It used to be that when trouble hit the streets, autocratic governments would shut access to the media, in particular to photographers. Those were targeted for a few reasons: One, they were easily identifiable with their gear, two, they could quickly communicate a situation via photos, and three, they worked for outlets with large readership or wire services with massive reach worldwide. Not anymore.
As we see with the events in Hong Kong, where an estimated tens of thousand people are in the streets, the first reaction was to shut down Instagram. It is a major shift. The Chinese government is now more afraid of the impact that a photo sharing site might have then a pro photographer working for Associated Press. And for a good reason.
Images on Instagram have the potential of reaching millions, if not billions of views, in a matter of hours. Furthermore, since anyone can submit to Instagram, the coverage of the event has hundreds of thousands of photographers, each with an exclusive access to what is going on the ground. Finally, and probably the most potent threat to any regime, everyone in the event can instantly see what others are photographing, thanks to their mobile phones: The crowd can communicate with itself via a myriad of individuals who would otherwise be isolated from the general view.
None of these could be even remotely matched by any news outlet.
Many discussions have been held around the ineffectiveness of citizen journalisms. On an individual basis, that is true. But combine it on one easy to reach platform and it becomes much more powerful than any pro photographers. The decline of traditional media paired with its diminishing credibility has accelerate the reliance and trust people put in social media. Often already, pictures on Twitter carry more weight than the cover of the New York times ( and often much more eyeballs), even if it is sometimes just a hoax. People tend to trust other people more than they trust organisations or businesses. Instagram, as its siblings did previously during other street events ( Tunisia, Egypt), is fast becoming the tool for instant communication.
The Chinese government, and any government, has good reasons to be worried. The uncensored, real-time, visual aspect of Instagram is a much more potent instrument of political disruption than any news media organisation. A newspaper, a TV station, a newswire, a website, all are businesses that can be manipulated,convinced, if not coerced into self censorship. A social media platform which functions with no barriers, no gatekeepers, no content strategy and whose profit depends on the size of its users base cannot be tamed. It can only be blocked. Which only accentuate its image of credibility.
What we are experiencing today is the shifting of power from a handful of photojournalists backed by large media companies to millions of camera phone users backed by a few social media site. Sure, the images that will stand out, those that might become historical, have a great chance to come from pro photographers but the ones that will actually impact the events will come from individuals bearing devices that a few days ago were only used to take selfies.