Library Dissertation Showcase

Free Hong Kong: campaigning for social change through hashtag activism

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

On October 8th 2019, professional e-sports gamer “Blitzchung” receives a year-long ban from performing at any Hearthstone tournament by the US-based games developer, Blizzard. Hearthstone, a popular online card game, was hosting a Grandmasters tournament, which places the very top players against one another for cash prizes. The incident occurred just after Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung was amidst a post-match interview, where he dons the iconic Hong Kong protestor style mask (Fig.1), yelling “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” (Inven Global, 2019) After which, the livestream cut to an ad break, which was followed by Blitzchung’s ban, alongside the two casters who can be seen trying to jokingly hide under their desk, whose contracts were both terminated. Blizzard cited a competition rule, stating players cannot do anything that “brings [them] into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages [Blizzard’s] image.” (Porter, 2019) In doing so, Blizzard took a stance against the protests taking place in Hong Kong at the time. In their attempt to hide behind corporate rules, Blizzard purposefully engaged in the censorship of these protests, due to the 5% minority stake that Chinabased Tencent has in Activision Blizzard, and the access to the Chinese market that this investment has (Itani, 2019). The irony of this, being that Blizzard’s reaction to the act of resistance is what garnered most of the public attention, taking news headlines from the likes of the New York Times (Victor, 2019), and reached the newsfeed of a then nineteen year old British teen sat at his desk. In breaking the boundaries of what was considered the ‘norm’, in this instance, the typical apolitical space of an e-sports tournament hosted on a live streaming platform, Blitzchung managed to spread the message of the then on-going #FreeHongKong movement that had begun to gain more and more traction. His refusal to stay silent, gave a voice to thousands.

This was the first instance that I had heard of #FreeHongKong, the first time I had been informed of the goings on across the world. Its ability to cross cyberspace and pass through networks to bring international attention is what has brought me to writing this dissertation. I define hashtag activism, as “discursive protest on social media united through a hashtagged word, phrase or sentence,” (Yang, 2016, p.13) on sites such as; LIHKG, a HK based forum; Twitter, one of the top America-based social networking site; Reddit, another American-based social networking forum, and other such sites. Due to my limitation as an English speaker, I shall largely focus on the American-based social networking sites, and attempt to establish the relative significance of hashtag activism to the #FreeHongKong movement as a whole. I will also make reference to ‘clicktivism’ (White, 2010) and ‘slacktivism’ (Lodewijckx, 2020), as terms that are similar to hashtag activism, with emphasis on political actions which pose a minimal cost to participants yet have no real-world impact. (Morozov, 2009). What I seek to build upon here, is the notion that this has now become an essential part of activism in the digital era, and something that we must work into our tried and tested methods of bringing about desired social change to society.

Manuel Castell’s notion of a networked society argues that networks form the new architecture of society, and are the dominant mode of organizing social relations. (2000) Networks act as decentralized systems of nodes, and though nodes are not of equal importance, they are multi-dimensional and multi-directional. He asserts that “I conceptualize social actors aiming for cultural change (a change in values) as social movements and I characterize the process aiming at political change (institutional change) in discontinuity with the logic embedded in political institutions as insurgent politics.” (2013, p.300) The #FreeHongKong demonstrated a desire for cultural change away from mainland China, keeping their own freedoms that had become unique to Hong Kong, by protesting against the insurgent politics that sought to add the new national security law. Utilizing Castells’ theory on Communication Power (2013), I aim to demonstrate the significance of communication networks in resisting a culture of self-censorship and the total domination of the state in Hong Kong that has become realized in recent months. I will outline how it justifies the importance of hashtag activism, as it demonstrates a necessary form of counterpower that can be found through the use of social media.

Castells defines power as “the relational capacity that enables the social actor to influence asymmetrically the decisions of other social actors in ways that favour the power actors will, interest and values.”(Castells, 2013, p.10) This power can be exercised by methods of coercion, the possibility of such coercion, and/or the construction of meaning on the basis of the discourses for which social actors guide their actions. As such, the exercising of power on social media platforms manifests in the distribution of information, and crucially the control of the flow of information. Coercion and fear are critical sources of imposing the will of the dominance over the will of the dominated. The control and flow of information, in the case for #FreeHongKong, can be understood as the attempts by protestors to share their message outside of their own borders, in order to garner global attention and further support for their cause. What Castells emphasises through his work, is that “Power in the network society is communication power.” (2013, p.53). Networks exist as global entities, spanning across nations without physical boundaries, their ability to surpass the state and its enforcement of power through physical means is perhaps the single most significant benefit to the Internet as we have it today. Our anonymity lends a voice to those who would otherwise be silenced by the threat of a baton, or worse. As such, states have to develop methods of containing or otherwise tracking these networks as they form.

