Lessons for nonviolent activism in an era of digital authoritarianism

The world’s dictatorships are exporting repressive technologies and collaborating as they adapt to the digital era—activists should do the same.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

In Hong Kong, the 2020 National Security Law and a wave of arrests for “subversive” speech has stifled a once vibrant democracy movement. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has criminalized criticism of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, blocked social media while flooding the Russian internet with disinformation and arrested thousands of antiwar protesters. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the military has used Western-made surveillance technology to suppress resistance to its 2021 coup.

These episodes represent a broader and concerning trend. Repressive governments across the globe are embracing new technological tools of censorship, surveillance and propaganda to tighten their grip on power, marking a new era of digital authoritarianism.

In light of these developments, the Nonviolent Action Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where I work, recently published two reports on digital authoritarianism and how activists are adapting to these circumstances. We then convened a roundtable with leading scholars, activists and policy practitioners to discuss ongoing challenges for nonviolent activism in the digital era. Three broad lessons emerged from these efforts.

Measured expectations

The first lesson is that we need to recalibrate our expectations for how emerging digital technology can both help and harm nonviolent activism.

On the one hand, our research reveals that early euphoria over “liberation technology” is firmly in the past. Although the world’s dictatorships were slow to appreciate the internet’s transformative potential, they are making up for lost time, and online space is far more constrained now than it was even five years ago.

Specifically, autocrats are learning to take advantage of the increasing “legibility” of modern civil society. As we live more and more of our lives online, data that was previously obscure is now intelligible to the state, faithfully recorded in chat histories, location data, photos and friends lists. Algorithmic content monitoring, AI-enhanced facial recognition, spyware and invasive anti-privacy laws all enable repressive regimes to exploit this data to identify and punish dissidents. Activists increasingly fear speaking freely online, and digital authoritarians can preemptively repress dissent before it mobilizes. In turn, better preemptive repression also lessens the risk of military defections (often critical for movement success) by distancing activists from the security apparatus that represses them and decreasing the need for barbarous crackdowns, which risk mutiny among soldiers tasked with violent repression.

On the other hand, nihilistic techno-pessimism is also unwarranted. Activists are adopting effective security measures (VPNs, end-to-end encryption, vanishing messages, etc.) that substantially decrease the risk of digital surveillance. Many have found creative ways to contest authoritarian propaganda and censorship, such as Alexey Navalny tweeting from behind bars while Russian activists use lottery numbers to generate uncensored links to opposition websites, or Chinese netizens developing an ever-changing opposition lexicon to evade automated censorship.

Thus, we should keep the perils of digital authoritarianism in perspective. Segregated and heavily censored national internet ecosystems in countries like China and Iran are a serious problem. Yet most autocracies are nowhere near this tech-savvy, and online organizing is still a major boon for civil societies that were otherwise suffocated — in a counterfactual world absent the digital revolution, dictatorships would be as much, if not more repressive. Digital technologies are cause for neither premature triumphalism nor despair, but rather for careful consideration, as activists strive to preserve the benefits of digital activism while mitigating the risks.

‘Online is the new offline’

The second lesson has to do with the multifaceted relationship between “virtual” and “real-world” activism and its implications for contemporary social movements.

While leaderless movements may bring down dictators, they can also struggle to subsequently lock in successful democratic transitions.

Some have expressed concern that online mobilization is ephemeral, and that “slacktivism” fails to cultivate the real-world strong ties that anchor successful campaigns. Our panelists, however, stressed that online vs. offline activism is a false dichotomy, as the two are wholly and indelibly intertwined. Digital activism is not some pale shadow of civil society development. Rather, virtual space is a vibrant ecosystem in which digitally native generations create culture, forge shared grievances and aspirations, and engage with the world. Practically all contemporary social movements have established online footprints, if only because social media is far too crucial a battlefield to cede in the struggle against anti-democratic disinformation.

