Monthly Archives: June 2019

How apps power Hong Kong’s ‘leaderless’ protests

A protester holds a mobile phoneImage copyright Getty Images

In a tiny room on the edge of a nondescript building complex sits an unlikely participant in Hong Kong’s protest movement. Behind his laptop computer, Tony (not his real name) monitors scores of groups on private messaging app Telegram and online forums.

Organisers say volunteers like Tony are running hundreds of Telegram groups that are powering Hong Kong’s protest turned civil disobedience campaign. They claim that more than two million people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to express opposition to a controversial extradition law.

Hong Kong has experienced a series of mass rallies against the proposed law, which critics fear could spell an end to its judicial independence. Protestors expect a large turnout on 1 July, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China.

Real-time voting

Many of the calls to protest are made anonymously, on message boards and in group chats on encrypted messaging apps.

Some groups have up to 70,000 active subscribers, representing about 1% of Hong Kong’s entire population. Many provide updates and first-hand reports relating to the protests, while others act as a crowdsourced lookout for police, warning protestors of nearby activity.

There are also smaller groups made up of lawyers, first aiders and medics. They provide legal advice and get supplies to protesters on the front lines.

Demonstrators say the online co-ordination of protests offers a convenient and instant way to disseminate information. The chat groups also let participants vote – in real time – to decide the next moves.

Image caption Votes are held in anonymous Telegram groups. In this one, 61% voted to “return” and 39% said “police station”

“They tend to only work when the choices are few or obvious. They do work when the situation lends itself to a black and white vote,” Tony explains.

On the evening of 21 June, close to 4,000 protesters voted in a Telegram group to determine whether the crowd would return home in the evening or continue to protest outside Hong Kong’s police headquarters. Only 39% voted to take the protests to the police headquarters – but there was still a six-hour siege of the building. Other apps and services have also helped the protesters organise their activity.

In public areas, posters and banners advertising forthcoming events are spread over Airdrop, which lets people share files with nearby iPhones and iPads.

This week, a group of anonymous activists raised more than half a million dollars on a crowdfunding website. They plan to place advertisements in international newspapers calling for Hong Kong’s extradition bill to be discussed at the G20 summit. The demonstrators say technology has made this a leaderless protest movement.

Hidden identity

“The deeper cause is a result of the distrust towards the authorities,” said Prof Edmund Cheng, from Hong Kong Baptist University. “Many protest leaders in the Umbrella Movement have been prosecuted and imprisoned,” he said, referring to pro-democracy protests in 2014.

In April this year, nine leaders of those protests were found guilty of inciting others to cause a public nuisance.

“There are several potential charges you could be facing if you were to participate with an obvious organised movement or protest,” says Tony.

Image copyright EPA / getty images

Many of Hong Kong’s protesters go to great lengths to avoid leaving a digital footprint.

“We are just using cash, we don’t even use ATMs during the protest,” says Johnny, a 25-year old who has been attending demonstrations with his partner.

He uses an old mobile phone and fresh Sim card each time he attends a protest.

Another group administrator – who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals – said some people use multiple accounts to hide their online footprint.

“Some of us have three or four phones, an iPad, desktops and notebooks. One person can control five or six accounts. People won’t know they are the same person and also multiple people use one account,” they told the BBC.

Protection

Tony believes that decision-making via group votes could protect individuals from charges. He argues chat group administrators have no affiliation to political parties and have no control over what members post in their groups.

“The government is not going to arrest every single participant in this movement. It is not feasible to do so,” he says.

But he recognises that law enforcement may pursue other avenues.

“They will pick influential targets or opinion leaders and make an example of them so that they could warn off the other participants.”

On 12 June, one administrator of a Telegram group was arrested for allegedly conspiring with others to storm Hong Kong’s law-making complex and barricade the surrounding roads.

“They want to let others know that even if you hide on the internet they may still come to arrest you in your home,” said Bond Ng, a Hong Kong lawyer who represents several arrested protesters.

White House official: New sales to China's Huawei to cover only widely available goods



President Donald Trump’s decision to allow expanded sales of U.S. technology supplies to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will only apply to products widely available around the world, and leave the most sensitive equipment off limits, a top White House aide said on Sunday.





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Dressed to kill: Video games’ tricky relationship with fashion

Boyfriend DungeonImage copyright Kitfox Games
Image caption Kitfox Games believes its fashion choices enrich titles such as Boyfriend Dungeon

What do you look for in a great video game?

Fast-paced action? A strong storyline? Perhaps even an atmospheric soundtrack?

It’s probably safe to say that decent fashion sense is unlikely to be top of your list. But when developers get it wrong players notice.

