Clickability tracking pixel

How Protest Battles Grow Online

From hashtags to Twitter posts and from Anonymous hacktivists to personal Facebook postings the Floyd protests are everywhere in cyberspace. What can we learn? Where is this heading?

by / June 14, 2020
Photo by Kevin James Shay on Unsplash

The Floyd protests show that Twitter is real life.”

This was a news headline from the New York Times this past week.

This same theme regarding the merger of online and offline life has become much clearer over the past decade, and certainly extends well beyond Twitter. Indeed, the global pandemic has accelerated the trend. COVID-19 has pushed more people to work from home, use more online resources to shop and even communicate with colleagues, friends and family via webcams, rather than in person.

And as the protests across the globe after George Floyd’s death grew dramatically, the online protest battles also surged exponentially.

No doubt, some of this online growth was related to people who did not want to join city protests because of the coronavirus, in the same way that Greta Thunberg urged climate protests to move online because of coronavirus outbreaks.

But that is just a small part of the story. People and organizations around the world are showing their support for peaceful protests with social media posts, hashtags and/or their disapproval online in wake of some disruptive protestors who have caused riots, looting and destruction in many cities.  

Indeed, many activists are training new supporters on how to be more effective online in helping their causes. For example, to support the protests, the article encourages readers to:

  1. Interrogate why you're posting 
  2. Contextualize things for friends, family
  3. Take note of your emotional response when critiqued 

National Public Radio (NPR) also points out that protest websites or other social media posts can become fertile ground for online disinformation.

Other websites and online groups supporting the police held rallies for “Blue Lives Matter.”

USA Today ran this piece which urged Americans to break out of our social media bubbles.

“When online technology and partisan media feed us perspectives and information that confirm what we already think, they fuel contempt and divide us.”

Reenter the Hacktivists: Anonymous Is Back  

Last year, Wired Magazine proclaimed: Hacktivists are on the rise—but less effective than ever. “Groups like Anonymous are still trying to make waves in Sudan and elsewhere, but the old tools don't work as well as they used to.”

But another thing we can learn about the Internet in 2020 is that trends ebb and flow – with hacktivist groups rising fast during recent protests of police brutality. Here are a few headline articles to consider:  

Washington Post: Anonymous Hacking Collective Seeks to Help Protests Against Police Brutality

Independent (U.K.): ‘Anonymous’ online activists see huge, unexplained surge in support amid Black Lives Matter protests - 'There is something interesting going on'

Excerpt:

In recent days, many of the biggest Anonymous accounts have pledged their support to protestors against police brutality and racism that began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The tweets and Facebook posts in which it gave its support – as well as indicating that it would pursue action against police departments and others – have been seen millions of times, being repeatedly shared on both platforms.

"Ok. We don't know why we got 3.5 million new followers, putting us at 5 million - but if you're new to our feed, and you're not a bot we can be pretty gruff. We don't mince words, we tell it like it is and when we want lulz, it upsets many people.

"Welcome aboard."

Reuters: Hackers and hucksters reinvigorate 'Anonymous' brand amid protests

Indian Express: Everything you need to know about the hacktivist group Anonymous

Mixing In-Person and Online Protests

Last year there were several news pieces worth noting that explain in-person versus online activism. This article from The Atlantic describes the problems with online political or social media protests (alone), which often do not lead to societal policy changes. Here’s how that article ends:

“Digital technology has opened up unimaginable worlds of access and connectivity, but it has also brought into question its own role in undermining the foundations of governments built by people, for people. The realities of face-to-face contact and in-person mass protests, the tools of centuries of struggle for full citizenship and rights, have become even more essential to grounding us as we navigate through a new era of humans’ relationship with technology. New eras of protest will have to learn how to combine the ease and speed of online connectivity with the long-term face-to-face organizing that gives physical protest its strength and staying power.”

Another aspect of in-person protests is the protection of identities with masks. The masks that many wear during the pandemic provide some help for protestors in this regard. CNN published this article last August describing why protests are becoming increasingly faceless.  

“Hoping to raise awareness about the tactics authorities were using against protesters, Oliveira and fellow designer Xuedi Chen created a slick-looking protest kit as part of their art and design project, Backslash.

It includes a ‘smart’ bandana that serves to simultaneously conceal the wearer's identity, while communicating messages between protesters through a computer-generated pattern that can only be read by a custom app. …”

Protestors, Online Activists and Hacktivists Unite

You many wonder what kind of disruption hacktivists can produce?

Here are a few recent examples:   

Deccan Chronicle: Probe on as protestors take down websites, disrupt police radio in US

Forbes: Twitter Silences Anonymous Hackers Threatening To Dish The Dirt On Trump - Anonymous strikes a cultural chord

Excerpt:  

“Whether you think that Anonymous is an "international band of info warriors," or "an even looser affiliation of hackers than it was before," matters not. The concept of Anonymous as some kind of disruptive force for good, or bad depending upon your perspective, has undoubtedly struck a cultural chord.

That chord is being strummed the loudest on Twitter, with one group claiming Anonymous affiliation, YourAnonNews, gaining millions of new followers since the Black Lives Matter protests started. That account now has more than 7 million followers. A somewhat less popular account, AnonNewz, still had a following of some 120,000. It was the latter group that had posed the question, "Should we leak more info on Trump?" which prompted my reporting yesterday. …”

Press Herald: Hancock County district attorney says his Facebook account was hacked

Excerpt:  “Matthew Foster says he did not post a comment on Facebook that made light of running over a looter.

District Attorney Matt Foster says his Facebook account may have been hacked or “spoofed” last week when it was used to post a meme apparently mocking looters associated with nationwide protests over racial injustice and the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.”

Final Thoughts

Back in 2016, which was the last year the USA held a presidential election, "Lohrmann on Cybersecurity" wrote this year-end summary on how hacktivists took center stage: “In 2016, hacktivists took center stage. Hacktivism disrupted many global causes — providing new online missions with anti-establishment goals that wounded public credibility and trust. Here’s a cyber roundup highlighting major international activities online, and how they impacted news headlines in the past year.”

Protests around the world have now merged into a new mixture of online and offline actions, that work together in a variety of forms to amplify and spread messages and win new supporters.

While these trends were emerging five years ago, I certainly never envisioned how a global pandemic would even accelerate the role and power of hacktivists even further. As I wrote for Infosecurity Magazine back in 2015, “At heart, we are all hacktivists.”

This trend, articulated five years ago, is growing faster than ever. And these word are still true: “We all have causes that we champion, both online and offline. We use the internet for different purposes, and new online opportunities are making more and more of us hacktivists—either at heart or in practice with new tools—even if we are not as tech-savvy as we would like to be.”  

Get ready for more live protests, social media activism and hacktivism working together as the November 2020 election draws closer in the US.   

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs