Monthly Archives: December 2008

Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology

Major civil nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to lead to sustainable democratic transitions than violent campaigns. This conclusion comes from a large-N statistical study carried out by my colleague Maria Stephan (PhD Fletcher ’06) and Erica Chenoweth. Recently published in International Security, the study notes that civil resistance movements have achieved success 55% of the time while only 28% of violent campaigns have succeeded.

Another colleague, Chris Walker (MALD Fletcher ’07), wrote in his excellent Master’s Thesis that “techniques associated with strategic nonviolent social movements are greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies, such as mobile telephony, short message service (SMS), email and the World Wide Web, among others.”

It stands to reason, then, that increasing access to modern communication technologies may in turn up the 55% success rate of nonviolent campaigns by several percentage points. To this end, the question that particularly interests me (given my dissertation research) is the following: What specific techniques associated with civil resistance can tactical uses of modern communication technologies amplify?

This is the question I recently posed to Dr. Peter Ackerman—another Fletcher Alum (PhD ’76) and the founding Chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—when I described my dissertation interests. When Peter suggested I look into Gene Sharp’s work on methods of nonviolent action, I replied “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

  • Quickie walkout (lightning strike): Flashmob
  • Hiding, escape, and false identities: Mobile phone, SMS

Do please let me know (in the comments section below) if you can think of other communication technologies, Web 2.0 applications, examples, etc. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance

The fields of digital activism and civil resistance are converging. In fact, they must if either is to remain effective. Repressive regimes are becoming increasingly savvier in their ability to employ information technologies to censor, monitor and intercept communication. These regimes also have recourse to nontechnical means of coercion such as intimidation, imprisonment and torture. To this end, the future of political activism in repressive environments belongs to those who mix and master both digital activism and civil resistance—digital resistance.

Digital activism brings technical expertise to the table while civil resistance offers rich tactical and strategic competence. At the same time, however, the practice of digital activism is surprisingly devoid of tactical and strategic know-how. In turn, the field of civil resistance lags far behind in its command of new information technologies for strategic nonviolent action. This means, for example, that digital activists are often unprepared to deal with violent government crackdowns while those engaged in civil resistance remain unaware that their communication is traced.


It is therefore imperative that both communities participate in joint trainings and workshops to address the gaps that currently exist. This is why I am introducing the study of civil resistance to DigiActive and why I’d really like to provide digital activism training at the 2009 Fletcher Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict. I am happy to report that both communities are eager to exchange lessons learned and best practices. The purpose of this blog post is thus to further cross-fertilize both fields of practice.

I have gone through my growing library of books on nonviolent conflict to identify specific references to communication and technology. Unfortunately, there were few references. Indeed, as Brian Martin (2001) remarked, “searching through writings on nonviolence, there is remarkably little attention to technology, so it is worth mentioning those few writers who deal with it.”

Gene Sharp is considered by many as one of the most influential scholars in the field of civil resistance. His book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, is a must-read for anyone interested in strategic nonviolent action. The following are excerpts that I found relevant to digital resistance.

Arguments are often made in favor of secrecy in nonviolent struggles in order to surprise the opponents and to catch them unprepared to counter the resistance actions. This is of dubious validity [since] modern communications technologies makes secrecy very difficult to maintain.

Yes and no. Repressive regimes are becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to intercept and block dissident communications but civilian resisters can take important precautions to ensure secrecy and anonymity in their communications. These precautions comprise both technical and tactical measures. DigiActive seeks to integrate both in its trainings.

The participants need to feel constantly part of a much larger movement that gives them, personally, support and strength to continue their resistance. They need to feel that others continue in solidarity with them. This is helped by regular contacts and demonstrations of ‘togetherness.’

Clearly, communications technologies can help foster solidarity as recently witnessed during the anti-FARC protests organized using Facebook. In some contexts, like Egypt, mass meetings, marches or symbols of unity are not permitted by the regime. Indeed, it is forbidden for more than three people to congregate. The Internet can provide a safer space for resistance movements to meet. Again, however, there are important technical and tactical ways to remain safe in cyberspace (and mobilespace).

How can we help accelerate the evolution of digital resistance? One possibility, as outlined by Gilliam de Valk (1993), is to identify and prioritize proposals for research. Gilliam’s book, Research on Civilian-Based Defence, describes in detail 24 areas for major research projects into civilian resistance. While Martin (2001) notes that most of the 24 projects are social rather than technological, two in particular stand out:

  • Collection of information about technologies of repression and what can be done to opposed them.
  • An examination of the influence of the new information technologies on the capacity for both repression and social defense.

As Director for Applied Research at DigiActive, a global all-volunteer initiative, I intend to make these two areas of research a priority for 2009. To this end, I invite scholars and activists to contribute their thoughts and research on digital resistance. Please stay tuned for a future post on the intersection between digital resistance and Clay Shiry’s work on “The Power of Organizing without Organization.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Job: Satellite Imagery & Conflict Specialist

The European Union’s Information Support for Effective and Rapid External Action (ISFEREA) is looking for a conflict specialist post-doc researcher. I haven’t posted job openings before but this one from my colleagues at the Joint Research Center (JRC) is especially relevant to iRevolution’s focus.

Background: ISFEREA develops techniques for automatic image processing of digital images acquired via satellite platforms as well as methodologies to explore the links between conflict risk and the exploitation (and degradation) of natural resources such as minerals. In particular, very high resolution (VHR) sensors with meter and sub-meter spatial resolution are being tested for multi-spectral and multi-temporal analysis.

Applications fields are related to human security, conflict resource monitoring, post-disaster damage assessment, and analysis of human settlements, including temporary settlements and refugee camps

The candidate will conduct research on conflict risk modelling and links between natural resources and conflicts. She/he would contribute to:

  1. Collecting, organizing and analyzing all available data sources on conflicts, political tensions/crises, and some types of natural resources;
  2. Developing modelling scenarios and applying them to study the relationships between natural resources and armed conflicts as well as political instability.

The position presumes the will and the interest of the candidate to publish the results of his/her work in peer reviewed publications.

Requirements: University degree in political or social sciences; PhD degree in similar discipline or 5 years of relevant work experience, especially in conflict studies; good knowledge of at least one of the following three regions: African Great Lakes, Horn of Africa and Central Asia; good oral and written communication skills in English; team player and collaborative, proactive in research, capacity to learn and adaptability to stress.

Duration: 36 months

Applications Due: before 11 Jan, 2009 – 23:59:59 CET

Please follow this link for further information.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Links: Blogger Rebels, Maps 2.0, Cold War KML

  • Bloggers the New Rebels in Vietnam: With fast, free wireless Internet now available at cybercafes and universities across Vietnam, bloggers are increasingly challenging censorship and the ruling Communist Party.
  • A Tweet from Foggy Bottom: Colleen Graffy, Deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, on using Twitter for public diplomacy 2.0.
  • Rent-A-Coder: An international marketplace where buyers can acquire custom software (as well as writing, graphic design, and other services) in a safe and business-friendly environment.
  • Futures Map for 2009: An interesting trends map that integrates a variety of important issues for humanitarian strategists in an appealing visual format.

Top 5 iRevolution Posts of 2008

Here are the five most popular posts of 2008 on iRevolution:

  1. The Past and Future of Crisis Mapping
  2. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence
  3. SMS and Web 2.0 for Mumbai Early Warning
  4. Intellipedia for Humanitarian Warning/Response
  5. Tracking Genocide by Remote Sensing

Happy Holidays!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Conference – New Challenges for Human Rights Communications


I was just invited to participate on a panel at the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS) Conference in Geneva, February 25-27, 2009.

The panel will be part of Plenary IV: Trends in Information Technology and Human Rights. The other panelists include my good friend Lars Bromley from AAAS and:

  • Florence Devouard, Chair Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation
  • Dan Brickley, developer of Semantic Web technologies
  • Jan Kleijsen, Director of Human Rights Standard Setting, Council of Europe

Lars will also be leading a workshop on “Satellite Imagery and Mapping” which I look forward to attending. I also plan to attend Sam Gregory’s workshop on “Video Advocacy“. Sam is the Program Director of Witness.

I plan to sit in on Plenary III entitled: Drawing Together the Common Information Needs. I’m particularly interested in uses of satellite imagery by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have had several conversations on this with my colleague Russ Schimmer based on his remote sensing work in Darfur.

Another perk of attending this conference is that the LIFT Conference will be taking place on the same days at the same location. So I really hope to attend some of the LIFT panels if time permits.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)


A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests […] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier