Messaging app boon for Hong Kong protesters and trolls

Jun Luk says trolls are using FireChat to provoke protesters and create conflict. Photo: Philip Wen

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have begun deleting social messaging app FireChat from their phones amid claims trolls have also adopted the popular means of communication to distort the protests.

Lee Ming-tsun, a 19-year-old student volunteer who helps man a food and water supply stand, says he has deleted the FireChat app because there were too many messages to sort through, including misinformation rumours.

'You get thousands of messages and we don't know what is right. Maybe some of the police are sending messages too, or are watching, we don't know,' he said, adding that key organisers were using walkie-talkies to communicate on site at Admiralty instead.

Student protesters also pointed out that because there were no restrictions on who can join chat groups on the messaging app, there was a growing number of trolls that would spread rumours and hurl abuse.

'They will try and provoke us and create conflict, but we don't respond,' Jun Luk, 19, said.

Cyber security researchers have also uncovered a computer virus that spies on Apple's iOS operating system for the iPhone and iPad, and they believe it has targeted pro-democracy protesters.

They said it affected jailbroken phones. Malicious software targeting Android devices has also been found spreading through popular messaging app WhatsApp.

Ms Luk said she felt FireChat was still an important communication tool because it could be used when phone lines and mobile internet networks were jammed during the most crowded hours of the protest.

She said people at the scene would be able to send messages about what supplies were running low.

Student leaders called on followers over the weekend to download FireChat, which allowed phones to communicate even when the internet was down, after rumours swept their camp that the city's beleaguered authorities might turn off the mobile network.

Tens of thousands have occupied major thoroughfares in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and have refused to move until China grants genuine democracy.

So far the mobile phone network has not been deliberately switched off. But protesters quickly found that the app often worked much better than rivals within the huge crowds that have paralysed parts of the city and often overloaded the network.

It uses what is known as a 'mesh network', allowing phones to communicate with one another over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It works even if the internet is down. The more phones there are in the vicinity, the wider the distance messages can travel - making it an ideal communications tool for mass gatherings.

'I know it can connect with people around me without using the internet,' 18-year-old student Audrey Chan told AFP as she gathered with fellow demonstrators in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district.

'So I just downloaded it in case the network is down, in case I need to contact the people around me.'

A 40-year-old part-time worker who gave her name as Minnie added: 'We don't have to use the internet to get connected with people who have the app, so we can be in touch.

'There have been groups on Facebook that suggest people download it, during really critical times when the internet is down,' she said.

San Francisco-based company Open Garden, which owns the app, said 100,000 new users signed up in Hong Kong on Sunday alone - a day when police repeatedly fired tear gas at demonstrators and sparked outrage.

The company has regularly posted messages on its Facebook account aimed at Hong Kong protesters.

'We hope FireChat will serve you well. Please remember messages are not encrypted at this point. Please be cautious about what you say, and do not use your real name,' one recent posting read.

Protesters have promised to escalate demonstrations dramatically if Leung Chun-ying doesn't resign as city leader by midnight Thursday,

with AFP


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