“It kind of creates a really jarring experience,” said Victoria Tran, a community developer at Kitfox games, the Canadian indie studio behind titles including Boyfriend Dungeon and Lucifer Within Us.

“It’s a piece of world building that’s really overlooked,” she told the BBC

Earlier this year, Ms Tran gave a talk called, Why Fashion in (Most) Games Sucks, at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference. She acknowledged that, at first glance, it might seem like a superficial concern. But she argued that getting it wrong could undermine a game’s mood and feed into sexist stereotypes.

Getting it right, she said, could make a story feel richer and become a form of self-expression, especially when there are options to customise a protagonist’s outfits. And for studio chiefs weighing up the costs involved, just consider how much titles like Overwatch and Fortnite have made from selling the “skins” that change their characters’ looks.

‘Unexciting’

In Ms Tran’s opinion, one of the worst offenders is Resident Evil 3.

Image copyright Capcom
Image caption Jill Valentine has appeared in more than 10 Resident Evil games, but RE:3 was arguably her fashion low point

Jill Valentine is a cop in the 1999 survival-horror game. She wears a blue tube top, black skirt, white jacket tied around her waist and a pair of brown boots. Ms Tran let out a sigh when she looked at a picture – as zombie-killing outfits go it seems more than a bit impractical, and is a far cry from some of the combat-ready suits the character wears in the title’s sequels.

“One of the things outfits can really do is create an interesting silhouette so that you know they’re a main character. There’s nothing exciting about [Jill’s] outfit other than…” she paused briefly.

“Actually, there’s nothing exciting about it at all.”

Image copyright Capcom
Image caption Jill’s costume in Resident Evil Revelations depicted her as a more battle-hardened protagonist

Captain Bulky

Complaints aren’t restricted to the clothing given to female virtual cast members. At the recent E3 games expo, one of the big “unveils” was a first look at the video game Marvel’s Avengers.

But when the trailer debuted, many fans were critical about how the superheroes looked. It wasn’t just that their faces barely resembled the actors in the movie-based adaptations. There was also something off about their iconic clothing.

Image copyright Square Enix
Image caption Captain America’s outfit was likened to “spray-painted paintball gear” by one reviewer

Captain America’s costume looked “overly bulky”, wrote news site IGN’s Joshua Yehl, and Thor appeared to have a “sound system mounted on his chest”. In response to the criticism, the game’s developer Crystal Dynamics said: “We are always listening to, and welcome feedback from our community [but] there are currently no plans to change our character designs.”

No nail polish

Of course, fashion goes beyond the clothes a character wears.

“I just want a ponytail with a fringe so that I can create a character that kind of looks like me,” Ellen Rose from YouTube’s OutsideXtra told the BBC. “It’s often so difficult, like you have five pre-set hairstyles for women and it’s usually so vast in real life. And it’s the same with guys’ hair as well.”

It’s not the first time such an observation has been made. In 2016, user Quinn_flower posted on a Grand Theft Auto (GTA) forum asking: “Why can’t I wear boots with jeans? Why no long hair or nail polish?”

“Seriously the female clothing need to be overhauled ASAP,” it concluded.

Even though the comment was posted more than three years ago, the comment thread is still very active.

Last month, another player – nicknamed Coleco – added: “Limiting player options for colour choices and styles is just boring and means I’m not spending my in-game cash on accessories. I’ve been sitting on millions of unused GTA money I can’t do anything with for actual years because I want to look like something other than GI Jane.”

More options mean more investment, and developers might not always believe the extra effort is worth it. There is a bit of development time required to make those changes,” noted Matt Diener, an analyst at NPD Games.

Image copyright Rockstar
Image caption GTA Online allows outfits to be customised, but some players think it needs more options for female characters

“Things like GTA Online are perhaps the most difficult – you’re dealing with a large range of equipment and outfits, and additions need to be applied to different character models.”

But the benefits of adding cocktail dresses or platform sandals can pay off.

“We want to feel we are like these characters,” claims Ms Tran. “You want to feel like you’re at your most powerful.”

Rockstar Games – the maker of the GTA series – declined to comment.

Gender balance

Some gamers believe part of the problem is a lack of diversity within the games studios themselves.

“It’s not because they don’t want to [provide options] – it’s just because they might not think of that,” Ms Rose suggested. “[But] as the games industry gets more diverse, you do see way more options opening up.”

The 2019 State of the Gaming Industry survey indicated women now make up 19% of the field – an increase of 2% on the previous year.

The studios that are really innovating and creating the most progressive, accurate depictions of female characters, or really any any group of characters based on cultures, genders, sexual representation, sexual orientations etc are really starting to recognise the value of authenticity,” Mr Diener said.

“They’re getting members of those groups involved in the creative process and they’re able to strive for and achieve authenticity by this.”