The Hong Kong protests are the most live-streamed protests ever

The revolution will be live-streamed.
The revolution will be live-streamed.
Image: AP/Andy Wong
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Across Hong Kong almost everyday, television screens at restaurants and bars play live footage of protests. On buses and trains, commuters stream the feeds on their phones. Some taxi drivers even play the live-streams on phones mounted on dashboards.

For better or worse, some of the most defining, shocking, gruesome, and touching moments of Hong Kong’s protests will be watched, scrutinized, and relived over and over again. The reason: the ubiquitous and unceasing live-streaming of events as they play out on the ground, beamed to tens of thousands of watchers in real time, then archived to be replayed in perpetuity.

Since protests began in June in opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, local outlets like the news sites Stand News and HK01, newspaper Apple Daily, publicly funded broadcaster RTHK, as well as student news organizations, have devoted a huge amount of resources to providing what at times feels like round-the-clock coverage of rallies and clashes. A popular webpage even consolidates various live-streams into a dizzying three-by-three grid of video feeds from all over the city.

“I haven’t seen this kind of live-streaming of civil unrest and social unrest at this scale, and in my observation it’s quite unique to Hong Kong,” said Masato Kajimoto, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school.

A confluence of factors makes the city a prime place for exhaustive live-streaming, he noted: its vibrant digital media landscape, high mobile phone penetration rates, limited free-to-air television channels, and compact geography that allows journalists to move quickly. Then there’s fast internet speeds, and excellent network coverage almost everywhere. “Watching videos on those devices are part of our lifestyle,” said Kajimoto.

Right here, right now

The live feeds find a wide audience throughout Hong Kong and around the world. For those who support the movement but aren’t directly at protest sites, they offer a way to still participate and feel connected. For people seeking information about current road and traffic status, they provide an immediate snapshot of the situation. And for journalists, human rights monitors, and other observers, the live videos are a treasure trove of information.

Live-streams and broadcasts are also seen as the most important channels of protest-related information, beating out other sources like traditional media, social media, and the encrypted chat app Telegram, according to a poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“At the peak, we might have 10 live signals simultaneously,” totalling over 30 hours of footage in a day for a single outlet, said Lam Yin-pong, the principal reporter for Stand News and who is regularly out live-streaming the protests. “This means that it’s absolutely impossible for us to re-watch what we’ve done, so we might miss parts of our own reportage.”

And that’s just one outlet. The public broadcaster RTHK has up to six cameras rolling during protests. Apple Daily has about five designated live cameras on protest days, with more reporters going live on their phones if needed. HK01 can have as many as 12 live feeds simultaneously. 

Both Lam and Kajimoto also think that while live-streams drive a lot of traffic, newsrooms may end up devoting a disproportionate amount of resources to live-streaming on the frontlines at the expense of other protest-related reportage.“The entire coverage now seems skewed towards what’s happening right now,” said Kajimoto.

Human rights watchdogs know full well the importance of monitoring the fast-changing developments closely. According to MK Tam, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, he had mobilized his entire local team to observe protest sites early on in the movement,  but quickly realized that the speed, scale, and scope of the protests meant it wasn’t enough to just have on-the-ground observers. Their solution: coordinate staff to ensure round-the-clock monitoring of broadcasts and live-streams on particularly tense days. A report published by Amnesty in late June documenting verified instances of police brutality “really depended on live-stream videos,” said Tam. “We were able to do that because people filmed from many different angles of the same incident.”

Researchers from afar have also used the extensive live-streams to study the protests closely. Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra who focuses on using satellite data and other open-source intelligence to study human rights issues, has been following the live-streams since the protests began in June.

“It’s by far the most live-streamed protest movement,” Ruser said. He noted that unlike protests in places like Iraq, where only a limited number of grainy WhatsApp and Snapchat videos percolate to the outside world,  Hong Kong’s live-streams allow for unique insight into the protests. “The biggest difference between Hong Kong and all the other protests is that in Hong Kong, you have almost parity when it comes to what you can learn remotely researching it to actually being there,” he said.

DIY accountability

The death of a 22-year-old student, Chow Tsz-lok, from injuries he sustained in a fall at a carpark where riot police had clashed with protesters has further reinforced the important role of live-streams in the protests. In an attempt to piece together a picture of what happened on the night of the incident, people have turned to live-streams, as well as security camera footage and dashboard cameras.

This comes amid a near-complete collapse of Hong Kongers’ trust in public institutions over months of protest. In the latest poll (pdf, in Chinese) conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, roughly half of all respondents said they had zero trust in the government and the police. Given this wholesale distrust of officialdom, protesters now compulsively document everything to pursue their own investigations. Huge compendiums of videos documenting instances of police brutality have been set up on public Google Drives. A group of volunteers recently compiled a detailed 381-page report looking into police misconduct, drawing heavily on at least 1,000 videos as evidence. One of the editors of the report told Quartz that the team felt compelled to write it because of the government’s refusal to conduct an independent investigation of the police, instead relying on an existing complaints mechanism which, they said, “has no power to effectively monitor the Hong Kong Police Force.”

Police have pledged to launch an investigation surrounding Chow’s death and recommend a coroner’s court hearing. Many, however, expressed doubts over whether the force could be trusted to properly scrutinize the incident and its own role in it. An international panel of experts have also said that the police watchdog has “structural limitations in [its] scope and powers”

Ruser has also been looking into the circumstances leading up to the death of the student by trawling through archived videos. With myriad theories as to how the student fell to his death and to what extent police were complicit in the death, he said that the videos and his research can “hopefully inform commentary about what happened and also demystify it in some way.”

A double-edged sword

For protesters on the ground, the live-streams present both strategic advantages and vulnerabilities. One protester in his 20s, who did not wish to be named, said he and his friends would monitor multiple live-streams of a particular protest on a single screen, and relay information back to protesters on the ground. But in another instance in early September when riot police boarded a double decker bus to make arrests, some internet users noted (link in Chinese) that the police had been able to pinpoint the bus because they had watched live feeds showing protesters boarding it. Then, protesters also later tried to use the live-feeds to try and identify arrestees (link in Chinese) so that lawyers could locate and assist them.

Police have also made requests to several media organizations for footage, specifically with regard to two separate nights when thousands of protesters surrounded police headquarters. So far, Apple Daily, Stand News, and news site InMedia have all refused those requests (links in Chinese), citing the need to uphold a free and independent media.

As protests get increasingly heated and aggressive, news outlets are also confronted with ethical questions of whether and how to show profanity and extremely violent content, for example at rush hour today (Nov. 11) when a live-stream showed a police officer shoot two protesters with live rounds at close range during an operation by protesters to disrupt traffic.

But the question on Kajimoto’s mind is whether live-streaming a death is ever acceptable.

“Let’s say somebody gets killed. Live-streaming somebody getting killed is, to me, a violation of basic journalistic ethics. It hasn’t happened yet, but as an industry I think it’s something we should be considering.”

Isabella Steger contributed reporting.