As pro-democracy protests exploded over the weekend in Hong Kong, Instagram users in China are finding they can’t access their accounts after the government blocked access the photo-sharing site Monday.
Photos and videos of the masses gathered in Hong Kong’s Central Square immediately went viral on social media, drawing international scrutiny to the riot police force’s use of tear gas and pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators. Instagram was shut down within hours of protesters getting tear gassed. But the crackdown only galvanized protesters, attracting more supporters to the streets.
China has a history of shutting down news and social media outlets during political unrest. Instagram had remained relatively untouched until Monday’s ban in response to Hong Kong protests, The Washington Post reported.
The protests were sparked by Beijing’s recent decision to block democracy efforts in Hong Kong. But with half of Hong Kong residents against China’s new plan, protesters responded with sit-ins blocking road access to areas of the city, and attempts to spread news and garner support through Instagram. Over 9,000 pictures depicting the clash with police were posted under the hashtag #OccupyCentral, among others.
— Yu-Hey Sze (@852syh) September 29, 2014
— Tom Grundy (@tomgrundy) September 28, 2014
China has a similar law, in addition to widespread Internet surveillance and censorship. During previous periods of unrest, Chinese authorities blocked Gmail and restricted certain search terms, like “Tianenmen Square” or “Jasmine Revolution.” Still, Chinese citizens have found ways to circumvent the censors.
As populist movements rely more on social media to organize and get the word out, online censorship and surveillance has increased. According to a report from democracy watchdog agency Freedom House, about 30 percent of countries restrict online speech. During pro-democracy protests in Turkey earlier this year, the government blocked access to Twitter, though protesters were able to circumvent the ban with little difficulty. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly considering cutting off the country’s Internet access entirely during protests and war times. The country already has a strict law in place that requires bloggers and social media users to register with the government if they have a strong following or popular post.