Nonviolent action campaigns are one of the most common ways citizens seek to peacefully change nonresponsive political systems. Yet recently developed and emergent technologies are transforming the nature of interactions between activists and authoritarian governments. This report examines the increasingly sophisticated set of tools—such as facial recognition and surveillance of social media platforms—authoritarian regimes are using to stifle nonviolent movements, and provides recommendations for how policymakers and activists can develop creative strategies for overcoming digital authoritarianism.

People shine the lights of their smartphones at a demonstration in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019, to commemorate the death of a fellow protester. (Lam Yik Fei/New York Times)
People shine the lights of their smartphones at a demonstration in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019, to commemorate the death of a fellow protester. (Lam Yik Fei/New York Times)

Nonviolent action campaigns are one of the most common ways citizens seek to peacefully change nonresponsive political systems. Yet recently developed and emergent technologies are transforming the nature of interactions between activists and authoritarian governments. This report examines the increasingly sophisticated set of tools—such as facial recognition and surveillance of social media platforms—authoritarian regimes are using to stifle nonviolent movements, and provides recommendations for how policymakers and activists can develop creative strategies for overcoming digital authoritarianism.

Summary

  • Nonviolent action campaigns, in which ordinary citizens use tactics such as protests, strikes, and boycotts to put pressure on power holders, have been one of the most effective ways of peacefully bringing about change in nonresponsive autocratic countries. 
  • These campaigns are increasingly shaped by emergent technologies—the internet, social media, artificial intelligence, and facial recognition—that offer significant benefits to nonviolent action. At the same time, these technologies are increasingly advantaging authoritarian regimes, which use them to suppress dissent and sustain oppressive political systems.
  • These technologies present two key challenges: they make public life more legible to the state and reduce opportunities for nonviolent action to spark defections from among regime loyalists.
  • The challenges are illustrated in the ways two authoritarian regimes, China and Russia, have developed tools of censorship, propaganda, and surveillance using newer technologies.
  • As authoritarian regimes use these technologies to an ever-greater extent, it is crucial for policy-makers and activists to respond to the challenges of increased legibility and decreased defection. 

About the Report

This report examines how use of newer and emergent technologies affects nonviolent action campaigns. It identifies two significant related challenges and presents evidence of these dynamics at work in two digital autocracies, China and Russia. It was funded through an interagency agreement between the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

About the Authors

Matthew Cebul is a research officer with the Program on Nonviolent Action at USIP, where he conducts multimethod research on nonviolent action and its implications. Jonathan Pinckney is a senior researcher with the Program on Nonviolent Action at USIP and the author of From Dissent to Democracy: The Promise and Peril of Civil Resistance Transitions, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

Related Publications

Motives, Benefits, and Sacred Values: Examining the Psychology of Nonviolent Action and Violent Extremism

Motives, Benefits, and Sacred Values: Examining the Psychology of Nonviolent Action and Violent Extremism

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

By: Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D.;  Michael Niconchuk;  Sarah Ryan

What motivates one person to engage in acts of violent extremism, while others choose to pursue change through nonviolent action? This report is based on pilot research into the psychological and social dynamics of a nonviolent resistance group—Algeria’s Hirak movement—that employs some of the same measures used to study participation in violent extremist organizations. A deeper understanding of these dynamics, it is hoped, will help practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to identify and support paths away from violent extremism and to strengthen and sustain engagement in nonviolent action.

Type: Peaceworks

Nonviolent ActionViolent Extremism

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

Thursday, September 30, 2021

By: Jason Klocek, Ph.D.;  Miranda Rivers;  Sandra Tombe

The pullback in 2021 of international military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa’s Sahel region not only shows the limits of such foreign interventions. It forces policymakers to more urgently examine other ways to support the sustainable social changes that can stabilize violence-stricken nations. New USIP research sharpens an insight about one powerful method to achieve such changes—nonviolent, citizens’ movements that improve governance and justice. Effectively, the research shows, religion helps more often than we may think. Of more than 180 nonviolent campaigns for major political change since World War II, a majority have involved religion in some way.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

ReligionNonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

By: Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D.;  Miranda Rivers

Examples abound of women and youth on the front lines of recent nonviolent action campaigns—from Alaa Salah leading demonstrators in Sudan in 2019 to the thousands of young people marching against the coup in Myanmar in early 2021. Yet significant social, cultural, and economic barriers can prevent both women and youth from participating in nonviolent action. This report, based in part on firsthand reports from activists in seven diverse countries, sheds light on these barriers and makes concrete recommendations for maximizing the impact of women and youth in nonviolent action.

Type: Peaceworks

Nonviolent Action

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Luke Abbs;  Marina G. Petrova

Malgré une brève accalmie due aux restrictions liées à la COVID-19, ces dernières années ont été témoins de l'une des plus grandes vagues de résistance non-violente mondiale de l'histoire récente, 2019 étant largement surnommée “l'année de la protestation.” Ces mouvements – du Myanmar à la Colombie en passant par l'Inde – sont largement axés sur la lutte contre l'autoritarisme ou la réparation des injustices sociales. Moins annoncé et discuté est le rôle de l'action non-violente dans les contextes de guerres civiles et des processus de paix. La non-violence stratégique peut également favoriser la paix dans ces contextes, mais le timing et les tactiques sont la clé du succès.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

View All Publications