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

26 responses to “Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance

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