From Our Book: How Governments Respond to Digital Activism

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation is from the chapter “Political Factors: Digital Activism in Closed and Open Societies”, which explores the effect of political context on digital activism outcomes.

…The responses of governments will likely follow one of several paths. Some governments will fail to adapt in any way and continue to operate as bureaucratic hierarchies despite the challenge from networked movements. Others will choose to follow an adaptive approach as a result of the success of their newly networked opponents and incorporate peer-to-peer practices. Such adaptation in open societies, as described above, might accommodate oppositional movements as it has in the United States. Closed, authoritarian societies like Iran or China, on the other hand, will, in all likelihood, adapt to digital technology by using it to repress opposition movements. The disposition of the government toward digital activism will be significant in defining the impact that this kind of activism has on a society.

Open Governance

In societies where political leaders and state institutions understand both the power of digital activism and the opportunity it presents for doing tasks differently, digital activists will likely be able to play a significant role as the structures of governance change. Such governments will embed digital networks of contention and cooperation into their operations, seeking to engage cooperative networks externally and recognizing oppositional networks as they arise as legitimate actors. In this context, governments and activists will likely learn the new dynamics and the political system will tend to move through the transition with the least amount of upheaval.

Agnostic Governance

Democratic governments that fail to recognize the emergence of digital activism, its possibilities, and the threat to established institutions will likely misunderstand any activism that occurs. Activists will find themselves in opposition and underappreciated. More than likely, such governments will misjudge the power of nascent movements and accede to their demands when unnecessary and refuse to compromise when it is in their interest.

The transition to a world where digital activism plays a role in governance will be bumpy, as traditionally strong institutions are challenged and the concept that activists can play a supportive role will be unacknowledged.

Closed Authoritarian Governance

Where open dissent is unwelcome, digital activism will almost certainly be repressed. In a few cases, governments will succeed in both tightly limiting access to digital platforms and in squashing dissent through traditional means. Where digital activism is at all possible, a contest between surveillance and countersurveillance technologies will ensue. In the bleakest case, the tools of digital activism will be used to enlarge government control over the population and likely result in less freedom.

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