It is no surprise by now that putting affordable, handheld, internet devices in the hands citizens has revolutionized the way protests and mass demonstrations are conducted.  Two years ago, during the Arab Spring, the world first began to see the impact that social networking could have in modern-day activism. Protesters used Facebook to plan organizations, Twitter to communicate among each other, and YouTube to share their stories with the world.

Recently, the political uprisings in the Ukraine and Venezuela have led to widespread adoption of some newer apps. These apps tend to be much narrower in focus than Facebook or Twitter but have real application for activists.

Zello is an app that has been used by many protesters in Venezuela. Zello allows a user to transform their phone into a walkie-talkie by freely enabling push-to-talk services over WiFi. This allows users to skirt the traditional telecommunications infrastructure that may be compromised in times of crisis. Zello also allows users to create a password-protected channel where they can communicate with large numbers of people in a secure manner that is easier and faster than texting.

WhatsApp, the service Facebook just paid $16 billion for, is another example of a communication app gaining popularity with protesters. By allowing rapid and quasi-anonymous communication over WiFi, activists can coordinate even when their country’s telephone infrastructure is compromised by a watchful big brother or not working altogether.

One of the most useful features of these apps, and programs like Apple’s Find My iPhone, is that they offer activists the ability to quickly reconnect with their peers after being dispersed by the authorities. These apps allow activists to locate their friends who may be scattered across the city so that they can quickly and safely recover and plan their next move.

Other apps starting to gain popularity are less focused on communicating with fellow protesters and more concerned with giving the user unfettered access. Hotspot Shield, for instance, is a program that allows users to secure their internet connection and access websites that may be blocked by their home government. Orweb, similarly, is a program that allows users to browse the web anonymously which is becoming an all-important task.

Do you have a bead on the next app that will be instrumental in a protest or demonstration? Let us know in the comments!


— Zach Altman

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