As the COVID-19 pandemic expands, many social movements have had to drastically rethink their strategies. Movements that previously relied on the visibility and disruption of street protests have either been forced off the streets by quarantine restrictions or have voluntarily ended public protests to protect public health. Yet, this significant reduction in public protests does not mean that movements have gone away.

People use computers at an internet cafe, in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2010. The Chinese government has tightened its grip on the internet, reportedly determined to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment. (Shiho Fukada/The New York Times)
People use computers at an internet cafe, in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2010. The Chinese government has tightened its grip on the internet, reportedly determined to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment. (Shiho Fukada/The New York Times)

While classic street protests may not be feasible, creative movements are engaging in literally hundreds of different forms of nonviolent action. In Israel, opposition protesters held a demonstration in a public square with carefully marked spots on the pavement six feet apart from one another. In Poland, as in many other countries, women’s rights activists organized a “march” where participants stayed inside their vehicles.

For many movements, one of the most important shifts has been moving from in-person activism to action online. In Hong Kong, activists have used the popular online multiplayer game “Animal Crossing” to spread pro-democracy messaging. Activists and opposition party leaders have also planned full-scale online rallies, complete with speakers and live music broadcast to tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of participants in places like Germany and Indonesia.

Repressive Regimes Have the Advantage

Yet the shift to online activism is likely to come with several difficulties. While there was an initial wave of optimism around the positive impact of social media in movements like the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, leading scholars of social movements such as Erica Chenoweth, Zeynep Tufekci, and others have argued that the digital playing field is tilted toward dictators.

Online activism disadvantages movements in several important ways. Many autocracies tightly control, or even directly administer, their country’s internet service providers. This allows them to more easily monitor and often censor information flow through digital networks—as in China’s famous “Great Firewall”—or selectively prevent activists from getting and maintaining internet access. These restrictions in turn make movement actions more difficult to start.

When repressive governments don’t directly shut off internet access or censor content, surveillance is much easier and less costly to maintain online than in person. With few people and relatively cheap technology, repressive governments can easily gain a comprehensive picture of activists’ online activities, even when activists take precautions against surveillance. Information gathered through online surveillance in turn often directly leads to violence, as in Bahrain, where the government used pictures posted to social media to directly target and arrest activists, or Syria, where greater levels of internet access directly correlated with more targeted violent repression from the government.

And finally, regimes can flood the online space with false information or government propaganda. In early April, Twitter removed tens of thousands of fake accounts associated with government or pro-government parties, including over 9,000 accounts associated with the ruling party of Serbia that seem to have been created in direct response to a nonviolent action campaign against the government. Flooding the online space with misinformation this way is easier on margin than creating and disseminating true information. In the accounts that were part of the Twitter takedown, over 3,000 accounts were created by a single staffer in the Honduran government. Even if people don’t believe government propaganda, simply overwhelming people with misinformation can undermine trust and coordination within activist networks.

While social media provide several advantages to governments, it can also have negative effects on social movements, promoting forms of mobilization that are not backed up by strong organizational infrastructures. While large numbers of people may be willing to participate in online activities or may even be initially mobilized to engage in real-world activism by an online call, digital action alone is unlikely to foster the strong networks of mutual trust that can sustain a movement over the long-term. Without strong organizational structures, movements are less likely to withstand repression, and may ultimately be more likely to fail.

How Can Social Movements Catch Up?

These worrying aspects of the online landscape suggest that the shift to online activism will come with real negative consequences for many movements struggling against repressive governments. So, what are movements who are shifting their activities online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic doing to re-balance the digital playing field?

For many movements, social media tools are being used for community-based organizing around mutual aid. Local community movements from Italy to Ukraine are using digital tools to provide food and coordinate help for the sick and the economically struggling. This stands in stark contrast to the flashy, Twitter-fueled calls to action that may have led to big public demonstrations in the past but did not build strong trusting relationships that could continue over the long term. Building trust over online networks remains difficult, but small-scale locally based networks of support may help overcome this difficulty.

Activists have also become increasingly savvy in dealing with government surveillance and censorship. Organizations such as the Paradigm Initiative, Tactical Technology Collective, and Mobilisation Lab have longstanding projects teaching activists how to take advantage of critical tools for maintaining online security like end-to-end encryption, and sharing lessons learned on countering authoritarian advantages in the digital sphere. Activists in China have long evaded government censorship through clever puns, emojis, and plays on censored words, tools that they put to good use to spread doctor Ai Fen’s criticism of the Chinese government for its handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan when the government attempted to remove his article from the internet.

Activists and civil society groups are also creating broad-based alliances to strategically counter government misinformation. A network of civil society groups from the Balkans created an initiative on International Fact-Checking Day to counter misinformation across their region. And 50 media and public advocacy groups in Mexico have created a joint Twitter campaign to spread accurate public health information about the COVID-19 response.

USIP’s program on Nonviolent Action has facilitated similar efforts with our local activist partners in Latin America. In a series of recent online national convenings organized by the Institute, local civil society activists prepared strategic plans for countering disinformation. In particular, activists from different organizations created memes and other eye-catching online content that could easily circulate through their countries’ digital spaces and counter government propaganda about the impact of COVID-19.

The challenges of online activism are not going away, but just as repressive governments have learned to take advantage of these tools, nonviolent action movements can take the advantage back by thinking strategically about how to operate in the digital landscape. Indeed, the necessity of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic may be the spark the helps initiate that change.

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