How Protest Movements Can Hijack Surveillance Tech for the Public Good

Around the world, social movements are turning drones, wearables, and other surveillance tech against the state

An aerial photo, presumably taken by drone, of protests in LA. “ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER” is painted on the road.
An aerial photo, presumably taken by drone, of protests in LA. “ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER” is painted on the road.

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is associate professor at University of San Diego & University of Nottingham, whose work focuses on social change as it relates to society, politics, and technology.

It was nine o’clock in the evening and I was on the curb with a Hungarian police officer, who was asking for identification. Specifically, he was asking to see the papers of my graduate student, Tautvydas Juskauskas. In a former life, Tautis was a levelheaded lobbyist in his native Lithuania. In a future life, he would work for the world’s largest drone manufacturer and later lead drone operations in Malawi for the United Nations Children’s Fund. That evening, however, he was a suspect, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.

Tautis and I were in the process of documenting the largest street protests seen in Hungary since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The government wanted to raise revenue by taxing the internet traffic of every business and individual, whether at home or on a digital device. The officer was perplexed by our technology and by our role in the event. We explained that we were conducting research. He demanded our papers. We stalled (I’d forgotten to give Tautis the first lesson in Protest Fieldwork 101: Ditch the ID!), and finally I agreed to give the officer my name. I scribbled Austin Fitzpatrick, my legal name.

“Should we stop flying?” I asked the officer. He thought for a minute, looked at us, looked at our drone, shrugged, and waved us along.

The entire exchange lasted five minutes and drew a crowd of people, some of whom pulled out their mobile phones to document our conversation with the police. Perhaps the presence of citizen journalists bearing witness gave the officer pause. Perhaps he was going to let us go anyway. Whatever the case, we jogged off in an attempt to get ahead of the throng and set up our equipment in time to get aerial footage of the event.

As we arrived in the square, Tautis’ phone rang. It was our contact at the local independent journalism shop. The crowd was almost there, he reported, and ready to engage the drone overhead. We’d planned what would happen next. The crowd was chanting together against the proposed tax, but also in defiance of the increasingly authoritarian government that proposed the law. With this momentum the crowd turned, as one, to point their phones upward. Together, they extended the decades’-old lighter sway familiar to any concert- goer into an entirely new space — pointed not toward a stage, but into the sky, directly toward our hovering drone. At the next protest we did the same thing, capturing the moment an even larger crowd poured over Budapest’s picturesque Elisabeth Bridge.

It was this image that became iconic for the movement and that landed on the cover of the International New York Times the next morning. The point here is not that we documented a crowd, but that the Times photo was of a crowd responding to our aerial technology. Our drone didn’t take the picture, it made the picture possible — it directed eyes and mobilized action.

The moment was both invigorating and symbolic. It was invigorating for the same reason like-minded people have engaged in collective action over the centuries: collective identity, collective effervescence, solidarity, and a desire to see things change. It was symbolic because it represented an early example of how new technologies enter public space and change politics in the process. Hungarian civil society groups had used social media sites to mobilize on the streets in real time against a threat to the internet. Once on the street, they raised their digital devices toward a new witness to the entire affair: a small quadcopter that captured footage to be uploaded to the internet the following morning, complete with a DJ Shadow soundtrack and a call to further action.

That event was one of several, as emboldened crowds saw in our videos something they didn’t see in the local newspapers. Themselves. The event was also symbolic because of what the crowd was protesting. Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, had proposed a tax on the internet that would have had a broad economic impact on all Hungarians, not just the usual gang of citizens who protested his anti-liberal agenda. As a result, grandmothers marched next to parents with strollers, and business owners and anarchists stood side by side, unified in denouncing his plan. The crowd underscored a point made by the sociologist Francesca Polletta: New technologies (and attendant public policies) create new reasons to protest.

These protests attracted the international media. They also got the government’s attention. In the face of this surprisingly strident display of solidarity and determination, Orban caved, the policy was abandoned, and the movement declared a victory. Later, Tautis did the math. He estimated that about 60,000 people took to the streets, virtually 3.5 percent of the city’s 1.7 million residents.

While it may not sound like much, 3.5 percent is actually a magic number. Conflict theorists Erika Chenoweth and Maria Stephan contend that protesters’ demands are met when they are both large and nonviolent. How large do nonviolent protests need to be? Drawing on an impressive array of data, Chenoweth and Stephan suggest about 3.5 percent of a population on the streets, nonviolently, usually does the trick.

Our use of drones to document the size of protests is but one example of a growing wave of prosocial experimentation with new technology. Was there anything new about the way Tautis and I used our drone? Many great books have been written on the promise and peril of social media and the internet. A fresh wave of thinking directs attention to wearable tech, artificial intelligence, and computational propaganda. Our thinking about drones, in contrast, is a bit hazier, to say nothing of other technologies that lie beyond the new digital technologies of social media. This is a pity, as drones and other robots are showing up in all sorts of places.

