Young Nigerians have taken to the streets demanding the shut down of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) due to police brutality. They have been chanting “Enough is Enough,” for nearly two weeks. #EndSARS was trending globally for several days after video footage was released, depicting SARS officers shooting a young man and driving off in his vehicle, committing the very crime they were set up to address.
In 1992 SARS was formed to address armed robberies and other violent threats, using almost any measure necessary. They do not wear uniforms or carry identification and they have been accused of committing brutal torture, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence against offenders. The rallying hashtag #EndSARS has received attention internationally, been tweeted out by many US celebrities, and as of October 16, been mentioned on Twitter around 48 million times. Protests in Nigeria resulted in a military ambush, leaving at least 12 protestors dead. To pay for medical assistance to injured protestors, the Feminist Coalition raised $400,000 partially using Bitcoin. They chose cryptocurrency after seeing that bank transactions and online payment links to facilitate donation had stopped working. Additionally, the hacktivist group Anonymous hacked the Twitter account of Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission(NBC), threatened to release Nigerian officials’ secrets.
Protests are dynamic in nature, epitomized by these digital movements in support of EndSARS that demonstrate a global trend of fighting for political change online. “Hashtag activism” is used in global social change movements for online activism, specifically through hashtags on Twitter. It has gained widespread media attention for amplifying issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement fighting police brutality in the United States. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that allows for virtual transactions, giving protestors a decentralized, non-sovereign alternative to the traditional financial system. Hacktivism challenges the nature of institutional power, giving protestors the ability to utilize hacking methods to carry out cyber missions, disrupting websites and disclosing information from penetrated systems, while using social media to amplify their message.
The increasing utilization of digital spaces in civil movements through political hashtagging, fundraising with Bitcoin, and hacktivism allow for greater participation, awareness, and organization, and help to make protests more effective as seen by #EndSARS in Nigeria. However, these digitized movements need to be complemented with long-term, physical momentum in order to truly make tangible positive change on the issues they address.
#BlackLivesMatter and #NeverAgain are great examples of effectual political hashtagging, working to move the needle forward. #BlackLivesMatter, as Twitter is a more accessible platform, allowing for stories not heard in traditional media. In an interview, DeRay Mckesson, a leading organizer and activist against police brutality, said that, “the history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people.” #NeverAgain began after students from Parkland worked to raise awareness about gun violence and direct national conversation about changing gun safety laws. Both mobilized and organized massive protests: half a million people in 550 places across the United States on a single day of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 as well as 400 protests in support of the #MarchForOurLives protest in Washington, DC in 2018. They also both raised significant amounts of money. For bail funds alone, they received $90 million, and in one day, ActBlue, a company that processes donations for Democratic causes and campaigns, received $41 million dollars. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students raised $3.5 million dollars, allowing them to organize a national march and continued pressure for gun safety legislation.
One of the drawbacks to online activism and political hashtagging includes unengaged interactions with social movements and empty amplification of concise, meaningless phrases. Critics are also quick to point out that #BlackLivesMatter hasn’t fully addressed the systemic issues behind police brutality with tangible policy and #NeverAgain failed to loosen the National Rifle Association (NRA)’s grip on our political system. However, these hashtags aren’t expected to create change singlehandedly: supplemented by long-term, physical attention, tangible change can be made, as hashtagging adds to the protests.
Fundraising with Bitcoin
Bitcoin is a relatively new and rather confusing concept for many to grasp with many descriptors: a digital store of value, immutable, global, and most notably, “a peaceful protest,” said an anti-authoritarian organization. In the midst of global suffering due to the lack of accessible or affordable healthcare, global financial systems have bailed out commercial businesses and interests, increasing wealth inequality and dissatisfaction with the current system. A movement considered by and for the people, Bitcoin allows individuals to opt out, hopefully increasing incentives for government currencies’ accountability. The EndSARS movement in Nigeria was not the first to utilize Bitcoin for international donations. As 1.7 million people, 25% of the entire Hong Kong population, protested for democratic rights, groups have collected private donations to provide protestors with supplies. Genesis Block provided umbrellas and water bottles with QR codes that led people to a site to donate to more supply funds. The group also organizes a “Crypto Classroom,” allowing people to learn more about the world of cryptocurrency.
Especially in countries in the midst of more chaotic protests, the limitations of Bitcoin have been greater realized. In certain instances, Hong Kong protestors struggled with accessing digital currency in areas with no Internet access. Additionally, it is useful to receive donations from abroad, but supplies that require prompt liquidity of Bitcoin currency have been difficult to obtain. However, by increasing pressure on traditional financial institutions, this movement can push protests in the right direction by allowing for their independence, and help to create long-term accountability in existing financial institutions.
Hacktivism has become a common method for voicing dissent, and its popularity can be attributed to many reasons. One is that it is accessible: individuals can launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks meant to overwhelm systems infrastructure with little cost and little tech experience remotely, without the risk of identification. These actions enable individuals to take part in large scale collective efforts, increasing participation in movements in a more impactful way. They are also very effective at raising awareness, as a lot of the attacks are visual. In 1996, hacktivists changed the U.S. Department of Justice website to instead read the Department of Injustice. A loose collective of hacktivists known as Anonymous have more recently claimed to release sensitive information about officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as temporarily take down the site. The group itself is well known in this space and has amassed a large social media presence, with a track record of hacking in the name of issues such as Church of Scientology, Arab Spring protests, Occupy Wall Street Protests, Israel-Palestinian debates, and many more.
This space of protest can border on criminal/illegal actions against people and result in petty scams and loss of funds as seen by cyber attacks. In fact, a message circulated on Nigerian WhatsApp groups that Anonymous would be giving money to individuals, a scam meant to get bank information. However, hacktivism provides a unique opportunity for individuals to band together to threaten larger institutions and organizations, eliciting greater participating, awareness, and organization.
The EndSARS movement incorporated aspects of all three of these digital movements as well as physical protests in Lagos and many Nigerian cities. However, what tangible, positive change was it all able to have?
The Inspector of Police announced on October 11 the dissolution of SARS, but the announcement raised many red flags. The government made the same promise after outrage in 2018, and promised to address anti-torture laws in 2017, but no change came. The replacement proposal has no set deadlines, no priorities, and a clear lack of direction. After a military ambush left 12 protestors dead, President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation without mentioning these deaths, instead threatening young people to get off the streets. The protests have moved online for now, with the movement including discussions about economic inequality, inadequate healthcare and education, corruption, nepotism, and poverty in Nigeria.
To ensure that digital movements support protests, long-term, physical attention must be devoted to issues. Hashtags and trends die out too quickly. In order to make change, movements must involve all the tools at their disposal to create a more equitable world.
Image via Flickr (gaelx)