280 Characters to Change the World: Twitter in the Hong Kong Protests

280 Characters to Change the World: Twitter in the Hong Kong Protests

. 7 min read

Since June 2019, Hong Kong streets have been packed with pro-democracy protests. The protests were directly triggered by an extradition bill introduced in February that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite people to other countries with which it lacks a formal extradition agreement—countries which include China. However, they were also a manifestation of rising frustration with increasing Chinese interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Hong Kong became autonomous in 1997 when the city was returned to China from British rule under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Essentially, Hong Kong was reintegrated into the larger Chinese state while still preserving its more democratic administrative and more capitalist economic system as compared to mainland China. However, the reality of Hong Kong’s relationship with China is much more complex than what “one country, two systems” implies. For example, the Hong Kong Chief Executive is elected by an election committee whose members are chosen by representatives of various sectors of Hong Kong society that are typically more pro-Beijing. The committee’s seats are equally distributed among the professional, commercial, social, and legislative sectors, which over-represents the cities’ business ties to Beijing. For example, in 2012, only 42.7 percent of the general public voted pro-Beijing in the legislative council elections while 92.8 percent of the election committee voted pro-Beijing.

In an effort to change this, the 2014 Umbrella Movement advocated for electoral reform via a direct election of the Chief Executive but resulted in almost no gains for fairer elections. On the other hand, the protests did draw increasing attention to mainland China trying to enforce its will upon Hong Kong government and ignited a passion for change, especially among the youth. Considering the unsatisfactory end of the Umbrella Revolution for the Hong Kong protesters and the drastically different governance strategies of Beijing and Hong Kong, a democratic clash against mainland China was bound to happen. The extradition bill was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since the beginning of this clash, police brutality and increasing protester aggressiveness has led to the protests turning violent; tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and vandalism have become common techniques used by protesters and police.

With both sides becoming violent and the increasing influence of the digital ecosystem on modern society, the current protests have also seen unprecedented use of social media as a tool to achieve political ends. Specifically, Twitter’s amplifying ability and brevity makes it perfect for the modern information consumer who is attracted to more bite-sized content. Retweets on the site can turn a single person’s 280-character long opinion into a message heard by millions. Within the Hong Kong protests, Twitter has been used to build the movement by protesters, frame the narrative by the Chinese government, and conduct diplomacy by international leaders.

Hashtag Activism

Hashtag activism, a term used to describe the emphasis of hashtags on Twitter to support social activism, has become wildly popular over the past decade and caused real societal change through movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. For example, after #BringBackOurGirls started trending, the United States, United Kingdom, and France all promised to aid Nigeria in its search for the roughly 250 schoolgirls kidnapped by Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. Hashtag activism allows for movements to go viral within minutes, propelling topics that most news readers could skim over to the content that covers the front page of mass media and enters the forefront of politics.

As such, the utility of such online activism in efforts for change are not lost in the Hong Kong protests. Protesters there have used Twitter to post what’s going on with the hashtags #HongKong or #HongKongProtests, circulating photos and videos of police brutality to increase support and energize activists. Beyond direct tweets about the protests, Twitter has also been used to garner support for Hong Kong independence more broadly. A #BoycottMulan movement started in response to star of Disney’s Mulan Liu Yifei’s statement in support of the Hong Kong police which garnered more than 75,000 mentions of the hashtag in a single day.

However, the use of Twitter by the protesters has not always been smooth. Given that 89 percent of Hong Kong households speak Cantonese and only three percent write and speak fluent English, adjusting to the English-dominated Twitter requires surmounting the language barrier, an issue only compounded by the popularity of slang on the site. Some have tried to help protesters by adding English translations to videos of police brutality and tweeting friendly advice to the protesters on how to effectively use Twitter.

Moreover, though Twitter is popular in the protest and great as a tool for gaining international support, the effects of the emphasis on social media in ending the protests is still unclear as China has yet to cede any demands. On one hand, the use of social media as a whole allows smaller groups to initiate protest planning. On the other hand, it also makes it difficult for the movement to turn into actual change. As can be seen by the Umbrella Movement, Beijing is unwilling to compromise, and they will likely not just give in to the protesters’ desires. However, social media’s decentralized nature makes compromises with the Chinese government even more difficult. Since momentum for the movement passes via the Internet, there are no representatives of the movement that can go to the table with Beijing and sacrifice demands in a compromise to end the protests. Social media emphasis is making the demands seem like “all or nothing,” and China has a bad track record for choosing all.

