University of Western Australia researcher Crystal Abidin tracked the #OccupyCentral hashtag on Instagram for 72 hours during the first week of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, from September 28-30. She quickly began noticing what she calls visual “tropes,” genres of images that appeared frequently such as “protest selfies,” creative art pieces, and even photos of pets wearing yellow ribbons in support of the protesters.

In total, Abidin found 25 categories of images that emerged from the thousands of Instagram posts that appeared with the hashtag. Many, she says, were similar to those of other Occupy protests in which people borrowed emblems from pop culture: photos of people wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, for example, which has come to be associated with the hacker collective Anonymous and with radical anti-establishment positions in general. “There were people posting up lyrics from Les Miserables, like from ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’,” she observes.

“It’s easy for people to just brush it off as frivolous Internet culture or meme culuture of just digital humor, but if you have the context you can understand what each of those pictures stand for.”

One trope that appeared particularly unique, in being both humourous and subversive, she says, were the many caricatures of political leaders that were posted. “This was most interesting to me because they’re quite unlike Western caricatures. They require an understanding of Chinese mythology, of Chinese words and homonyms, and even of a cultural aesthetic, where some words imply a certain personality or emotion or quality in a person. It’s fusing something critical with a humorous aspect. So it’s easy for people to just brush it off as frivolous Internet culture or meme culuture of just digital humor, but if you have the context you can understand what each of those pictures stand for.”

Abidin also followed hashtags associated with the recent Ferguson protests in St. Louis, Missouri, and she notes that those hashtags have now now become magnets for spam and myriad formsof unrelated, irrelevant activity. “This also happened with the #OccupyCentral tag,” even in those first days, Abidin says. “In the very early hours as well, there were clearly tourists posing in the thick of events. Often they were taking photos in front of barricades full of locals kitted out in gear and masks. That was quite grabbing for me,” she says. “I haven’t seen that in the last few hashtags of activism that I’ve tracked.” This also began happening with locals, people who obviously just wanted to mark their presence at the protest, to say ‘I’ve been here in the thick of events.’

Abidin studies the Internet’s attention economy and what she calls “microcelebrities” for her research, something she discovered also emerged as a visual trope in Hong Kong over the three days she examined. “A couple of the people I spootted under the #OccupyCentral hashtags were what I term microcelebrities on the Internet [in Hong Kong.] These are Instagram celebrities who have carefully, tastefully curated profiles with strong followings of between 5,000-20,000.” Many of them were people who posted in the “fashionista” category Abidin identified who seem to have wanted to lend support to the movement without damaging the aesthetic of their own profiles.

Another popular post genre: Pet selfies, posts of pets wearing the yellow ribbon emblematic of the movement. “Several of them were celebrity pets on Instagram,” Abidin explains without a trace of irony. “When their owners post these photos, they’re lending support to the movement across a global network of people who, say, follow pets on Instagram. All innovative way of getting the word out even if people were not conscious they were doing so at the beginning.

image_17The umbrella, says Abidin, was not the first visual emblem that emerged from the protests organically – “organically meaning people in HK coming up with it themselves, as opposed to imagery imposed by external media following the event.” The original emblems, she explains, seemed to be self portraits of students at an elementary school or high school, holding a photo of a younger version of themselves in school uniform. “The idea was meant to convey a memory of being young and innocent, but now adults who have agency and want to push for full democratic rights. These were very distinctive of #OccupyCentral.”

What really propelled the images of the unbrella was, as is so often the case, was a chance photograph. “A guy was spotted holding two black umbrellas in mid-hop, and somehow this image was photographed from many different angles. It was captured and juxtaposed against a photo of a woman in Ferguson, also a very iconic image, when she was jumping in mid-air with two hands raised up, her face covered with a protective mask. So people were comparing this person to the lady in Ferguson, and he quickly trended as an iconic image.”

“Until the evening of the 29th, when the police first used tear gas, people had been experimenting with many visual emblems or tropes, such as holding up both hands similar to in Ferguson, or holding up cellphones with the backlight lit, or hugging or holding up signs and posters. All of those were more prevalent than the umbrella until September 29, when the media captured those images. At that point, Western media decided to brand this the Umbrella Movement and the Umbrella Revolution, and that solidified the umbrella as the main central trope.”

“When you have something so similar, like the recent Furgeson riots, to compare this against,” she adds, “it’s easy for media to just pigeonhole this as the East Asia  version of something we’ve experienced before.”

See Crystal’s original post, entitled “The Anatomy of a Social Media(ted) Protest: #OccupyCentral on Instagram” on her blog here. You can also find her on Twitter at @wishcrys.

-Patrick Sharbaugh