That evening in Budapest left me with some nettlesome questions about how seriously we take this technology, so I spent the last few years gathering data on how drones are used, training civil society groups on the use of balloons and drones, collaborating with a research team at the University of Nottingham focused on the use of satellite data to document human rights violations, strapping GoPro cameras to 3D-printed gimbals on kites and balloons, and working with engineering and peace studies students to build and fly drones of their own.

Along the way it became clear that a whole spectrum of technology doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary conversation about “new media” and high-profile communication technologies like mobile phones. In my home field of social movement studies, we tend to focus on those moments when change agents identify things that are wrong with the status quo, frame those issues as problematic and change-worthy, then pressure those with power and authority to take action.

In countries like the United States this pressure can take the form of a boycott against a company that tests their products on animals or a campaign to pressure a politician to vote a certain way on environmental legislation. Growing attention is being paid to technology’s role in these efforts. A boycott that was once facilitated by an important organization like Oxfam, Amnesty International, or Greenpeace might now be mobilized online and framed by a hashtag. Pressure on policy makers might have once come from a phone call, but can now come in the form of online campaigns and petitions. Scholars of politics, culture, and social change have spent considerable time exploring the impact of the new digital technologies that are critical to political communication.

We mustn’t stop there. The more time I spent reading about the role of technology in civil society, and particularly efforts focused on social and political change, the more I was struck by the dominant role social media plays in these narratives. Having joined many others in scraping Twitter data during the 2009 #iranelection, I was happy to see so much attention focused on the role of social media in mobilization and communication.

If the benefits of quickly capturing and rapidly disseminating information were made clear in recent struggles for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, the peril of poor quality control of this information has been on stark display in presumably settled democracies. This is clearly seen in the campaign that led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the attendant rise of algorithm politics and computational propaganda. Not only does social media hold both promise and peril, we are now realizing, but its functions are underwritten by a range of invisible technologies — from algorithms to server farms — that are now the focus of public concern as well as scholarly analysis. I build on this prior work to advance a simple argument: technology plays a larger role in civil society than simply creating new social networks through social media.

Our experience in Budapest is a case in point. Tautis and I used a drone to generate a video released on Vimeo and shared on Facebook and Twitter. I had no trouble finding scholarship on the importance of networked publics or rival advocacy networks — that is, smart thinking about what we went on to do with the footage — but scholarship on the politics of the drone technology itself was harder to come by. What exactly are drones an example of? They are a new surveillance tool, clearly. But they are also an ideal platform for conducting citizen journalism and engaging in humanitarian interventions. Drones are a new form of transportation infrastructure, but are also deployed as autonomous airborne internet service platforms. Thinking narrowly about technology as a synonym for social media does not take us far if we need to think critically about tools that have so many different applications and implications. A focus on communication is a necessary but insufficient condition if we want to understand the politics of technology and the technology of politics.

So what of technologies for social change? Collective-action efforts in civil society rely on key organizational and infrastructural capacity. These efforts also include a growing constellation of tools for gathering and analyzing data — both bits and atoms matter to civil society. This fact requires a broader way of thinking about the relationship between civil society and technology. The first step is to better situate the role of communication within a larger technological landscape. Message creation, reception, and interpretation are not the be-all and end-all of technology. We also use tools to warehouse and transmit data, for example.

This is important to note, as the amount of web traffic between machines outpaces the volume sent or received by humans, meaning computers are talking to one another at higher rates than humans are. Within my home domain of social movements, communication is important for gaining public acceptance and raising the cost of the status quo, as the case of naming and shaming a corporation clearly demonstrates.

When social movements want to make a difference, they create posters, websites, and hashtags to communicate their demands. But they also do whatever it takes to make old practices too expensive to maintain. This is the logic behind lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights era, die-ins during protests against the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the creation of barricades to thwart authorities during the Paris Uprising, romanticized in Les Misérables in the figure of Inspector Javert.

The focal point, then, is that interplay between technologies and civil society, as well as its impact on politics. Such a broad approach turns our attention to the political life of technology, since new tools change what we think of as public space — creating new public spheres. Several of the cases represent collective challenges to systems or structures of authority, as clear a definition of social movement as there ever was.

My conviction is that technology plays a larger role in advocacy and social change than just capturing and distributing moving images. What do a drone in Budapest, a new stone crusher in rural India, boulders in Ethiopia, and a petri dish in Flint, Michigan, have to do with one another?

One possible answer: collective-action efforts use tools and technologies to get their jobs done, and this use and those tools are far broader than anticipated.

Social change advocates use technology to raise awareness and connect people. Technology is also used to make the status quo too expensive for movement targets, or to gather and analyze data on important social, political, economic, or environmental events, or to simply catalog and archive raw data for future analysis. If we want to better understand and document the way technology gets used for politics, then we must start with a clear and scalable definition of technology.

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