It has now been two months since the movie “Joker” released. In cities around the world, several people have been wearing the “Joker” clown makeup; the stark white face and creepy red grin. They did not take to Halloween parties, but to protest sites. The Joker, featured by DC Comics in 2019, is described differently from the previous Jokers. The movie describes how the main character who is oppressed by an unequal social structure becomes the Joker. Of course, it is hard to justify the atrocities and extreme actions that the Joker committed. However, the emotion that he felt from the social injustice and inequalities may be similar to the felt and circumstances of demonstrators against governments around the world today.
Many protests that we often see on news reports in each country are ongoing now for a variety of reasons. The Argus looks at what appears to be common among the protests and what causes these protests macroscopically, not just focusing on the fragmentary reasons. Also, The Argus investigates how protests will change in the future, and then, we pose what we should do about the forthcoming situation.
Phenomenon 1 Start with a cry for political liberty
About five months after firing a live warning shot into Hong Kong’s air on Aug. 25, the sound of the shot still persists. The current Hong Kong protest is the longest period of unrest in Hong Kong’s history. The current series of protests have now outlasted the “Umbrella Movement” that lasted for 79 days in 2014.
The protests started in June after the government planned to pass a bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is part of China under the model “one country, two systems.” Under this model, Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy, and people have freedoms unseen in mainland China. However, if the bill had passed, it would have enabled anti-Chinese political activists or critics of the system of government to be repatriated to China. Many people feared it would undermine the city’s freedoms and judicial independence. Therefore, the citizens poured out into the street to argue the bill’s injustice, but they face peril like injuries and even death caused by the repression. Eventually, the bill was withdrawn but the protests continued, having evolved into a broader revolt calling for direct elections for the city’s leader and other demands. Hong Kong citizens are taking to the streets again today filled with the smell and smoke of tear gas and fire for the democratization of Hong Kong.
Phenomenon 2 Start with a cry demanding a solution to poverty
In Lebanon, tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters formed a 170-kilometer-long human chain on Oct. 27, stretching the length of the country from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south. The trigger for the protest was that the government had announced a $0.20 daily charge on voice calls made through WhatsApp and other apps on Sept. 17. In fact, the government had announced its plan to declare an economic emergency on Sept. 2 and imposed taxes on cigarettes, then subsequently a value added tax (VAT), this time even on an app frequently used by Lebanese citizens. As the protesters flooded the streets and it grew into the largest anti-government protest in Lebanon’s history, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned to take responsibility. However, the public’s anger over the economic difficulties has not subsided, and the protests seem to be continuing, with criticism for the government and demands for solutions to financial difficulties.
Chile is also staging massive protests for similar reasons. The protests began with a student-led demonstration against transport fares. In early October, the government announced that the metro rush hour prices would rise by 30 pesos (US$ 0.59), but Santiago’s Metro system is already one of the most expensive in Latin America. Also, Chileans were already frustrated with the increasing cost of living, low wages and pensions. As the violent demonstrations continued, Chile’s government cancelled the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) as host with the aim to restore order and address popular domestic concerns.
Phenomenon 3 Start with a cry for anti-corruption
Citizens who demand that the government solve economic inequality also bring awareness to the seriousness of the government’s corruption. On Oct. 1, the Arab Spring finally arrived in Iraq. Large-scale demonstrations broke out against the government, pitting thousands of young protesters in Baghdad. The protesters argued that they lived in poverty because of the government’s corruption. The protests are the largest in Iraq since President Saddam Hussein fell in 2003.
Bolivia also has been rattled by protests since its presidential election on Oct. 20. During the election count, the results were inexplicably paused for 24 hours. Then, the final results showed that President Evo Morales who had stayed in the presidency longer than any other current head of state in Latin America pulled off another victory. The citizens and the opposition party alleged fraud, and they took to the streets to accuse him of undermining democracy and trying to extend the tenure of his rule. Police also joined protests in several cities over the disputed re-election of Evo Morales. Eventually, he announced his resignation in a television address on Nov. 10.
As such, these antigovernment demonstrations around the world have erupted for different reasons. But if you look into them, you can notice that they have similar aspects. They began out of criticism of the incumbent administration and demanded for proper actions from the government. Furthermore, these demonstrations got the modifiers like “of all time” and “maximum number.” This means that the existing figures, including the scale and period of the previous protests, have been updated and recent demonstrations are set aside from previous protests. Why do the recent wave of protests occur frequently, mobilize large crowds in a short period, instantly spread to the nation, and take on more various forms?
