Individuals are demonstrating their discontent for governments in increasingly creative and disruptive ways. Welcome to the digital age. Access to information has never been as readily available to citizens. Previously disconnected people now have the realization that they are not alone in their thoughts. They now have the tools to communicate and organize in a decentralized way that was never possible. The internet democratized information, bitcoin is democratizing money, but governments have failed to democratize their power.
Something notable about the protests is the participants are mobilizing around far more than just single issues. Their initial demands have most often been met – from economic issues to personal freedoms. However, the true underlying issue is that these individuals are questioning the status quo. People now see exactly how others are living all across the world, or even just the other financial classes within their own country.
It is evident that the speed and scale of protests have increased. Each event around the world has shown how a seemingly minor encroachment by government can quickly turn into a grassroots, nationwide movement seemingly overnight:
Lebanon - A proposed tax on the messaging app, WhatsApp
Spain - A decision to sentence nine Catalan politicians to jail
Chile - An increase of metro fares
Ecuador - An end of fuel subsidies
Bolivia - A stolen election
Iran - End of fuel subsidies
Russia - Detaining opposition leaders
Peru - Dissolved country’s congress
Indonesia - A new criminal code introduced
Hati - Attempting to end fuel subsidies
Sudan - Cutting bread and fuel subsidies
Netherlands - A new farming regulation
France - Increase of a gas tax
These overarching movements that are becoming more commonplace is not the only thing uniquely attached to the rise of technology. Individuals are having a more impactful effect. Protesters are disrupting their governments through the use of more innovative means.
The clearest, current example is in Hong Kong. An extradition lawsparked nationwide protests earlier this year. The unrest has only escalated. While the law allowing Hong Kong citizens to be tried in mainland China was finally rescinded, the movement has grown far beyond the single issue. It is a fight for democracy and sovereignty (source).
Hong Kong may not be the first to employ the internet for disruptive actions. They are showing the rest of the world its potential as a tool. Through the establishment of informal social media networks, people have created a backbone for organizing their movement. Mainly through messaging apps like Telegram, demonstrators can communicate and disseminate information at a scale impossible prior to the widespread use of the technology. Telegram even pushed an update to their app allowing protestors to better hide their personal details and prevent authorities from discovering identities in these large “underground” group chats (source). First-time downloads of the app grew 323% this year from 26,000 to over 110,000. This service has been so popular among protestors that the founder, Pavel Durov, went as far as suggesting that the Chinese government may have been behind a recent attack on the application.
Reddit, an online messaging board, saw tremendous growth in Hong Kong during the same time, rising from 12,000 downloads to 120,000. Its use has been for an array of functions, but mainly to spread information on major events and developments. Those numbers may be impressive as is, but Reddit is not even the most popular messaging board protestors use to stay informed. They have a similar structured website called LIHKG. It is known as the “Hong Kong version of Reddit” (source). Everything is shared across these communication channels, from upcoming protests locations to tips on dealing with the tear gas police use. Even mesh networks have been used to stay connected. A Bluetooth-based messaging app, Bridgefy, saw its usage jump 3,685% on the year (source).
This image is from 2014 showing activists and demonstrating the use of the FireChat app to send messages using a mesh network. On a single day, the app was downloaded more than 100,000 times in Hong Kong.
What makes these protest assemblies of citizens a defining shift in history is the lack of a defining leader. Demonstrations are becoming nearly leaderless for the first time, as a means of spreading information and coordinating is readily available. This is not to downplay the merits of those whose names and faces have gained recognition in the movement. Their roles, however, have less impact and effect on the overall organization then previous protests.
Demonstrators are relying less on the support from mainstream media publications to promote the next rally, meet-up or event. With the viral nature of today's social media platforms, most can become a journalist. This is not to say that the media has no effect. The role it has played previously is just less impactful. Here is an example of a demonstration playing out over these informal networks verses that of traditional media:
On August 19, someone posted to the LIHKG forum with the idea of forming a human chain in Hong Kong on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way protest in the former Soviet Union. Very soon thereafter organizing groups appeared on Telegram. They came up with a map and logistics for how many people would need to be where.
Soon, Telegram groups had formed for each segment of the route, which would shadow the MTR subway system.
The day of the protests, volunteers updated real-time maps and polls showing where people were heading, and which MTR stations needed more attendees. Volunteers at the subway exits helped with staging, ensuring that when the protest started at 8 PM, everyone was already in position and there were no gaps.
A Telegram group organized the final action of the night, having each protester cover their eye and chant “give back the eye” at 9 PM (a reference to a protester who had been blinded in one eye by a police bean bag round).
This large action, which would be impressive in any organizational context, was organized in four days by volunteers who were all strangers to one another. Images of the protest were then used in fan artwork, posters and publicity materials also shared via LIHKG and Telegram.” (source)
Organization is only part of the battle. A large focus has been on the distribution of information acting as fuel for the Hong Kong’s citizens discontent and anger towards the government’s actions. From shared images of the female protester that had an eye injured by police, to the creative memes used to convey messages, technology has turned previously fractured movements to a worldwide (web) battle of public opinion.
