Political Upheaval? There's an App for That!

Political Upheaval? There's an App for That!

Social Media Protest Concept

Why you should care

Because that phone in your pocket could be your ticket to political protest.

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Say you’re pissed at your government. Maybe your president just presided over a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the state-run oil giant where, by the way, she was once chairwoman. Or almost a fifth of your country’s gross domestic product comes from the black market and that’s, like, totally not cool. If this were the 1970s, your only option would be to stage a protest, write your local representative (who, let’s face it, is probably also on the take) and maybe burn a couch in the street. Not anymore. If you’re feeling politically agitated now, your best bet is to just build an app.

Seriously. Protest apps in Brazil, for one, have reached tens of thousands of downloads in the Google Play store. Hungarian watchdog K-Monitor came up with an app that lets citizens flag corrupt projects on Google Maps. China’s anti-corruption agency lets members of the public upload photos or videos of officials being naughty. Turning smartphones into pitchforks has become especially popular in countries like Peru, Bolivia and Uganda, which all rank as some of the more corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. One of the main reasons corruption flourishes is that people don’t think they can do anything about it, TI program director Ben Elers tells OZY. “Breaking that chain of cynicism by reporting corruption can be important by itself.”

Recent history suggests that social-protest tools can ignite action, given the right powder keg. The Arab Spring revolts that started in 2010 gained momentum thanks to activists in the Middle East who rallied using social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Apps in 2015 are what blogs were for the late dot-com days: easy to use, adept at disseminating knowledge and uniquely capable of attracting a passionate audience. Making apps used to require significant coding experience and a software kit, but they’ve become trendier now that they are easier to create with do-it-yourself online app-making kits. Plus, smartphone apps have the added benefit of always being in their users’ pockets. What tech-savvy guerrilla leader wouldn’t want an army of picketers available at the tap of a button?

If a country doesn’t have that infrastructure, snapping selfies with government no-gooders isn’t likely to change much.

Of course, it’s one thing to report abuses of power; it’s another to actually stop it. Just defining corruption is a dicey-enough task. Clean countries have recognizable traits, though: freedom of the press, public transparency, codes of conduct, budget disclosure. If a country doesn’t have that infrastructure, snapping selfies with government no-gooders isn’t likely to change much. And even when it does, “a lot of corruption is pretty technical,” says Stanford’s Bruce Owens, a professor emeritus in economics, particularly when politicians craft opaquely worded laws that just happen to benefit specific companies or industries. That makes it hard for even the smartest and most committed activists to simply identify corrupt practices. So while reporting apps might one day make a difference, they could also just point out the obvious in ways that merely fuel cynicism. Think Captain Renault walking into Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

Here’s another dark side: The bad guys are also buying the hype. In August, a U.S. consultancy group discovered that Islamic State terror cells launched an Android app for sending news and videos to the group’s estimated 20,000 supporters. Jihadists were given a special upload code to access the app, which isn’t available in your typical Google Play store, according to media reports, and experts believe the terrorists moved off the grid after their accounts were increasingly getting banned on regular social media sites. “No doubt they are good at social media, better than I wish they were,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a former national security expert at the Congressional Budget Office. He doesn’t believe that apps should be the main concern, though, as long as recruiters are still attracting victims in person and “luring them into brutal and often suicidal acts.” Earlier this year, media reports noted, an ISIS social network called Khelafabook appeared briefly, then mysteriously shut down.

Back on the corruption front, nobody beats the Brazilians at outrage. Local dissidents have come up with no less than three apps demanding the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff after revelations that top Brazilian businessmen and politicians allegedly benefited from a huge bribery and kickback scheme run by the government-owned oil company Petrobras, which Rousseff formerly chaired. Those apps range from the dissonant noise-maker “Cooking Pots & Vuvuzela,” which has between 10,000 and 50,000 downloads in the Google Play store, to the video game “Get Away, Little Dilma.” News aggregator “Go Away, Dilma, and Take the Workers’ Party With You” bears a title that doesn’t quite have the subtle brevity of, say, Tinder. What that mouthful of an app does have: more than 500 users, proving that the revolutionary spirit is still alive in Latino hearts (or, at the very least, in their smartphones).

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