China's Narrative Framing

China too has taken advantage of the amplifying ability of social media. Within China, the Chinese government has used their Twitter-like social media–as Twitter is banned–to frame the demonstrations as extremist protests, while failing to mention the police brutality that has been widely condemned by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Combined with mainland Chinese censorship of pro-Hong Kong sentiments, the mainland Chinese population does tend to align with Beijing regarding the protests.

On the international stage, China has been creating propaganda to emphasize the radicalism of the protesters. For example, Xinhua News, the official state-run press agency of China, purchased promoted tweets to try to drive home the idea that the Hong Kong public has been demanding the restoration of social order while protesters cause unnecessary chaos. Two days later, Twitter stopped accepting advertising from state-controlled media, but Chinese media still asserts such a narrative on the site. In fact, the Chinese state-sponsored Global Times Editor-in-Chief even went so far as to describe the protesters as “ISIS-like terrorists,” and state media China Central Television paralleled the Hong Kong protest to the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

China has also pursued more radical methods for asserting their viewpoint by spreading disinformation and creating spam accounts. Twitter uncovered more than 900 accounts linked to the Chinese state that were spreading the crafted Chinese narrative as well as found a larger network of 200,000 accounts which were part of a larger spam campaign which were then suspended in violation of Twitter’s policies. In fact, Astroscreen, a United Kingdom company that tracks social media manipulation, analyzed 30,000 Twitter accounts in October that expressed sentiments against the Hong Kong protests and found that a third were likely troll accounts aiming to discredit the protests and create a false consensus against the protesters.

Contrasting the success of the Chinese propaganda machine domestically, the international community isn’t entirely convinced that the Hong Kong protesters are radicals. Western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have been particularly vocal about their criticisms of Chinese handling of the situation. On the other hand, many countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that have strong economic ties with China have stayed silent, but it is unclear whether they did so to preserve these ties as China is more retaliatory towards criticism by other states or because they truly agree with Beijing. For example, Japan is the only regional power that openly raised concerns with the treatment of the protesters but has since changed its stance to support “stability and peace”—now reluctant to directly criticize China for fear of economic fallout.

Twitter Diplomacy

Government officials across the world have taken to Twitter to express their opinions on the Hong Kong crisis. Twitter diplomacy, when world leaders and governments issue foreign policy-related statements and reactions over Twitter, has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Former US President Barack Obama was the first global leader to join Twitter in 2007, and by 2018, 97 percent of UN member states had an official presence on Twitter. US President Donald Trump is widely known for his use of Twitter as a medium for political communication, having tweeted more than 11,000 times in his presidential term so far. In August, Trump even reached out to Chinese President Xi Jinping over a tweet asking for a personal meeting to try to resolve the Hong Kong crisis. Other US government officials such as Senator Marco Rubio and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have also expressed concern against China’s treatment of Hong Kong. Though other countries’ leaders haven’t been as vocal on Twitter as those of the United States, opting instead for more formal statements, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted about the necessity of maintaining Hong Kong autonomy.

On the other side of the ideological scale, Chinese government officials have also taken to Twitter to express their views and to counter others’ views. For instance, Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai expressed his desire for foreign countries to remain uninvolved in the Hong Kong issue on the basis of Chinese sovereignty. Despite the Twitter diplomacy at play that allows countries to engage with each other publicly and instantly, there seems to have been no progress in resolving the Hong Kong crisis; China rejects almost all suggestions of foreign intervention in the crisis as they consider the issue to be primarily internal.

As a platform focused on content sharing and brevity, Twitter seems perfect for the Hong Kong protests, whether it be for protesters to spread their message, the Chinese government to try to shape the narrative, or international leaders to express their foreign policy positions. It allows individual users to spread their message to the world within seconds, averting the typical informational institution of mass media, and has turned the Internet into an online battleground for public opinion. Social media companies such as Twitter have knocked down the geopolitical borders that used to govern interactions and revolutionized the way that change is created. Today, as few as 280 characters can change the world.