Messaging Technology Is Helping Fuel Worldwide Protests

11 June 2020

Technology is increasingly being used to mobilize groups protesting police violence and racial inequality across the United States.

Messaging applications, or apps, are one of the main tools helping demonstrators communicate in real-time about where protests are happening. Other technology tools are being used to record violence by police or demonstrators and listen to police communications.

Last weekend, Michelle Burris learned about a protest in downtown Washington D.C. through a Facebook message from a friend. When her friend asked her to join the protest, she said she knew she had to go.

Burris bought a face covering with the expression "Black Lives Matter" on it to wear to the demonstration. That expression has been the central message shared by people taking part in widespread protests in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident was caught on video.

Burris marched carrying a sign that read "No Justice, No Peace." After the first protest ended, she pulled up details on Instagram for another demonstration nearby involving a long line of cars.

"It was extremely powerful, not only Facebook but Instagram," Burris told The Associated Press. "It was very easy to mobilize."

Protesters are turning to secure messaging services like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram to share information. These apps can encrypt, or change parts of a message to improve user privacy.

These apps, along with others for listening to police communications and recording video, are growing in popularity.

Experts say the most widely used apps are the ones that are easy to use and can reach large groups. Steve Jones is a media researcher who studies communication technology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He told the Associated Press that "reaching as many people as possible is the number one criterion for which platform someone is going to use."

Toby Anderson, 30, attends a rally in Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday, June 5, 2020.
Toby Anderson, 30, attends a rally in Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday, June 5, 2020.

The experts say this is why social media services like Twitter, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram have become top tools for organizing and documenting mass protests.

Steve Jones noted that 50 years ago, during America's civil rights protests, it was almost impossible to know what was going on during a protest. "There was a lot of rumor, a lot of hearsay," he said. "Now you can reach everyone almost instantaneously."

Sarah Wildman said she used Instagram to find and document several protests she attended in Atlanta, Georgia. Wildman said she uses Instagram's live broadcasting service to find out what is happening during large protests. This is especially important when protesters in the back might not know what is happening at the front.

Organizers are also using Telegram, an app that permits private messages to be sent to thousands of people at once. This makes it possible for information on protest areas and times, as well as where police are making arrests, to be shared across entire cities. One New York City Telegram channel for protests grew from just under 300 followers to nearly 2,500 followers last week.

The ease of shooting and sharing video has also led to recordings of violence being shared with millions of people within moments. Smartphone video of the police incident involving George Floyd helped fuel the widespread anger that led to the protests.

Apptopia is a company that records data on app use. It reports messaging apps offering encrypted communication, like Signal, are seeing an increase in downloads. Signal was downloaded 37,000 times last weekend in the U.S., the largest number since it launched in 2014.

Apps like Police Scanner and 5-0 Police Scanner, which permit anyone to listen to live police communications, were downloaded 213,000 times over the weekend, Apptopia reported.

The Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, said it had found evidence that some groups were using technology to try to harm the protest efforts. The ADL's Center on Extremism said recently that white supremacists had attempted to use Telegram to increase violence.

The ADL said the efforts by white supremacists appeared to be aimed at using the protest environment to start "a long promised race war" in America. "They are extremely active online, urging other white supremacists to take full advantage of the moment," the ADL added.

I'm Pete Musto.

Barbara Ortutay and Amanda Seitz reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English. 

Bryan Lynn was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

mobilize – v. to bring people together for action

criterion – n. something that is used as a reason for making a judgment or decision

platform – n. a program or set of programs that controls the way a computer works and runs other programs

rumor – n. information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true

hearsay – n. something heard from another person

channel – n. a system used for sending something, such as information or supplies, from one place or person to another

white supremacist – n. a person who believes that the white race is better than all other races and should have control over all other races

take advantage of – v. to use something, such as an opportunity in a way that helps you