Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance

I’ve been advising a large scale digital activism and civil resistance project and am concerned by the lack of importance placed on content. The project’s donor (not implementer) literally thinks that flooding the country in question with mobile phones, for example, will catalyze an effective digital and civil resistance movement. Clearly, they know very little about civil resistance.

Content Matters

Here’s a personal story I often relate during conversations that tend toward technological determinism. I was in the Western Sahara in 2003 doing investigative research on the Polisario guerrilla movement. I made contact with a high ranking guerrilla fighter who had trained in Cuba and Libya and who just defected from the camp’s headquarters in Algeria. He was a wealth of information and we quickly became friends.

Click for credit/source

One of my most memorable moments was when he recounted what ultimately made him decide to leave the Polisario. “I got a Spanish copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell, and I couldn’t believe it, he described in detail the political nature of the Polisario movement. I did not want this life for my children and my wife. So I left.”

Click for credit/source

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely pro self-determination for the Western Sahara which, like many others, I consider to be the oldest colony in Africa. The point of my story, however, is that a simply but brilliant book was enough to make my friend take a huge risk in defecting. Content is key, technology is secondary. (I’m actually reading a neat book, Wasp by Eric Russell, that gets exactly at this disproportionate, asymmetric dynamic vis-a-vis civil resistance).

Identifying Content

This brings me to my next point. I have been surprised to find little material that specifically lists the kind of content one would want to smuggle into a country under authoritarian rule. This is not to say we should restrict certain types of information, absolutely not, the first step is to provide full and secure access to all content on the web, for example.

At the same time, it behooves us to place some deliberate “sign posts” to specific content that can educate a closed society about digital activism and civil resistance. This means providing access to international and alternative news, such as mainstream media and GlobalVoices. Providing access to Wikipedia is also a good idea. But there’s a lot more content out there if the goal is to foster a peaceful transition to democracy.

As the Western Sahara story suggests, we would want to provide all of George Orwell’s books in print and/or electronic form. In addition, books on democracy and especially nonviolent revolutions and social movements. History books on civil resistance as well as video documentaries and even audio-books. I would also include multimedia material on nonviolent tactics and strategy.


Finally, I’m interested in computer games, like A Force More Powerful (AFMP); see screenshot above. I’ve also been toying around with the idea of multi-player games on mobile phones that replicate swarm or smartmob-like behavior. Like a treasure hunt of sorts via SMS or beeping.

How You Can Help

The identification of content should be one of the very first steps in this kind of digital activism and civil resistance project. Only after the content is identified, acquired and translated into the appropriate language(s) should one turn to technology as a vehicle for safe and secure transmission using encryption, steganography, etc.

In the meantime, here’s what I  have so far:

  • A Force More Powerful (book, DVD and game)
  • Nonviolent Conflict: 50 Crucial Points (>)
  • Waging Nonviolent Struggle in the 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (>)
  • Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the 20th Century (>)
  • Unarmed Insurrections: People Power in Non-Democracies (>)
  • On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (>)
  • Introduction to Nonviolent Conflict (>)
  • Bringing Down a Dictator (DVD)
  • Revolution in Orange (Book and DVD)
  • There Are Realistic Alternatives (>)
  • The Right to Rise Up: The Virtues of Civic Disruption (>)
  • Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power (>)
  • Civil Disobedience by Hannah Arendt (>)
  • War without Weapons (>)
  • Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographic Perspective (>)
  • Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent (>)
  • Power and Persuasion: Nonviolent Strategies to Influence State Security Forces (>)
  • Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Lessons from Past, Ideas for Future (>)
  • How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (>)

There is more great content listed on the Albert Einstein Institution website, PeaceMakers, Civil Resistance Info, Nonviolent Conflict, DigiActive and David Cortright’s website.

I’m looking for free or paid content. This content can be text, audio and/or video. I’d also be interested in putting a list together of entertaining movies with an underlying message of democracy and nonviolent resistance. The same goes for computer games and games on mobile phones. In sum, any material you think could educate and empower a society closed from the world would be welcome.

Feel free to forward this call for feedback as widely as you’d like. Thank you.

Patrick Philippe Meier

13 responses to “Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance

  1. In the history of social change movements, “content” is critical—–but technology has been the variable that has been the focus of analysis.

    I appreciate your recognizing that social change activists that use violence to “change a violent situation” are only strengthening violence as normative behavior.

    The real social change that has to occur on the planet is the recognition that violence is not a viable option or tool for changing the world….and that is the challenge—how to move people, cultures and societies—-from supporting and reinforcing values that define violence and conflict as “the norm” to values that support non-violent solutions to conflict.

    No matter what communication tool is used—from smoke signals to morse code to Twits—if the content supports violence, violence will be the norm.

    Our challenge is not the use of technologies—our challenge is to change values.

  2. Isn’t there a difference between the George Orwell literature you cite in your example and those theoretical works you list below it? That struck me because I think Orwell’s books might be great to raise awareness for the situation – while those manual build upon it.
    So I would say one should have at least two lists for two waves or groups of people to reach; some works to create awareness, some to empower those who are aware.

  3. Interesting points—thus I see you saying there needs to be two distinct arenas for discussion:

    1= “Awareness raising” content, ie. how to recognize one’s own oppression

    2=”Appropriate actions to make social change” content, ie. what to do to change that oppressive state.

    Haven’t those been the “big” questions raised over the centuries? What it seems to me you are really trying to get at, is a third question— how to deal with social change and resisting oppression, using peaceful tactics—-and thus the interest in communication media….

    Is that really the issue here? How to make peaceful change in the face of violence and repression? And the answer has been “communicate”. Now we are asking, “communicate about WHAT”?

  4. Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience ( is a text which I found helpful when considering my personal options. But can I detach that from a whole life of reading? Did it shape my actions less than, say Orwell’s 1984 or Zen and the art of motorcycle maintanence, which I read as a teenager?

    There’s a few barrier to breach before content: first, many disempoered people don’t read. Either can’t read, don’t have the habit, or lack secondary literacy skills. Second, many people who read don’t act. Understanding that you don’t like the way things are is one thing, doing something about it is a very different kettle of fish.
    Content needs to be freely and easily accessible, but so should the means of communicating about it, co-ordinating action, spreading your own ideas. That is where technology is relevant.

  5. YES, P!! ‘Bout time the humanities and literature entered the picture! Don’t get me started! Ok, do. 🙂

    – Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems (writing during Stalin terrors, a MUST!)
    – Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words (contemporary Paliestinan American poet)
    – Czeslaw Milosz (any work will do)
    – bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress and lots of other works
    – Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed
    – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (duh)
    – Edward Said, Orientalism
    – Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory

    And movies! Battleship Potemkin, Battle of Algiers, Army of Shadows…

    And the theory of cultural hegemony, all based from Gramsci’s work, is particularly precise on pinpointing the influence of the arts on oppressive regimes and resistance movements.

    Just to name a few – I know your readers can add many many more. There should be far more dialogue between the iRev community and the progressive/political/postcolonial humanities peeps. It is all there – no need to reinvent the wheel.

    You should connect with my favorite person at Harvard, Doris Sommer, in the Spanish Dept. She authored “Foundational Fictions” which describes how certain widely-read novels were paramount to rebuilding post-revolution national identities esp. in Latin American countries. She teaches incredible courses on “cultural agency” – and I’ve always wanted you to two to meet.

    How can the two communities bridge more deliberately? You should start a running reading list. Very exciting!!

  6. Vickesh Kambaran

    Hey Patrick,

    In terms of content on the web, have you come across ? I found the articles on leaders such as Biko very inspiring.

    Talk soon!,

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