Gilles Deleuze’s postscript on Societies of Control (1992) helps us understand China as a society of control realised in the modern era. People are ‘dividualized’ and reduced to numbers, social credit score, citizen cards to pass checkpoints etc… Deleuze views communication as a subtle, snake-like tool of control that coils itself around us. Communication networks are, for Deleuze, much more tools of domination, rather than tools of liberation. I aim to reflect upon the effectiveness that the #FreeHongKong movement has in its ability to combat often invisible forms of resistance by those who hold power that can dominate the online space. Bots, company leverage, individual actors, and China’s ‘great firewall’, all tools of the authoritarian state that I hope to expand upon and identify. In doing so, I shall argue that there is much to learn from the #FreeHongKong movement for future protests against authoritarian regimes across the globe. The point of contention between Castells and Deleuze, is whether these communication networks can really be navigated and used effectively by those who are dominated. For Deleuze, having the answer as being to further our reliance on communication networks would only further tighten the coils around us. For Castells, the shaping of the mind is a more effective tool of exercising power than the torturing of the body. Our networked society, perhaps more than ever, offers both the chance to be exposed to misinformation, and also the potential of liberation through the free access of knowledge. If this is the case, is it possible for us to use these chains against the oppressors? Can we use these complex systems of communication, building networks with other protestors, sharing information out to the world, to our advantage when combating authoritarian control across the globe? Or, are we simply shackled as we become more reliant on them to mobilize? These are some of the topics I seek to wrestle with during my dissertation.

Jodi Dean’s concept of communicative capitalism argues that the ones who really benefit from hashtag activism are the corporations that run the websites through which resistance can be realised (Dean, 2005). Hashtag activism cannot replace the genuine energy that is involved with forming a praxis of resistance. The value of sending the message, for Dean, is viewed higher than the total value of the message being sent itself. Social media sites thrive on having more and more content being put out there, rather than trimmed and precise messaging that a single crowd chanting might produce. The main take away from Dean’s work, and what she relates to Deleuze with, is that the power of bodies, the assemblage of people cannot totally be replaced by mere networks in the digital space. She notes that “Revolutions call us – revolutions produce their revolutionaries.” (Dean, 2019, p.330), there must be boots on the ground, demonstrating physical resistance where their messages can be heard. You cannot bring about any social change without the radicals who are willing to take the next step, such as the fearless activists that spearhead movements like #FreeHongKong. Much like Deleuze, Dean is highly suspicious of the overreliance on hashtag activists to spread information in-part due to its reliance on capitalist moguls who run these platforms. Castell’s notion of communicative power is important for understanding how our networks can be used to impose dominance upon the dominated, though the flip side of this coin being that there are very real potentials for utilizing this power for our own forms of resistance. This point of contention serves as the bedrock for this dissertation, the debate surrounding hashtag activism whether it ultimately causes more harm than good.

I will argue that us witnessing history as it unfolds, enables us to gather a truer picture than what might have been. Were there no eyes in Hong Kong, what would we imagine the “reason” of the protests taking place might’ve been out of the mouthpiece of Chinese press. Embracing the lack of fear by openly protesting on social media takes power away from authoritarian figures, which leads to them extending their influence to force individuals to delete tweets such as a controversy with the American-based NBA, where the Houston Rockets general manager, was forced to apologise and delete tweets made in reference to the HK protests, after his comments were criticised by the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston (Choudhury, 2019). I mention this briefly, because it signifies the reach that the CCP has in quashing voices of discontent, even if those voices are seemingly powerful and influential figures in our western society. Throughout, I aim to identify whether Hashtag Activism plays a crucial role in the larger mechanism of a social movement in the context of the #FreeHongKong movement, and whether it helps to bring about the desired outcome of social change in an authoritarian setting. With the success of #BlackLivesMatter in the summer of 2020, and the success of other hashtags such as #MeToo, it is important for media scholars to be able to understand the extent to which social networking sites undermine political institutions not only in the west, but the east as well.

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