Cause 1 Universalization of social media
Most people in today’s society have an inextricable connection with social media platforms like Facebook. Social media has become a new source for news, as people can easily get the progress of demonstrations more rapidly and simultaneously. Regarding the Hong Kong protests, we could easily see images and videos describing massive crowds and big clashes between protesters and police by clicking on hashtags like “#SaveHongkong,” and “#FreeHongkong” In Chile, a video on orchestra performance of “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated.”) to protest against the government spread worldwide through social media. Other countries, likewise, share posts about demonstrations through social media, which tends to facilitate political participation.
In this way, social media can draw immeasurable attention and support from around the world fast, broadly, facilitate political participation and mobilize large crowds.
Lew Seok-jin, a professor of the Department of Political Science at Sogang University said, “The rapidity and scalability of social media can result in ‘becoming out of state supervision,’ ultimately leading to mobilizing large crowds. Photos and videos of the protests were immediately and easily accessible because they were uploaded on social media platforms where the government cannot control all of this information. Social media also enable the “weak tie” effect which is the proposition that acquaintances and strangers are likely to be more influential than close friends in making massive protest. Although the protests are composed of strangers, they can feel solidarity by already sharing the information of the protest and then recognizing that they march for the same purpose. Therefore, as the “weak ties” predominate on social media, it can mobilize large crowds.”
Cause 2 The role of the successful protest in igniting another protest
Successful protests in neighboring countries also affect the occurrence and aspect of demonstrations in other countries. The candlelight protests, first lit at Gwanghwamun Square on Oct. 29, 2016, eventually impeached former President Park Geun-hye, changing the political paradigm of South Korea. Foreign presses were surprised and highly appreciated that candlelight demonstration. This anti-government protest might have paved the way for the Hong Kong protest.
On June 30, Apple Daily, one of the newspapers in Hong Kong, posted a video of a Korean candlelight vigil, while notifying the public about a massive protest occurring the next day. The video showed South Korea’s candlelight protests for the presidential impeachment in 2016, and Hong Kong protests. The video concluded with the message that “Hong Kong can do it, too.” At a rally on June 14, Hong Kong social activist and singer GUM GUM sang “A march for our beloved” in Cantonese and Korean. She further boosted the atmosphere during the protest by introducing the song as “a representative song that has constantly been sung during the pro-democracy movement in Korea and was also sung by one million people at Gwanghwamun Square to impeach former President Park.”
Shin Jin-wook, a professor of the Department of Sociology at Chung-Ang University, said, “This can be explained by the concept of ‘diffusion,’ which means that symbols of resistance and social movements, ideology and behaviors are easily spread all over the world. And then, they go through a ‘learning’ process, but transfer differently considering their social context, not just like the origin. Sociologist Charles Tilly had already discovered that since the emergence of the social movement in the 19th century; it has a ‘modular’ characteristic in various forms of groups. For example, a protest and a petition. The Arab Spring in 2010-11 directly affected Spain’s ‘Indignados movement,’ in May 2011, and Spain’s movement affected the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in the United States from September to December of that year.” He continued, “If there was a successful movement in any other country, it gives people who model it a ‘motivated power’ and a kind of ‘expected sense of efficacy.’ This means that the expectation that participating in this resistance will bring us a change in reality encourages us to get involved in the protests.”
Cause 3 Youth suffering from poverty
The youth (ages 15-64) are the main leaders of recent anti-demonstrations occuring around the world. They have lived under pressure from unprecedented extreme polarization. This characteristic causes many young people to take to the streets.
According to “World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2019” published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), young people (ages 15–24) are significantly more likely than adults to be unemployed, exhibiting an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent. Also, it indicated that the problem of working poverty is even more severe among young people, and more than one in three young workers in low- and middle-income countries were living in extreme or moderate poverty in 2018 – a much higher rate than for adult workers. As a result, many current protests are rooted in shared grievances about economic inequality and jobs. Indeed, Greg Wilfang, a social worker, and Doug McAdam, a professor of Sociology at Stanford University, argued in their 1991 paper “Distinguishing Cost and Risk in Sanctuary Activism,” that young persons who have neither family nor any employment constraints generally participate in political activities more freely.
Also, their movement could be interpreted in terms of a “life-cycle effect,” which explains how people’s behavior changes predictably as they get older. A paper, “Political Action: A Theoretical Perspective,” written by Kaase, Max, and Alan Marsh in 1979, shows that people in their early 20s have the strongest potential for political protest in terms of the “life-cycle effect” because people of that age are full of vigor and physical mobility. This paper implies that young protesters march actively and even radically.
