Facebook outage gives Hong Kong the jitters

First the cyber-attack on the e-voting platform for the 622 referendum, then the Apple Daily website. Hong Kongers were asking, “is Facebook next?”

facebookdown

I can pinpoint exactly when it happened because I was in the middle of a Facebook conversation when the error message popped up. Then my telephone rang and the person I’d been chatting with asked, “Is Facebook down?”.

A quick check on Twitter revealed that it was, and it wasn’t just in Hong Kong. It soon became apparent it was global.

But in the seconds that followed #Facebookdown, something strange, though predictable happened in Hong Kong. First of all, people thought the short must be directed at Hong Kong. They muttered about dark forces, hacking, the hand of the state.

When it could no longer be ignored that the outage was global, the questions turned to “what are we going to do now?” and even “are there going to be riots?”

This may sound over-the-top, and people have been swift to poke fun at the panic and fuss caused by what was, after all, a pretty short outage. They’re right to laugh that work productivity probably shot up and joke that now nobody will know what so-and-so had for breakfast.

But in Hong Kong, there was something else at work. People weren’t just upset that they couldn’t see what their friends ate for lunch.  They were concerned about the loss of an important platform for the exchange and dissemination of information and a tool for social mobilization.

For some reason, Twitter has never really taken off in Hong Kong, and Facebook is the social media platform of choice for everyone from K-pop chasing teens, to their mums and dads; from radical activists to their opposite numbers on the pro-government side.

That means Facebook is where people share news, views and gossip on politics and social movements in a city where social and political tensions have rarely been higher.

This year, the government will announce plans on the method for choosing the first Chief Executive to be voted by one person one vote in the territory. China has already said it will only accept candidates who “love Hong Kong and love the country” and who don’t oppose the central government.

Many people here reject the idea of pre-selection of candidates, some support calls for a mass campaign for civil disobedience to occupy the Central business district to win universal suffrage that meets international standards.

In response, Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure, culminating in (what is said to be a long-planned) White Paper on the practice of the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. In that document, the central government made it clear it is in total charge and that Hong Kong can only have as much autonomy as Beijing allowed it to have.

The mood was already dark when the online platform for an unofficial ballot on electoral reform that was due to run from today till Sunday was paralysed by a massive cyber-attack. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was followed by an attack on the website and YouTube and Instagram accounts of the mass circulation tabloid style Apple Daily newspaper, which had been vocal in its support of both the Occupy Central campaign and the unofficial referendum.

When this happened, people half-joked (on Facebook) that Facebook was the last man standing and speculated on when it too, would fall.

Then, the outage.

It fed into an almost apocalyptic sense of gloom that has been building up in Hong Kong city. A sense that may partly explain the popularity of the serialised online novel Lost on a red minibus to Tai Po which was turned into a film released a few months ago called The Midnight After.

The story describes survivors in a dystopian Hong Kong after a great and unidentified calamity. It paints a surreal and eerie picture of Hong Kong full of hidden (imagined?) conspiracies and real dangers.

With recent events, including the Facebook short, the red minibus vibe threatens to shroud the city.

 

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