Virality and Surveillance: Protesting in the Digital Age

By | June 29, 2020 at 5:10 pm | No comments | News

Ahead of the “Platforms of Distortion” panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson, PEN’s Communications Intern, Kayla Chhin interviewed Matt Bailey, PEN America’s Digital Freedom Program Director. 

Kayla Chhin: On Twitter, you said that “In 2020, refusing to amplify disinfo is a crucial part of protest and dissent”. Misinformation and false news have been spread throughout these protests as well. How has this affected the trajectory of the protests and how they have been perceived?

Matt Bailey: It is very early days to know what the full role of misinformation has been in the course of the continuing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But what has been very clear is that both disinformation – falsehoods that are spread deliberately – and misinformation – falsehoods that are spread unwittingly – have been significant. In addition to a significant uptick in the amount of hate and racist attacks online, we have seen the deployment of unverified and misattributed videos of protests, including from other years and countries and including selectively edited videos like the “racist baby” clip, circulating. The goal in some cases seems to be to create fear and discourage protesters and in others to create the impression that the level of property damage or violence by protesters is significantly greater than in reality. We have also seen efforts to sow confusion, for example through the use of bogus email and social media accounts promoting protests that aren’t happening. There have also been significant cybersecurity attacks against anti-racism organizations. 

During the U.S. 2016 elections, and in countless elections and political moments around the world since that time, we have seen disinformation strategies that try not so much to boost or discredit one side or the other as to create further polarization and sow confusion on points of shared truth. For example, in 2016, there were disinformation narratives pushed simultaneously that sought to create alarm on the left about supposed violent extremism among gun rights activists and on the right about supposed violent extremism among anti-racism activists. These were pushed simultaneously with the goal of reducing social cohesion, creating further distrust in our institutions, and ultimately weakening our democracy. It worked. 

The number of players pushing disinformation, both from abroad and domestically has increased greatly in the past few years, and early signs are that they’ve all been very busy during the protests. The motivations and strategies that are in use are also diverse. But what we can say for sure is that the 2016 playbook hasn’t gone away. Last year, PEN America published a report – Truth on the Ballot  –  examining the role of disinformation in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections and raising the alarm about what that could look like in 2020. We’re staying very focused on these issues as we go into the height of the election season. 


KC: Some individuals and groups have successfully subverted hashtags to drown out political messages – such as the dilution of #WhiteLivesMatter messaging by K-Pop fans who post unrelated fan material. Is this “commandeering” of hashtags harmful or helpful?

MB: One really interesting aspect of political debate online these days is that it has grown to include not just disinformation but an arms race between different factions trying to dominate the conversation. It’s very easy to cheer for K-Pop fans, and especially for K-Pop fans when they disrupt white supremacists. But it’s also important to remember that these kinds of tactics can be, and have been, used for more nefarious purposes. Steve Bannon has famously talked about his strategy of “flooding the zone with shit” in order to drown out disadvantageous headlines.  That can undermine the public’s ability to see important information.  We are also seeing a somewhat related tactic used by zoombombers to disrupt everything from graduations to health policy meetings. So without making a false equivalency between the causes we’re talking about, it’s always important to remember that these techniques can be deployed as easily by people you disagree with as by those you agree with.  To me the more important question is: what are the social media companies doing to ensure that their platforms remain safe, inclusive spaces where hate isn’t so easily amplified and everyone’s voice can be heard?


KC: Social media engagement is a significant part of the protests but trends like #BlackOutTuesday  – an accessible way of protesting, with minimal effort and, perhaps, thought – have also clogged up critical communication channels. What are the upsides and downsides of this sort of digital activism? 

MB: It’s interesting to think about #BlackOutTuesday back to back with the question about the K-pop stan actions. The basic strategy behind #BlackOutTuesday has been in use for quite a while – both online and off. Tactically, it’s the equivalent of Planned Parenthood’s Pink Out Day or, offline, the various things we wear yellow ribbons for. There were a lot of different viewpoints on this particular campaign that are worth reading up on. One significant problem that came up was that a number of users and corporate accounts thought it was a good idea to show their participation by also tagging #blacklivesmatter and other hashtags being used as digital rallying points for the protest. In the process, they were drowning out dialogue and important logistical and safety updates with a bunch of black squares. The irony being: that is exactly what the K-pop fans did to deliberately disrupt #whitelivesmatter. 


