How selfie apps help protesters fight the power

Photo: Edwin Ruis, via Hipstamatic’s Oggl.

Photo: Edwin Ruis, via Hipstamatic’s Oggl.

While you’re snapping a pic of your lunch to share over Instagram, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are using the same app to upload videos of journalists getting arrested.

Social media has been credited with lighting a fire under the story of the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in this St. Louis suburb. The news of roiling protests reached the Gaza strip, where people there hit Twitter sharing tips on what to do when you’ve been tear gassed.

While there are dozens of apps dedicated to activists — from Protest 4 to Panic Button — when ordinary people get caught up in events, they tend to use apps they already have. And many of those were designed to share baby pics and birthday videos, not civil unrest.

Bambuser, a live video broadcasting platform, is one of those apps. Launched in 2007 in Sweden, the app’s website features pictures of a rock concert and a puppy as use cases for the free app. At this writing, the most viewed videos on Bambuser weren’t concerts or puppies but street demonstrations in Egypt and an anti capitalist march in Spain.

“We thought people might use it for protests, but the extensive use we’ve seen wasn’t something we had expected,” Hans Eriksson told Cult of Mac via email. “Neither had we realized the huge impact these videos have had in traditional news media.”

Hipstamatic may have been the first app to accidentally break news ground when Damon Winter snapped award-winning war photos for the New York Times with it. Still, not every app that may be useful for protests gains ground. Their D-series app launched in 2011 as a way to immediately share event photos – a use case we thought would come in handy during the Occupy protests. Once you invited your Facebook friends, every 24 photos you shot would get uploaded there — shared and off your iPhone. Instead, that app was pulled, but activists everywhere are still using Hipstamatic with its artsy lenses and filters.

“We encourage the idea of it because of the multiple points of view that are being shared simultaneously,” Mario Estrada, VP of special projects, said. “The media tends to sensationalize stories and take sides based on their position. As photographers and storytellers, we do the same but when you have multiple citizens contributing to one story or topic, you’re able to form a better opinion on the situation.”

Cryptocat, an encrypted chat app, got a shoutout in the EFF’s updated guide to mobile phone use for U.S. protesters. It provides “a fun, accessible app for having encrypted chat with your friends, right in your browser and mobile phone,” according to the website. Fun aside, its developers felt it necessary to put a big caveat for those who really need to fly under the radar. “Cryptocat is not a magic bullet. Even though Cryptocat provides useful encryption, you should never trust any piece of software with your life, and Cryptocat is no exception.”

“When we first launched the app 3.5 years ago, it was more of an experiment, but now I believe that it’s a useful tool for journalists and human rights workers worldwide,” said developer Nadim Kobeissi. “Cryptocat is meant to be accessible secure encrypted chat software, so no, this is not unexpected now since the product has matured quite a lot since its release.” Kobiessi adds that app was developed with open source security standards as a high priority. The team also carry out bi-annual transparent security audits for the application and “take every precaution” to make sure its encryption features are solid and protect users. An Android version is in the works.

Eriksson of Bambuser says while the content activists must be taken with a grain of salt, providing it is a service to viewers.

“Whereas journalists report a story with an overall and, most often, an unbiased view, activists have taken sides,” he says. “But activists can generate content from remote and unsafe areas that journalists can’t access. This has, particularly in Syria, given the world an opportunity to see live what terror the regime has forced upon innocent civilians.”

  • JJ

    We should do a little expirement. Why don’t we take police totally out of Ferguson. Let’s see how peaceful that city would be :-)

  • sanfordandsons

    What a piss-poor picture to make a point. And what a piss-poor article.

  • Andrew

    Ugh. So much stupidity.

  • JG

    Nicolle Martinelli and Cult of Mac; what planet are you from? This is the most ridiculous article I have ever read. It lacks common sense and is of little value.

About the author

Nicole MartinelliNicole Martinelli heads up Cult of Mac Magazine, our weekly publication available on iTunes. You can find her on Twitter and Google+. If you're doing something new, cool and Apple-related, email her.

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