A popular web forum, seen as an unofficial organising tool for the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests, has recorded a tenfold jump in page views in the last month, reflecting the importance of social media in shaping the protest.
HKGolden.com made headlines this month after a young man was arrested for posting a message on the forum allegedly encouraging people to charge at police and block rail lines. Since then, forum users have been using code words to avoid referring directly to their sit-in participation.
Before September 28, the Chinese-language platform logged about 300,000 hits a day in its current affairs chat room, HKGolden.com's chief executive, Joe Lam Cho-shun, said. That skyrocketed after that Sunday, when police fired 87 canisters of tear gas at protesters in Admiralty.
"In the few days after that, we were getting 2.9 million page views a day," said Lam, known as the "godfather" of the forum.
The website has 300,000 registered users. Readers do not need to register unless they want to post or comment.
The site became a place where the online community could get the latest Occupy updates, share protest tactics and encourage people to become "occupiers". Users dished out suggestions for what protesters should bring to the sites, such as food, water and masks to help protect against pepper spray.
On October 17, after police officers tore down many street barricades in Mong Kok, taking back a large portion of the protest site, a message appeared on the forum: "Warriors on Lung Wo Road and Mong Kok, let's stand united. The battle this time will be the turning point of the revolution … If we take back Mong Kok, this will enter a new stage.
"If we have to, we can block MTR stations and paralyse the MTR."
According to a police source close to the investigation, the poster, writing under the pseudonym "Lee Siu-ming", was a 23-year-old man. He was arrested in Tin Shiu Wai on October 18 for accessing a computer with criminal or dishonest intent and for unlawful assembly. He was released on bail. The suspect was not related to any political party or triad group, the source said.
Critics on social media said the man was not accused of carrying out unlawful acts, but simply writing about them.
Soon after the message appeared on the forum, thousands of people flocked to Mong Kok in case police tore down more barricades. Police used pepper spray and batons on the crowds.
HKGolden.com later posted a notice saying forum users should not prod people to join the protests. "We hereby tell everyone not to post anything that can be considered illegal," the notice says. "This is because, regardless of the court's final ruling, the accused will go through a long period of mental distress."
That was when coded language emerged. Participants said they were, for instance, "going hiking" or to a "karaoke" bar, when they were going to sit-ins.
"Bring a torch to go hiking at night so you will not be afraid of the dark. Also, do not go to the dark corner by mistake," one person wrote, referring to the now infamous area in Tamar Park where police allegedly beat Civic Party member Ken Tsang Kin-chiu on October 15.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung warned that internet users could still be arrested even if they communicated in code, as long as there was evidence showing their intention to defy the law.
If people write in code, "it will be difficult to prove the intention", Luk said. "But if the internet users have said directly before that they want to block the roads, and suddenly one day they start writing in code, they can still be arrested because they have [expressed] the intention."
At the request of police, HKGolden.com turned over the IP address of "Lee Siu-ming", Lam admitted.
Lam said the more police tried to crack down on online pleas to attend protests, the more persistent internet users would become in getting around law enforcement with coded messages.
He would not say if he backed Occupy or not, but noted: "The protesters were very civilised. It is hard to find a place where so many people gather, and yet the protesters are so calm."