKD (approx. £23) to remove a barricade. And in another, an “anti-occupier” was asked how much he’d been paid off to disrupt the movement, to which he answered, “That’s none of your business!” – a slip of the tongue, perhaps?
Through social shares of news and distribution of video footage captured on smartphones, people are left to make their own judgements. Did official forces pay triads to intimidate pro-democracy protestors? Were people paid to disrupt and aggravate the peaceful protests or attend anti-occupy rallies? If the attendees of the rally are to be believed, it would appear to be so. In one news report by i-cable, a subscription channel, one senior citizen said she came because the head of the village told her to do so, and another lady, with a heavy accent, said she was part of a tour group and thought she was going to go shopping before quickly being pulled away by her tour guide for saying too much.
The future of Hong Kong?
The Chinese Communist Party has a huge task at hand – and the world is watching. Not only is the state propaganda machine having to control the news flow of the Occupy movement into mainland China, the state is also dealing with (what it deems as an “internal affair”) how the demonstrations are perceived, and the spread of unfiltered content in the age of social media.
The party believes that a strong hold over Hong Kong is the only way of guaranteeing its stability. The fear is that if the party loosens its grip, Hong Kong will slip towards disorder, spelling disaster for the rest of the country. It is, after all, an “internal affair” they are dealing with.