Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Reshaping Public Spheres

Andrew Puddephatt from Global Partners gave the first panel presentation here at the conference on digital media and repressive regimes. He focused on the issue of shaping digital media for human rights. The basic premise of Andrew’s talk is that access to information is a human right. The problem is how we get there.

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What I took from his talk was that:

  • We should steer away from talking about the media, since there’s no longer such a think. While he didn’t use the following language, I think he would agree: instead of the media, we now have a digital/communication ecosystem, which displays nonlinear dynamics and is by definition more complex;
  • While digital media enthusiasts see digital technologies as a great liberating force, and while these technologies can certainly be disruptive, it’s a two-way street: censorship of content and surveillance are both on the rise;
  • It is meaningless to talk about right to communication if people don’t have access to communication technologies. We have to think about infrastructure;
  • Google shape protocols for search; protocols are commercial secrets, shaped by forces that anything but transparent;
  • We need a digital/communication infrastructure that foster creativity and innovation;
  • All evidence points to the suggestion that the mobile phone will be the key communication tool of our century. The most exciting technology development is being made in this area;
  • New media undermine repressive structures, they are transgressive. However, democratic governments are also worried about the potential impact in the West;
  • Extremists have been empowered thanks to new media;
  • The main challenge is persuading democratic governments that while there are people out there who wish to use new media for ill, the digital media revolution nevertheless has for the first time the potential to create a genuine public sphere.

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Robert Guerra of Freedom House gave the second talk of the day, which focused on Internet freedom, online activism and emerging threats. Robert argues that we should expect to see threats to internet freedom emerging as a response to the ground gained by digital activists. Just as we may be moving towards Democracy 2.0, we’re about to be introduced (if we haven’t already) to Repression 2.0.

In Egypt freedom of association is only allowed for groups of 5 or less, otherwise larger gatherings are illegal by law. Online activism allows activists to get around this and to do so by the thousand and new media in repressive regimes can promote nonviolent confrontation. So in one regard, online activism presents fewer risks.

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The framing of Democracy 2.0 versus Repression 2.0 was a useful springboard for my presentation as third speaker of the day. My talk focused on the idea of “digital resistance” which I define as the intersection between digital activism and strategic nonviolent action against repressive regimes. The question I pose is whether digital resistance poses a threat to repressive rule, or vice versa? Why or why not?

There are more and more anecdotes and qualitative case studies available that describe successful instances of digital activism; see those documented on DigiActive, for example. What do all these examples add up to? Can we start measuring the aggregate impact of digital activism on repressive rule? How might we analyze quantitatively the qualitative, anecdotal impact of digital resistance, or lack thereof?  In other words, are we likely to see the fall of Repression 2.0 like we did of Communism? See this previous blog entry for some preliminary thoughts on the question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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