How can under-18s protest when the streets are empty?
Climate activists have suggested a variety of alternatives to street protests, such as cacerolazos (banging on pots and pans or making music) from windows, doors or balconies; webinars; teach-ins (educational forums on current issues); mass call-ins; online storytelling; and artivism workshops. Greta Thunberg encouraged student protesters to join strikes online. On 24 April, Fridays For Future groups in Germany staged the biggest digital demonstration yet, with over 230,000 livestream viewers and 40,000 tweets.
But is an online protest really a protest? Does the label matter?
Yes, it is. Yes, it matters.
We usually think of protests as occasions when people gather together to express their disagreement with something. In thinking this, we make three assumptions: that people gather for a common purpose, that they express their views at roughly the same time and that they come together in a common place. Our experience of protests also means that we readily situate them in public spaces, such as the street.
But in the case of the youth climate strikers, whether they skip (home)school to join a Fridays For Future webinar or share photos of themselves holding placards on social media, school students are still engaged in protests: they have a common purpose and act more or less simultaneously. The only thing that’s changed is the setting of their protest – and with good reason. Greta Thunberg explained that “In a crisis we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society”.
What the coronavirus pandemic shows us is that we need to question our assumptions. Recognising that protests are held not just in a common physical space, but also for example online, matters. It helps us understand that differing rights concerns arise in different protest settings. That protests allow us to help shape how societies are governed, even in times of crisis, makes this recognition all the more crucial.
What does this mean in practice?
Regarding online protests specifically, national laws need to account for potential risks against access to the internet, dissemination of information and protesters’ privacy and safety.
Perhaps most relevant to younger teenagers who want to protest online, the question of age-based access is significant. Popular social media platforms still impose a minimum age to join, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which all require users to be at least 13 years old. For this reason and more, author and activist Naomi Klein underlined in a recent Talks For Future webinar that young protesters may need to move away from corporate information platforms.
Once online, the question of protesters’ privacy is especially pertinent. In some countries, children are forbidden from taking part in unauthorised protests, including in Russia, so when mobilising online, encryption and anonymity tools are essential to concealing one’s identity in order to avoid government sanctions. Any ban on these tools, such as Iran’s prohibition on encryption technologies through its national legislation, could severely undermine children’s freedom of assembly online.
Meanwhile affecting entire country populations, including under-18s, are national internet shutdowns. Thirty-three countries shut down the internet in 2019, an increase from the 25 that did so in 2018. In most cases it was to curb protests, with governments spuriously citing public safety, fake news and national security concerns. The worst offenders were India, Venezuela, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria and Ethiopia. Particular sources of information may also be targeted. In Myanmar, for example, the government blocked access specifically to some ethnic media outlets.
In practice under-18s have shown us that collective mobilisation can continue beyond the street, with youth climate protesters in many countries exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly online. But for this to happen in every country, peaceful activism must be protected across the board, no matter what setting it may take place in.
This article is part of a feature series by CRIN, exploring how the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures to prevent its spread are impacting the human rights of under-18s.