That said, the digital age is clearly changing the nature of social movements, and in ways that are not always positive. Consider social media. By dramatically reducing coordination costs, social media facilitates decentralized and leaderless protests that are quick to mobilize and difficult to repress. While these leaderless movements may bring down dictators, they can also struggle to subsequently lock in successful democratic transitions. The absence of leadership complicates efforts to negotiate with regime remnants and commit both sides to durable political reforms.

Additionally, although reactive outrage is easy to generate online, today’s trending topic is tomorrow’s old news, making it difficult for activists to preserve long-term momentum. And while online mobilization can engage previously marginalized populations, this may include anti-democratic far-right extremists who exploit social media to recruit new members.

These dynamics are unfolding in real time, and much remains uncertain. Yet digital activism is clearly here to stay. Understanding how activists can most effectively couple online and offline mobilization will therefore be an important topic of study in the years ahead.

The digital balance of power

The final lesson concerns the digital “balance of power” and the ways in which activists and their supporters can tip the scales to favor pro-democracy forces.

Digital authoritarianism is an evolving interaction between autocrats and the societies they repress. A decade ago, activists held the advantage, a fact emphatically punctuated by the Arab Spring. Autocrats have since developed countermeasures and now appear ascendant. Yet this state of affairs is hardly immutable, as rapid technological development means that the digital balance of power is constantly shifting.

The world’s dictatorships are exporting repressive technologies and collaborating as they adapt to the digital era — activists should do the same.

A key implication is that we should focus less on specific technological innovations, which may become obsolete overnight, and more on cultivating practices and institutions that prepare activists for whatever tomorrow brings. Those efforts should progress along two fronts: enhancing activists’ ability to adapt to repressive technologies and stifling innovation among digital authoritarians.

On the former, our research highlights several practical steps that activists can take. Perhaps the most important is to invest in transnational activist linkages. The world’s dictatorships are exporting repressive technologies and collaborating as they adapt to the digital era — activists should do the same, so that they might learn from common experiences and quickly share innovations across borders. Kindred reformers are activists’ single greatest resource, and facilitating transnational networks is one of the most effective forms of external support. For instance, the Latin American Regional Institute for the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action is cultivating regional activist networks by bringing activists together in transnational trainings, and my own center at the U.S. Institute of Peace is pursuing similar endeavors in both in-person and online forums.

At a more basic level, international organizations should also increase the availability of digital security trainings. While many excellent resources exist, trainings are not equally distributed — high priority countries are saturated while peripheral states are neglected — and in some countries public knowledge of basic digital hygiene remains poor. Almost all resources are in English, and there are few comprehensive attempts to localize general principles. For instance, it is good practice to use two-factor authentication, but Apple does not support two-factor authentication in Iran, so Iranian iPhone users must instead rely on other security measures. Similarly, access to VPNs varies greatly depending on state laws, and their importance depends on varying state online surveillance capacity. External supporters should both expand and enhance training programs, and at a minimum should translate online guides into a more diverse set of languages.

On the latter, international actors should work to impede digital authoritarianism, or at least stop willfully enabling it. The Pegasus spyware scandal, which revealed that various governments had used the Israeli company NSO Group’s flagship “counterterrorism” spyware to surveil journalists, activists and politicians across the globe, are the predictable consequence of lax controls on the sale of dual-use filtering and surveillance technology to repressive autocracies. Western democracies are beginning to take data privacy more seriously, but the road ahead is long, particularly surrounding stalled efforts to establish collective norms of online freedom (perhaps among a unified league of techno-democracies).

In this respect, U.S. data privacy laws, a hodgepodge of outdated regulations that vary by both state and sector, lag conspicuously behind the E.U.’s recent regulatory efforts. The U.S. government should also find ways to engage the tech industry in this normative endeavor, encouraging software engineers to incorporate principles of transparency, accountability and human rights protections into the fundamental building blocks of their products.

The struggle between digital activists and autocrats is a defining aspect of 21st century politics. In recent years, autocrats have made significant headway. But if Western democracies commit to bolstering activists’ strategic capacity while frustrating autocratic innovation, digital technologies may yet live up to their promise as instruments of mass liberation.

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