KC: Protestors in other countries often use apps like Telegram and Signal to share information while US protestors rely mainly on Twitter and Instagram. How much does a successful mobilization depend on how freely protestors can communicate online? 

MB: It’s interesting  –  in the U.S. we actually have seen use of a great number of platforms and secure messaging tools during the protests. Twitter and Instagram have definitely been in use but TikTok and Signal specifically have seen spikes in downloads as well. There’s been a lot of attention to digital security and anti-surveillance practices for protesters. So while the specifics, as well as the threat models, of protest and organizing in the US are different from some other countries, there is also a lot of shared global learning going on.  It’s also important to remember that, notwithstanding online actions like the K-pop stans took against #whitelivesmatter, organizers will tell you that the digital tools are mostly beside the point: people realizing their collective power is about building real connections. The K-pop stans were able to mobilize not so much because they were using this or that platform but because they had a long established sense of community.

One source of tension for those of us who do spend our time thinking about digital tools has been the one between virality and surveillance. One of the most used tools in these protests has been TikTok, which immediately raises concerns about surveillance and data harvesting due to the combination of its Chinese ownership and its very dubious security practices. Even laying the Chinese government aside, the question this raises is what it means to organize online in the context of surveillance capitalism – using platforms that are designed to collect information on our every move? The heavy use of encrypted and obfuscated tools by some protestors and movements responds to this concern but there is a cost in terms of the ability to rapidly mobilize and to syndicate and amplify content like videos of police misconduct. I respect how organizers in the U.S. have used less secure platforms tactically to make change. What I worry about is that many protesters don’t fully understand the risks they face or the steps they can take to protect themselves.


KC: Mark Zuckerberg took no action on a Trump message that seemed to incite violence (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). This led to considerable tension within the company. There were similar debates within Twitter before it started to fact check Trump. Are the big platforms beginning to accept that they have a role to play in moderating hate speech and incitements to violence?

MB: Each of these companies has its own unique culture, decision-making processes, and marketplace incentives. I think what we saw with the very interesting divergence between Twitter and Facebook on the President’s posts was a reflection of those differences – and as the calls for reform and regulation from both the Democrats and Republicans continue to increase we are likely to see further divergence. The important thing to remember is that, these being private companies, it is all fundamentally about managing risk. Is it more risky to err on the side of letting questionable and even harmful content proliferate or to be seen as a self-appointed “arbiter of the truth?” Which one costs more operationally? Are the platforms having a fundamental change of heart? Probably not. Are the business considerations and political winds shifting? Absolutely. Their shifting strategies reflect how their internal cultures and structures evaluate and respond to those shifts. 

The reason this question of incentives matters is because the questions of what role the companies should play in moderating hate and incitement is actually very complicated. For example, PEN America has advocated against kicking Trump off Twitter, as we believe the public has a right to hear from their elected leaders, but we also think it is reasonable for his tweets to be fact checked. The future of content moderation will need all of us at the table to figure out how to protect free expression and mitigate these kinds of very real harms.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook continues to respond to Stop Hate For Profit.


KC: Trump’s unprecedentedly candid social media presence has been one of the hallmarks of his presidency. Has it changed the way parts of the US government respond to criticism and protest? 

MB: “Candid” is a polite word for the President’s social media presence. While it is unclear if the tendency of the President to govern by tweet will outlast him as a norm, the larger effect has been the massive chilling effect on career civil servants in communicating with the public at all, since they know they may be subject to the president’s public wrath if they contradict his preferred message. Reprisals against career scientists within the National Weather Service regarding their modelling of the possible path and impacts of Hurricane Dorian and the sidelining of public health officials who sounded the alarm about COVID-19 when the president was trying to downplay the threat are a case in point. 


KC: During a teleconference with governors, Trump said  “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” Has this attitude been reflected in subsequent government policies or activities? Have breaches to personal online freedoms increased?

MB: It’s important to remember that police departments are locally governed in the U.S., so most of this rhetoric amounts to little more than bluster and posturing. That being said, there has been a great deal of concern about surveillance by State and Federal agencies during the protests. The Drug Enforcement Agency, which is Federal and has a mission that matches its name, was contentiously tasked with keeping tabs on protestors, a Customs and Border Patrol Predator Drone was documented making loops over Minneapolis, and in general many State and municipal law enforcement agencies have built up quite an arsenal of surveillance tools, ranging from facial recognition databases to Stingray cell site simulators in recent years. 

