Creative Protests in the Age of Internet and Social Distancing

By Zuzanna Mietlińska & Joanna Sowińska 

There are many ways you can protest these days. You can march on the streets, you can picket, you can riot. You can also boycott or work via unconventional tools, such as the Internet. The following article describes how two coexisting phenomena have contributed to the birthing and popularising of unconventional protesting methods. Firstly, it’s technological development. Secondly, it’s social distancing, related to coronavirus. As it can be seen on the examples of hacktivism, #MeToo campaign and Black Umbrellas protests, the unorthodox forms of protesting are revisited online, and can be seen as the new means of disagreement in the twenty first century. 

Hacktivists: fighters for a better future? 

The word “hacktivism” derives from two words: “hacking” and “activism,” and this etymology perfectly describes its meaning. Hacktivism is a social and/or political act that is meant to promote an agenda or social change. Hacktivists use online methods to fight hypocrisy and injustice, and should not be confused with cyberterrorists. The movements usually act in the name of human rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of information. Their targets include governmental, religious and non-governmental organisations that are, in the eyes of hacktivists, the enemies of the above. It is also important to state that, thus, the actions undertaken in the name of hacktivism are somewhat at the border of legality. Their proponents describe hacktivists as “the positive heroes of our times,” while the opponents use terms such as “online terrorism” and “unprecedented assault.” Nevertheless, hacktivists remain important actors in the political sphere, and should not be neglected. They pose an example of how creative and relevant a form of protest can be, thanks to unconventional methodology that they use. 

There are many ways in which hacktivists work. Among many target-specific acts their “hacktivities” include: 

➢ breaking into computer systems, and/or changing the content seen 

➢ getting around national firewalls, thus making some information accessible for the public 

➢ information leakage 

➢ taking down targeted sites, such as those promoting pedophilia or drug/human trafficking 

➢ speaking about concerning issues, while preserving anonymity, for example via blogging 

An example of large-scale hacktivist acts includes Operation Ferguson, Project Chanology, and some actions undertaken during Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Operation Ferguson included cyber protests via Twitter against racism and police brutality, inspired by the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown in the state of Missouri. The email systems and phones were down for city officials, as a result of hacktions. After the Ku Klux Klan made some indictable threats related to the shooting, Anonymous hacktivists have hacked KKK’s Twitter account, some servers hosting KKK sites, and even leaked the personal data of its members. 

In turn, the 2008 Project Chanology targeted the practices of the Church of Scientology, in response to the attempt of removing an interview with Tom Cruise, famous actor and Scientologist. This act was considered a threat to freedom of speech and a form of internet censorship. The video, which consisted of Cruise, among others, praising Scientology and attributing them almost unreal and extramundane traits, was considered as “edited and leaked” by the Scientology Church. As a result, hacktivists from a group called Anonymous, used methods such as denial-of-service attacks (DDoS – making the source unavailable for Internet users) and prank calls to fight back. 

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was a part of a bigger movement, the Occupy movement. It began as a series of protests against economic inequality and wealth disparities in the US, as their slogan clearly demarcated a painful line between 99% of society and the 1% of the wealthiest. Some Anons (Anonymous hacktivists) have hacked the New York Stock Exchange, while others joined in the offline protests near the London Stock Exchange. 

All in all, because of their target specification, hacktivism remains one of the most effective forms of protesting nowadays. Present-day attention to technology makes it even more powerful, as it challenges the governmental and non-organisational weak spots – the internet as a communication tool. And of course, some of the actions of hacktivists are highly controversial and on the border of cyberterrorism but generally, it has to be stated, these people act on behalf of us all. 

#Metoo: a hashtag to break the silence 

Each year, women fall victim to sexual harassments and assaults. It is in 2006 when Tarana Burke, an activist, and survivor of sexual harassment, decided to speak up on the Myspace social network for all the women having encountered similar experiences. In fact, by publishing the #Metoo hashtag for the first time, Tarana Burke wanted to outline the pervasiveness of sexual abuses in society, which could happen in the most unexpected places, such as the work/office environment. With the creation and increase in the use of bigger social platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, #Metoo quickly became the symbol of a greater movement for Women’s Rights. Today, it is seen as a form of silence breaker for a frequently occurring phenomenon that harms numerous women. 

#Metoo became famous in 2017 after the exposure of sexual harassment and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein, an American film producer. When this story started becoming popular, The New York Times and New Yorker magazines got awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, one of the most prestigious journalism awards, for successfully covering Weinstein. This event resulted in a mass indignation of women, including Alyssa Jayne Milano, an American actress, and producer. On the 15th of October 2017, she posts the following tweet: 

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” 

Since then, a wave of #Metoo hashtags submerged the internet. The online languages. Moreover, many celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Uma Thurman published posts containing the #Metoo hashtag. As a renewal of the movement, the very successful yet controversial series “13 Reasons Why” by Netflix also contributed to denouncing sexual abuses. This occurs in a scene where high school students stand up for their peers by claiming: “I’m a survivor” thus implicitly participating in the #Metoo movement. 

On the one hand, the #Metoo movement presents a form of empowerment, solidarity, and empathy among women. On the other, it is a horrific reminder of the number of women having experienced any sort of sexual harassments or assaults. 

Black Umbrellas: local protests over an international issue 

A series of protests under the symbol of black umbrellas were held in Poland, since the very beginning of the story – September 2016 and Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (National Women’s Strike). In short, Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet is a feminist movement that aims to fight violence against women, pay social inequalities to women, and is considered to be “pro-choice” in the ongoing debate on the abortion bill. It is seen as the voice of women who are either for further liberalization of abortion rights in Poland (which still has one of the most restrictive laws in that manner in Europe), or for the current “abortion compromise” to be maintained. The movement was a direct response to two, parallel phenomena: the rejection of Ratujmy Kobiety (Let’s save Women) bill which, among others, aimed to reintroduce emergency contraception without a prescription, and examination of Stop Aborcji (Stop the Abortion) bill. Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet used to consist of a series of marches and other forms of conventional protests but, in the times of the corona crisis in Poland, it has shifted to, one can say, unexpected forms of protesting: 

➢ shop protesting: involves standing, in a safe distance, in a shop queue with relevant transparents 

➢ creative protesting: involves embellishing public places and statues 

➢ poster protesting: involves gluing #blackumbrellas posters in public space 

➢ bicycle, car and balcony protesting: involves using black umbrellas, the symbol of the movement when riding a bicycle, driving a car or when using the balcony, so others can see one’s involvement in the case 

It is also advised by the proponents of the movement to draw red thunderstorms by lipsticks on mirrors and other glass surfaces, another symbolism connected with Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet strikes. 

Earth is a vast place, and so is the world of protests. However, it is important to point out three interesting questions. Is “soft” protesting (National Women’s Strike’s recent ideas) as effective as, for example, online hacktivism? Is it as effective without celebrities legitimising the idea of a protest (as in the example of #MeToo)? And will the effectiveness of online protesting obscure traditional protesting? These questions probably will, to our grief, remain for now unanswered. 

Complementary reading on Black Umbrellas: 

Edited by: Karolína Hajná 

Artwork by Chira Tudoran