While not particularly an example of the concept of decentralization, I could not help but include this cyberpunk image of a Hong Kong protester disrupting police:
Credit to reddit user u/DannyBoy7783
A closer look at continuing demonstrations in Lebanon, Catalonia and Chile illustrates the significance of the growing trend of movements and technology being intertwined. Each of these examples started with a single event, a spark that spread like digital wildfire.
While Hong Kong may be an outliner on its relatively more advanced use of technology, other demonstrators across the world are relying heavier on the use of apps and social media to effectively disrupt their own governments. Though, even with the increased disruption caused by protests, governments remain isolated, to a degree, from true accountability. As much as these protests may accomplish, the population is still dependent on the government's issued currency to live their day-to-day lives. The easiest, and most liberally used method for a government to continue spending, even in a massive deficit or nationwide protest, is to print more currency, i.e inflate the supply. As the spending and subsequent debt is denominated in a specific amount of currency, and more enters circulation, their debt is reduced and spending is paid for. This comes at the expense of everyone else holding the currency, as their purchasing power reduces along with it.
To counteract the desire for citizens to hold their wealth outside of their government’s currency and its devaluation, restrictions are put on the movement of capital. As examples, China has put a daily limit on foreign-currency cash withdrawals to ~$3,000 to prevent its citizens from storing their wealth in other forms. Lebanon has taken a more extreme approach with traders banned from taking “significant amounts” of cash outside of the country’s borders. Even as protests are raging nationwide in Lebanon, the government remains in control over the currency and has the ability to maintain its spending to a degree even when the population does not support it. This level of insulation helps governments maintain power longer than their people desire.
Citizens need a means to store wealth outside the system of governmental control. While options do exist, they are hardly within the average citizen’s reach. This is the value proposition of Bitcoin, a decentralized and sovereign currency. It is like gold, a store-of-value that cannot be debased by a government. Those in power cannot create moreto finance their spending. Bitcoin is gold that weighs nothing, takes up no space, and cannot be counterfeited or seized. A user can verify with perfect certainty the amount in the entire universe, and how much of the total supply they own themselves. All this for less than $100 of hardware and an internet connection. That may sound like science fiction to most people in the world, but it’s what Bitcoin offers. Bitcoin opened up the Pandora's box of possibilities.
In societies experiencing the tightening of governmental control over privacy, property and currency dynamics, only the most resistant to those forces will survive. Like that of a “superbug” bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, Bitcoin has evolved as the most resilient system to state attacks of property, privacy and freedom.
Holding Bitcoin means keeping a private key in your possession. This is a fundamental change in the storage and protection of personal wealth. A private key is only that of a list of phrases, be it 12 or 24 words. Storing those words are up to the holder, but it could even just be memorized. A government can no longer pressure a payment provider or bank to confiscate funds. The only means of taking an individual's wealth would be to get their phrases in the correct order. The security comes down to the user, and there is an ever growing amount of tools to assist them in safeguarding private keys.
Out of growing restrictions of freedom and advances in technology, a new organism has managed to evolve, one that protects individuals from those very same attacks they have been repeatedly subjected to. Like a bacteria that has been dosed with every antibiotic in the medical toolset, one cell will eventually alter itself in an advantageous way. It’s a Darwinian-style, survival-of-the-fittest adaptation that facilitates its survival. This superbug does not stop. It passes along it’s newly found resistance to "unprotected" cells by transferring their beneficial genes, or in Bitcoin’s case, by onboarding new users.
As a reminder though, Bitcoin may not be quite ready for the adoption that citizens need now. Leign Cuen recently wrote about several examples in countries that may need the technology the most right now, in which people attempting to use Bitcoin have found it to be “insufficient”.
Both the Chinese and Iranian bitcoiners who spoke to CoinDesk pointed out that most people don’t have the skills, nor the desire, to go “the anarchist route,” as the Chinese bitcoiner put it. The Hong Kong protester added that “most protesters don’t know how to make use of bitcoin in this [activist] context.”
When it’s available, Hong Kong civilians still rely on traditional financial institutions, the Chinese bitcoiner said. LocalBitcoins data on peer-to-peer bitcoin trades in Hong Kong and Iran don’t show any relative spikes, reflecting the same narrative from over-the-counter Lebansese traders. Many bitcoiners prefer to stay deep underground these days, another Tehran-based bitcoiner said, fearful of attracting the attention of authorities on the hunt for people to suspect and arrest.
Scattered and fragmented communities offer scant liquidity on the ground. Broader adoption leads to better usability and privacy, even if only by helping bitcoiners get lost in the crowd (source).
After all, if bitcoin were more popular in Tehran then users might not fear that usage would attract attention. A third anonymous Iranian source, currently abroad yet deeply involved with the Tehran bitcoin community, said there is a significant legal threat to locals helping neighbors bypass internet censorship.
While Bitcoin may not be ready for the people that need it the most, it is hard to not see the potential for a decentralized currency in a world of increasingly decentralized means of protesting. The top down, centralized systems of control that have managed to hold onto power, are beginning to crack around the world. Current governments were never designed for a world of connectivity that both the internet and bitcoin enables. Technology and growing unrest have created the conditions for a perfect storm of self-sovereignty.