As social networks go, Instagram has never had a particularly serious reputation. It’s the place for posed outfit selfies and brunch close-ups, not hard news and serious acts of political protest. That’s for Twitter — the network that rose to prominence during the Arab Spring and took a central role in dozens of subsequent geopolitical skirmishes — and Facebook, where it’s still possible to find substantive conversation about world events if you look between the baby photos.
And yet, this week’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have shown that Instagram may be shifting out of its avocado-toast phase. The app has reportedly been blocked in mainland China, putting it in the company of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Sina Weibo as social networks that the Chinese government views as serious threats to its stability.
Until this week, Instagram had largely escaped censorship in China and wasn’t seen as much of a threat to the Chinese political Establishment. (According to Hu Jia, a Chinese activist who spoke to Foreign Policy, Chinese officials “didn’t see a photo-sharing site to be as threatening as a text-based social media site.”) But after Instagram photos of the protests and messages of solidarity began gaining popularity in China, marked with hashtags like #hk and #occupycentral, authorities cracked down.
Hong Kong isn’t the first place where Instagram has been used as a political tool. The app played a bit role in Turkey’s “kahkaha” protest earlier this year, in which thousands of Turkish women posted photos of themselves laughing and smiling to Twitter and Instagram after Turkey’s deputy prime minister said that women shouldn’t be seen laughing in public. And prominent Chinese activists like Ai Weiwei have been using Instagram to stage acts of rebellion for months. But with its role in the Hong Kong protests, Instagram is becoming a bona-fide protest tool for the masses.
Instagram’s initial use in Hong Kong was likely a function of its availability. Fearful that their messages on other social networks wouldn’t be seen in mainland China, Occupy Central organizers have had to get creative, using tools like Google Docs and FireChat (a Bluetooth-based social network) as ways to share information and spread the word about the protests. Instagram’s inclusion among those tools has been enabled by advances in mobile technology — in 2010, when the Arab Spring began, Twitter’s short, SMS-based transmissions made it an ideal tool for countries without sophisticated cell networks or widespread smartphone adoption. But soon, billions of people around the world will be able to use Instagram, Vine, or some kind of live-streaming software, and mobile networks will be more capable of handling bigger data loads, even in places without highly developed technical infrastructure like Hong Kong’s.
Instagram isn’t just a second-string substitute when Twitter and Facebook are unavailable. It’s a compelling tool for political protest in its own right. As many noted after Ferguson, the ISIS beheadings, and other recent events, “pics or it didn’t happen” has become the dominant ethos of crisis newsgathering, and photos and videos are quickly supplanting text as the citizen journalist’s tool of choice. Looking at Instagram posts from Hong Kong yesterday was a far more emotional experience than reading stories about Occupy Central.
Instagram’s features also give it some specific advantages for political organizers. Its location tags are more commonly used than their equivalents on Twitter and Facebook, making it easy for a curious onlooker to tap, say, the “Central District” tag and quickly scan hundreds of images from real, live witnesses, experiencing the protests in real time. During huge breaking-news events, hashtags on Twitter and Facebook often get overrun with bot spam (including, in previous cases, deliberate spam originating from the Chinese government), useless commentary, and links to dozens of identical articles summarizing what’s happening. For now, Instagram location tags remain the best way to filter out the fluff and get eyewitness reports direct from the front lines.
Instagram also walks an important line when it comes to user privacy. Unlike Twitter, Instagram is populated mainly by real people — when you see an image of police wielding batons in Hong Kong, you can be fairly sure it’s coming from a real person rather than a bot. But Facebook’s real-name policies can be dangerous to political dissidents. Instagram occupies a middle ground by making outright fakery difficult, but allowing for pseudonyms — or, at least, not cracking down on them in the manner of its parent company — and the result is a safer way to disseminate controversial information in restrictive countries.
Instagram doesn’t have to replace Twitter in order to become a critical tool for political dissidents. (More likely is that Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other media — like drone-based surveillance footage — will all coexist in a kind of protest-tech mosaic.) But given the growth of Hong Kong’s protests, it wouldn’t be surprising if Instagram became a permanent weapon in the arsenal of global populist movements.
Ultimately, Instagram’s blackballing in mainland China may drive Occupy Central protesters to another social network in the short-term. But the past week has shown that the photo-sharing service can play in the big leagues. Twitter might be the permanent record of global protest movements, but Instagram has proven it can be those movements’ eyes and ears.