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What Instagram tells us about the Hong Kong protests, in one map

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The fantastic map of Instagrams during the Hong Kong protests is fascinating in its own right: it's a really clear way of showing both the movement's human heart and its scope. But it also makes an important point about the tactics of the protesters — specifically, one thing they're doing right that a lot of other demonstrators do wrong.

Tom Malmay, who runs a disaster planning group in Lousiana, used software from Geofeedia to map and timestamp Instagrams from the Hong Kong protests. The result is pretty amazing: a map that shows you when and where the photo was taken. If you scroll photos by time using the tool at the bottom, you basically get a historical on-the-ground tour through the protests:

This is obviously a really cool map. And scrolling through the photos really is powerful. You get a great sense of the protest's enormous scope, as well as a deeply human portrait of the protesters themselves.

But there's something else interesting here. It has to do with the patterns of where the Instagram photos pop up.

You'll notice that the Instagrams aren't concentrated in one square, like the Cairo demonstrations in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti park. They seem to cluster in the north of Hong Kong Island, in the financial district, and to a lesser degree across Victoria Harbor in the south tip of the mainland, but aren't confined to a particular public space.

That's likely to make the protests more effective. "I do sometimes get concerned with campaigns that think they have to stay in a square in occupation," Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver who studies non-violent resistance, told me in an earlier interview. "I think that becomes very vulnerable to really nasty crackdowns, lethal kinds, and mass killings."

In other words, any one instance of violent repression — say, being forced out of a key square — doesn't necessarily crush the movement. There's not a lot invested in holding that one space, so it's not a huge blow if they have to retreat. Moreover, if the protesters aren't investing heavily in holding onto one space, they're able to focus on other actions, like boycotts and strikes. According to Chenoweth, the most successful non-violent resistance movements generally diversify their tactics in this fashion.

So this map shows something that's becoming increasingly clear: the Hong Kong democracy movement really knows what it's doing.

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