Informatics Professor Emeritx Bonnie Nardi and her former Ph.D. student Yong Ming Kow, now an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong, worked with independent researcher Wai Kuen Cheng to study how digital technologies can mediate a successful leaderless movement. Examining a movement in Hong Kong against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) — a bill that that allows extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China — the researchers looked at how Anti-ELAB participants used technology to organize protests, strikes and traffic disruptions. The researchers will present their findings at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2020) next month, where their paper, “Be Water: Technologies in the Leaderless Anti-ELAB Movement in Hong Kong,” received an Honorable Mention.
“Yong Ming did some really great field work to uncover how people have been organizing in Hong Kong and how they have used technology,” says Nardi. As the researchers point out in their paper, although “some scholars argue that no social movement is feasible without a charismatic leader,” their own study contradicts this, as the leaderless Anti-ELAB movement “has successfully compelled the Hong Kong government to withdraw ELBA.”
The researchers found that unlike other leaderless movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, much of the Anti-ELAB network is online. “By utilizing a set of digital technologies, Anti-ELAB participants developed an opinion-seeking autonomous network in which dozens of groups perform diverse sets of tasks autonomously while aligning their work with other participants through frequent online polls,” says Nardi. “Within this novel formation, Anti-ELAB participants were able to orchestrate creative practices to achieve significant success in the leaderless social movement.”
— Shani Murray