We don’t know the extent of the data that has been collected and it surely varies place by place. One response to this, in addition to some really great reporting to try to document it, has been including surveillance reforms in local advocacy. For example, the New York City Council has passed the POST Act, which places new oversight by the public on police surveillance technologies.


KC: PEN America recently released a report on the profusion of anti-protest bills in state legislatures in the past five years. How will the current protests affect those bills? Will it generate more public interest in them?

MB: One of our primary findings in Arresting Dissent was that legislators often introduce anti-protest legislation directly inspired by recent protests, usually in an effort to criminalize or heighten penalties for the expressive conduct in which protesters engaged. In just five years, legislators introduced 116 bills that would establish heavy penalties for demonstrators who either march on public roadways, protest near critical infrastructure sites, or otherwise engage in protest activity these bills would deem unlawful. Under one of these proposals, for example, one could be charged with “riot-boosting” simply for having held a “Know Your Rights” training for would-be demonstrators.  Only about 20 percent of these proposals have become law; even so, they promote the view that protests should be viewed through the narrative of criminal disruption, not civic participation.

Already, we are seeing the possibility of new legislation introduced in reaction to the current protests. New York state has already introduced a proposal, and other states have threatened to do so. This is in keeping with the pattern we documented in the report of legislators developing draft legislation that directly responds to protests by particular groups; often Native American-led anti-pipeline protests or earlier Black Lives Matter protests. We hope that the protests will help galvanize public attention both to the value of public protest and to the threats to Americans’ protest rights posed by these bills.


KC: Dozens of reporters and press have been arrested or assaulted while trying to cover the protests. Aren’t such attacks clear violations of the First Amendment? Have the protests changed what PEN America does to protect reporters and the press?

MB: We have seen egregious violations of press freedom during these protests. As of mid June, over 400 attacks on reporters have been documented, including assaults and arrests.  The majority of these attacks have been at the hands of police, not protesters. PEN America has been actively speaking out against these assaults and arrests, as they implicate core press freedom and First Amendment issues. On June 2, we joined with 17 other organizations to call on law enforcement officials nationwide to cease attacks on journalists providing coverage of the protests; on June 9 we joined with over 100 other media rights organizations and news outlets to call on New York City and Minneapolis authorities to end the arrest and harassment of journalists covering protests in those cities; that week we also joined with the Committee to Protect Journalists to organize a coalition of 56 press freedom organizations and experts to send letters to every U.S. governor and the mayor of Washington, D.C. calling on them to affirm their commitments to press freedom and hold law enforcement accountable for actions against journalists; and PEN America chapters in five cities joined with other local organizations to call on mayors and police chiefs to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters and journalists. 

In addition, we quickly launched a series of webinars for journalists covering protests, focused on legal rights, physical safety, digital safety, and mental health and trauma. The videos of each webinar are available at these links.  


KC: PEN America released a short guide on how to avoid protest disinformation. Do you have any other advice about how to stay safe online while protesting? 

I mentioned this earlier but the biggest digital issue when protesting, in the US and around the world, is surveillance. This is a complex topic and one that changes as new tools become available for both protesters and governments, but at a high level I would offer up these five tips:

1. Protect yourself. The day before you protest, take time to read one of the many excellent guides to personal cybersecurity and antisurveillance, such as the one from the EFF, and minimize your risk. In general, minimize how much technology you carry and how connected it is. Do you need to bring your cellphone? Could you put it in airplane mode? 

2. Remember that anti-surveillance is everyone’s responsibility: the photos of other protesters you post online can potentially be used to identify them.  Make sure to blur faces and identifying characteristics like tattoos in photos before you post them. Signal provides an integrated feature that helps with this.

3. Disinformation is dangerous during a protest. Do check out our guide how to keep yourself and others safe by combatting protest disinformation.

4. This is a thoroughly non-digital point: remember to tell someone where you’re going who is staying home and make sure you’ve got their phone number written down. You never can tell when your phone might get wet, smashed, or confiscated.

5. Lastly, activism and surveillance can go hand-in-hand with online harassment and intimidation. Part of what our Online Harassment Field Manual advises is to plan for it in advance: don’t be afraid to protest but do know what to do if things go wrong.

If you are a writer, journalist, or activist who needs to be pointed in the right direction, please feel free to reach out to me at!


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