Social networking sites take lead role in demonstrations

Social networking sites have for the first time played an important role in a protest movement in Hong Kong. They were used to motivate protesters against the railway project to swarm the chief executive's residence on Friday night.

Up to 1,000 protesters caught police off guard when they rushed from the Legislative Council building to Government House on Upper Albert Road, where they staged a sit-in and demanded to see Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. The people involved were informed of the stealth move by the social networking site Twitter.

Internet Society chairman Charles Mok said the high-speed rail protests were the first to actively use Twitter in Hong Kong, a tactic which has been deployed in other civil disobedience movements around the world.

In 2007 in Xiamen , in coastal Fujian province , protesters against a planned petrochemical plant were mobilised with cellphone text messages, catching police by surprise. The plant was forced to relocate after more than 10,000 marched.

In Hong Kong, users checking the hashtag '#stopxrl' - short for stop express rail link - could be continuously updated on the situation of the protesters as the debate for funding approval continued inside Legco.

Thousands of 'tweets', as the updates are known, were posted over the last two days by the protesters themselves. They called people to join the protest and express their concerns over the project to lawmakers and activists inside Legco during the debate.


Twitter users were accessing the internet via the free Wi-fi hotspot provided by government outside Legco, but later switched to use their own USB mobile broadband modems because the Wi-fi service was overwhelmed.

Tweets on the latest developments on the debate and clashes outside Legco, such as 'Breaking News: Pan-democratic lawmakers left Legco chamber in protest RT' and 'Pepper spray outside Hong Kong Club' were posted yesterday within a minute of the incidents. Protesters could check the messages on phones equipped with Web browsing software during the carnival-like gatherings and rallies amid a week of protests. They uploaded pictures, videos and their views to websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

'There was one stage where there were more than 60 tweets a minute on the #stopxrl hashtag,' Mok said.

Twitter users on the mainland, including civil rights activists, could also share and discuss information about the railway project. Mainlanders were even passing information about the development of the rail link on the mainland to Hongkongers, he added.


There are more than 110 Facebook groups opposing the railway, and one has 2,000 users. There have also been 680 videos opposing the rail link posted on YouTube.

Twitter was a better social networking site than Facebook for such movements because it offered instant updates, Mok said.


Mirana Szeto May, a cultural activist and assistant professor in the University of Hong Kong's comparative literature department, said social networking sites were helpful in mobilising people.

'Compared with the protests against the demolition of iconic buildings the Central Star Ferry Pier and the adjacent Queen's Pier, the social networking sites have helped to call more protesters to join protests against the high-speed rail link project,' Szeto said.

Facebook has been used in a fund-raising campaign to pay the legal expenses of two activists who lost a court case they fought to preserve Queen's Pier. Each supporter donated at least HK$10.


But Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, questioned whether Twitter was useful in attracting large numbers of new recruits to join the protests.

'Large numbers of protesters might have come out because the project related to public interests, such as public engagement amid government consultation and the large amount of public spending,' Ma said. 'It is still difficult to say how great the effect of the social networking sites was in mobilising Hong Kong protesters.'

The challenge for the future was how to sustain the participation of these supporters, Ma said.


The number of mobile phone accounts in Hong Kong was 11.43 million as of early last year - an average of 1.63 per person. The number of people with internet-capable mobile phones hit 3.35 million by last January, an increase of 15 per cent from the previous January, the telecoms watchdog Ofta said.

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In a city of 7 million people, the number of mobile phone accounts as of early last year was: 11.43m