Our tools are a privilege. How should we use them?
It's a pretty standard rule of protest: leave your phone at home. But amid Gaza's rolling communications blackouts, there's reason to debate digital abstention.
Like tens of thousands of people around the world, I joined a protest for a ceasefire in Gaza on Saturday. In Montréal (Tiohtià:ke) the crowd stretched impossibly far, painting the blocks surrounding Place des Arts. Drones whirred overhead, but camera footage still only hints at the full extent; faces and flags in a shifting patchwork under a stonewashed sky.
As energy gathered, a man at the front of the crowd told us to take out our phones. “Take a picture and send it to all your friends,” he said. “Ask them why they’re not here. Share a photo on every network. We’ll show Gaza’s people that they’re not alone.”
I took my phone out of my pocket, took a picture, and posted it in a couple of Signal chats. It was a quick and quotidian couple of swipes—and a total breach of the protest etiquette I’m used to observing. Phones track our movements, can expose people’s identities, and might be searched by the police. You’re supposed to leave them at home, or at least make sure they’re shut off. Not here; the calculus was different.
Because of my work, I’m exposed to a lot of the worst of technology: mass surveillance, censorship, and exploitation. All that bad can sour one on tech.
But over the past weeks, these tools have organized astoundingly large actions on shockingly short notice. They have created global solidarity among those resisting the Israeli occupation and apartheid. They have challenged prevailing media narratives, magnifying testimony from within blockaded Gaza. Though there are reasons to question the efficacy of digitally-enabled protest, we’ve witnessed a shift in tone from global powers that has something, something, to do with these tools and their influence.
The Internet is far from perfect, but as Neema Githere Siphone wrote last week, the ability to come and go from it is a privilege. Gazans do not have that privilege. Under Israel’s assault, Gaza is enduring debilitating Internet blackouts that produce an atmosphere of terror and imperil very basic survival.
Those of us far from the conflict can approach our tech with humility, fight with what we have, and fight for better tools for us and our kin.
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