Brussels is gripped in a lockdown as counterterrorism teams attempt to track down Salah Abdeslam, still at large after the Paris attacks, along with other suspects. The ability to bring much of a city to a halt is a telling demonstration of how quickly Daesh has been able to control Europe — and that's just part of the group's strategy.
For Belgians in the city, being ordered to remain in lockdown could have induced a sense of helplessness, but instead, it resulted in one of the most astoundingly surreal and delightful incidents on the Internet — the appearance of Brussels' feline defenders.
In order to fully understand what happened during the #BrusselsLockdown, we need to put a pin in the cats for a moment. For the past three days, over 1,000 Belgian law enforcement officials have been combing the city for Daesh suspects, including Abdeslam — who as of this writing, hadn't yet been captured. They ordered Belgians to shelter in place, making it effectively impossible for the residents of the ancient city to go about their business, and creating an added climate of fear. Being told to stay in your home or workplace is terrifying.
Law enforcement also requested that people not use social media to discuss police operations. Daesh has proved particularly adroit in its exploitation of social media, and officers didn't want to make it easy for terrorists to track them by leaving a trail of social media breadcrumbs, like photographs and comments about their locations as they moved through the city.
Whether thoughtless or malicious, civilians can endanger such operations very easily — and while I have grave concern about counterterrorism operations in the U.S. and abroad, I also don't think that people should die in the course of doing their job. Law enforcement involved in a crackdown of this nature would be prime targets.
The problem, as we know, is that people are going to post to social media anyway. In an era of pics or it didn't happen — and the desire to turn to social media to find comfort, common ground, and friendship — people were obviously going to be posting about the lockdown.
This is where the citizens of Brussels — and elsewhere — decided to take matters into their own keyboards. They couldn't stop other people from posting sensitive information, but they could hijack or flood the #BrusselsLockdown hashtag in a show of defiance and solidarity, while also making it effectively impossible for anyone to glean information about police movements from it, because it was moving so quickly.
They posted pictures of cats.
Lots. And lots. And lots. Of cats. So many cats. They retweeted pictures of cats. People around the world got in on the game. More cats than actual residents of Brussels were likely tweeted.
Obviously, people intent on betraying movement about police operations could just as easily move to a different hashtag and disseminate information that way, just as they could call, text, or email operatives. But #BrusselsLockdown wasn't just about that.
In a nation famed for its surrealist movement (Ceci n'est pas une chatte), Belgians took what could have been a nerve-racking experience and tried to add a note of the bizarre, defusing tensions with pictures of cats shooting lasers out of their eyes or carrying Stormtroopers on their backs.
Given that Daesh is not particularly known for its sense of humor, the hashtag flood was also a giant fuck-you to the organization, proving that while the city might be under lockdown, its spirit most decidedly was not.
It was also a striking example of one of the myriad ways in which people can use hashtag flooding. The use of hashtags for activism has risen dramatically in recent years, driving whole movements and public discussions. As it's trended, however, so has the dark side of this, with insidious forces hopping onto hashtags and attempting to derail them — injecting child pornography into discussions about domestic violence, for example, or hurling misogynistic threats at women talking about video games.
These kinds of hijackings can make the thread of conversation on a hashtag functionally unfollowable, forcing people to hop from hashtag to hashtag to have thoughtful conversations.
But, as this illustrates, sometimes flooding can be used for good, whether it's defiance, civil disobedience, or another form of protest. As, for instance, when the New York Police Department made the probably unfortunate decision to have an #AskNYPD hashtag "conversation" that was quickly dominated by people with legitimate grievances who couldn't get answers via more traditional means of communications.
Likewise, when Jen Richards was subjected to transphobic treatment by the TSA, #AskTSA was similarly flooded, forcing the agency to respond — among other things, it announced that it would stop referring to parts of transgender bodies as "anomalies."
As a cat fan, I was obviously delighted by the flood of felines streaming across my feed all weekend. And as an abiding fan of surrealism as an art form — and as a movement associated with political commentary and protest — the bizarre juxtaposition of serious police action with cuddly cats was both jarring and delightful.
But as a fan of civil disobedience, asymmetrical activism, and the power of social media, I was also impressed by how Belgians rose to the occasion, using a frightening turn of events and a mandate from law enforcement to bite their thumbs at Daesh, help allay each others' fears, and entertain the Internet along the way.
It wasn't just the Internet that was entertained: Even the police got into it.
Eric Van Der Sypt from the prosecutor's office had this to say about the matter: "The federal prosecutor and the police services must thank the press and social media users for taking into account the needs of the ongoing operation."
While requests for press and social media blackouts come with some deeply uncomfortable connotations that should be discussed, particularly when they directly clash with free expression, in this case, the response was perfect.