Open Notes

Leaderless Activism

Leaderless Activism is Empowered and Emperiled by Social Media

"The absence of organized leadership does not mean the movements — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter — are rudderless." - John Eligon and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura VIA NYT

The protests happening around my neighborhood in the past few days have been, to all appearances, leaderless. But they must have had someone to start them. Someone to strike the match, to gather people around the rising fire. Once on the ground they take on their own life, moving from street to street, splitting off spontaneously, led by a combustible, ghostly collective.

Leaderless organization can only happen using social media, with its instant communication and powerful networking.

Those who use social media as an organizing tool, however, are taking a big risk. Law enforcement can use their location data to build a case against them, timestamping and tracking your movements during and after the protest. It’s a lot more effective when cops would move among the cars in a parking lot, writing down licence plates to prove you were there.

I don’t know how sophisticated the tracking capability is, but let’s assume that there is a code attached to your phone, something like a mobile IP. If it is anonymous, but unchanging, you’re in trouble anyway. If you always have your phone on you, you are carrying a beacon broadcasting your location. Even without your phone being hacked, cracked, or otherwise violated, data can be gathered about you. Authorizes can log your whereabouts during a protest, but also where you shop, whom you visit, your distant travels to seek asylum.

This is why a friend of mine has suggested getting a burner phone if you want to go to a protest and others have recommended turning your phone off unless you absolutely need it.