Circumstances where protests cannot make positive change
Limitation 1 Chaos caused by two sides of social media
Social media has not only had a positive effect on demonstrations. It can also confuse the public by producing fake news. This was remarkably evident in the Honk Kong protests. Fake news incited protests to further the split in society and fuel antagonism between different groups, mainland China and protesters, which could make people gradually lose trust in the governments of their countries and demonstrators. On Aug. 19, Twitter announced that it removed 936 accounts that originated in mainland China and were part of a coordinated attempt to undermine the “legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement.” As social media develops, there is a high probability of producing various fake news, causing chaos when nobody knows the source of information.
Also, demonstrations based on social media have another limitation, which is that it could be temporary. According to “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” as reported by Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, social media could work based on a virtually weak tie because users are considered individually and there are no leaders on a broad network.
Professor Lee said, “Social media is just a necessary condition that allows the protests to expand, not a sufficient condition for the demonstrations to occur. A protests leads to success only under the sufficient conditions. One of the conditions is that the protest revolves around a sufficient issue. Just necessary conditions cannot lead to a successful demonstration.”
Limitation 2 Danger of policies that quell the public sentiment
The massive and aggressive protests must have become a threat to nations and their governments in the short term. Governments cannot overlook their power, and thus are more likely to make rash decisions that contradict the current economy only to meet protesters’ demands or soothe protesters. But the populist governments, which had already implemented expansionism, could fall into a deeper pit due to their misjudgment without considering their national economic downturn. Lebanon’s Government 5Y Credit Default Swap (CDS) reached 1,334 basis points (bps) on Oct. 25, which surged 13.5 percent from Oct. 17. If the CDS goes up, there is a possibility of defaulting on its growing debts. As the anti-government protests were raging in Lebanon, the government withdrew tax hikes and announced some policies to soothe the public on Oct. 21. However, while Lebanon suffered financially, and on top of that the policy of retrenchment was suspended, it raised concerns that the government could default more on its debt. Currently, Lebanon’s government debt is estimated at 155 percent of its GDP. The fiscal deficit also amounts to 10 percent of the annual GDP. Even before the protests, the CDS had already risen by more than 70 percent since the end of last year. In this way, these policies that were decided hastily will have trouble solving the root of the problem, and protests will occur again.
Limitation 3 High technology that can raise hay during protest
The coming society is under the universalization of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and innovations will be developed. But these could negatively affect the aspects of upcoming demonstrations.
For example, there is an app made by “Tsunami Democràtic,” a Catalan protest group advocating for Catalan independence to coordinate protests in real-time depending on people’s locations. Also, the app, for those who do not own it, is accessible using QR codes that are shareable to up to 10 users. This kicked off on Oct. 14 with the mass occupation of Barcelona’s airport. The app made it possible for protesters to download a boarding pass for an afternoon flight so they could get through airport security checks. Although few protesters managed to enter the terminal through this app, some 10,000 people gathered outside, preventing airline crew from getting to work and forcing the cancellation of over 100 flights.
There was a incident of drone protests that interrupted Britain’s public service sector. On Sept. 11, Heathrow Pause, a splinter of the Extinction Rebellion movement claimed that the newly built runway in Heathrow Airport caused environmental pollution and intended to fly the drones in the airport’s 3.1-mile (5km) exclusion zone, potentially disrupting hundreds of flights on Sept. 13. Drone protests can cause major problems in airport operations, such as flight cancellations, posing a threat to passengers’ safety. The protest group said it had attempted three drone flights on Friday, with at least one successful, and then, 19 activists were arrested by Sept. 14. If creative innovations are used during protests, we cannot predict the aspects of the protests that technological innovation will bring and do not know what damage they will cause.
The movie “Joker” raises the question, “Do humans really want ‘good’?” and “Is it not a concept defined by society?” Before the main character, Arthur Fleck, turned into the Joker, he once thought that if he worked diligently and did not give up hope, he would achieve his dream. This idea is not much different from ours, living in reality. Perhaps for a long time, he and we might have considered that it was “good” to observe the rules which are implied social contracts to make everyone safe, and do what we have been forced to do. However, various hardships we face in reality allow us to look into “our real intentions” that were hidden behind the “good.” What do we really want?
There could be some extreme anti-government protesters around the world with frowning faces. But the one thing we know is all protesters are showing “their true intentions” behind the “good” with all their strength. Even in the coming society, we will constantly face the challenge of how to consider them. Will we regard them as rioters or revolutionaries? Or will we choose another option? It is up to us.
By Oh Ju-yeong
Associate Editor of Global & National Section