FireChat: Heating Up Social Issues

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“Social media are a catalyst for the advancement of everyone’s rights. It’s where we’re reminded that we’re all human and all equal. It’s where people can find and fight for a cause, global or local, popular or specialized, even when there are hundreds of miles between them.” – Queen Rania of Jordan

We saw how social media drove the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, “Stop Kony” movements and more. Now we’re seeing how a chat application called FireChat (which was first used by Burning Man festival-goers for off-the-grid communication, in public transportation without Internet access, and in developing countries) turned into a tool for social media revolution. Soon after FireChat’s launch, the company began to notice increased downloads of and engagement with the app during protests in Taiwan and especially during the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong in 2014. The founders of FireChat did not expect the app to evolve in this way, but they have embraced its journalistic transformation and even partnered with Storyful, a news-gathering platform, to create an Open Live Newsroom for journalists to communicate with citizens.

Unlike WhatsApp and other chat applications, FireChat doesn’t require Internet connection for its users to communicate—devices are linked together through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals—and the messages are anonymous. These two features create the perfect communication tool for government-fearing protesters to take full advantage of. But the app does not entirely safeguard its users’ identities, as it is not securely encrypted. Even Yik Yak is “anonymous,” but that didn’t stop the Chapel Hill Department of Public Safety from tracking down and arresting a UNC-CH freshman who had posted a false bomb threat on UNC’s campus on the app last semester. Anonymity is something we should be careful of—it can be a curse and a blessing in the communication world. While it opens the door for freedom of expression and brings a sense of security to those discussing personal matters, feelings, and beliefs, it also allows people to post knowingly false content or use abusive or harmful language. FireChat tried to counteract the potential for false content by partnering with Storyful to get more trustworthy sources on its platform. We’ll have to wait and see if this helps communication on the app actually gain more credibility during times of protest and revolution.

With more and more people connected online, it’s become easier for activists to spread their messages to large audiences at incredibly fast speeds, thus, making it even easier to raise social issue awareness and stir up uprisings. This makes me wonder, will apps like FireChat start to stir more drama in the realm of protests and civil unrest? Only time will tell.

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