It feels like 2011 all over again, in a sense that multiple protests across the world are taking place at the same time — Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Iraq, Algeria, Ecuador, Indonesia, and many more — an embodiment of the term informational cascade, where one protest will inspire another and more. At the same time, we are also seeing a number of technological innovations created and afforded through these protests, and undeniably as someone who literally studies protest movements, this phenomenon is both intriguing and challenging to keep up at the same time. In just less than three years, my thesis — which talks about social media and social movements — is growing more and more obsolete as the days pass, as I notice the emerging technologies branch farther than just the centralised social media platforms created by big tech corporations — which once again, whose stances are proved questionable (Facebook! Google! Twitter too! And not to forget, even TikTok!) — but even delve further into building their own app to mobilise, as in the case of the protests in Catalonia.
A bit of background: Following the imprisonment of nine pro-independence Catalan politicians in October, protests (which began as peaceful mass demonstrations) began to erupt in the streets in the Catalonia region of Spain. Like many protests in the world, they were mobilised by multiple groups in the country — in this case, the organisers encompass groups such as the separatist groups ANC (Assemblea Nacional Catalana), Òmnium, and a digital network called Tsunami Democràtic, whose presence behind the scene are still unknown. Tsunami Democràtic was the organisation which instigated the mass occupation at Barcelona’s El Prat airport on October 14, and this was orchestrated online through Twitter, Telegram channel, and their very own bespoke, decentralised app.
A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.
Downloading the app isn’t quite straightforward, as it isn’t available through the Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play, as a way to avoid the app being removed by the tech firms — a lesson they learned following the removal of Hong Kong protest organising app. One has to download an APK (Android Package File) from the organisation’s website, and install it manually on Android phones. Another way to download it is also ingenious — an existing user can invite another to the app by scanning the QR code from their phones to the other user’s phones — a combination of social and system trust as people often trust others within their circle of acquaintances, and along with some gamification tactics. There is no need to create an account, and users are entirely anonymous. To mobilise protests, the app asks for the user’s location, their availability (day and time), and additional mobility resources (e.g. car, scooter, bike) (Question: what happens when all of these factors change last minute?). Only users within some close proximity of the organised protests can see the activities happening within the area (Question: if protesters can only see their view of the app, does the administrator have another view/dashboard — take Uber which has different views for drivers and riders. And if yes, do the admins have the centralised view and can see all the data of all the protests happening?), as a way to “prevent information from sloshing out across the network, and limiting what an infiltrator would be able to find out”. Upon stating one’s location, the app also presents a pop-up displaying a contract of conscience to users about to participate in the protests to be ‘peaceful’ (Question: but why? Protests are full of risks and can’t promise to stay peaceful).
More questions arising: There is definitely a lot of thoughts and planning put into how the app is built, which shows that the app is more than just a weekend job. The domain for the website also was found to be registered in July, showing that it was not built spontaneously and required a clear project management.
The app is built on top of Retroshare – a freely available software used to construct encrypted, friend-to-friend networks (peer-to-peer networks in which users only make contact with people they personally know) to share files or communicate without relying on any central server. “In this mesh, nodes only exchange data with their connected ‘friends’, in order to maintain anonymity between non-friend nodes,” says Cyril Soler, one of Retroshare’s developers. “On top of that, Retroshare implements different techniques to allow data to be passed from node to node beyond your direct friends. That, for instance, allows the software to globally propagate distributed mail or files.”
This is not something developed by an activist in his or her free time,” says Luján. In contrast, Lopez suggests it may not be as complicated as it first appears. “The implementation of the F2F network, which would be the hardest part to implement, seems to be borrowed from RetroShare,” he says. “The rest is basically front-end. This could very well be done by a single developer, or a small team of them.”
However, there are caveats. “You also need to “bootstrap” the network, which means distributing the app, or a variant of the app to a significant amount of people, who would act as recruiters when the app is made available for everyone,” Lopez says. “These kind of logistics can’t be accomplished by a single person, or a small group.”
There are definitely more arising questions when it comes to protests orchestrated by invisible hands through surveillance and access to camera, like something out of a Black Mirror episode:
He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.
His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).
For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilised friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.
Also, not to mention the whole anonymity of Tsunami Democràtic, who masterminded and micromanaged the protests remotely (Question: who exactly is behind Tsunami Democràtic, who are the elites funding this app, how can we demand transparency and ensure balance of risk and power especially for a movement with the name ‘democratic’ in its name, how can we make sure this does not fall into yet another wrong hands?). While the app isn’t released as an open source just yet, the sources were told that this is definitely in plan “in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change”, which “does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service”.
- Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralised app for civil disobedience
- Catalonia has created a new kind of online activism. Everyone should pay attention
(Update Nov 1: The app is now blocked by GitHub, following a takedown request by the Spanish military police.)