The Iranian protests of 2009 are still framed as a failure. The same goes for the 2007 protests in Burma and other nonviolent movements that have combined digital technologies with civil resistance (digital resistance). Are these efforts really failures or are we simply looking through the wrong lens? What characterizes success in digital activism?
The international community and mainstream media seem to think that success means full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. This state-centric framework is the wrong one to use if the goal is to critically assess the success of resistance movements. We should instead be looking at digital resistance through the lens of guerrilla warfare, or “little war” in Spanish.
Guerrilla warfare is characterized by small, highly mobile groups that employ military tactics to harass a larger enemy, striking and withdrawing almost immediately. Hit-and-run tactics against supply chains and disrupting communication lines is a guerrilla favorite.
Tactically, guerrillas avoid confrontation with larger enemy forces and seek instead to attack smaller, weaker groups to minimize losses and exhaust the opposition. They seek the support of local populations in the process. Their goal is to weaken the enemy and eventually to undermine the state’s ability to prosecute the war; victory by attrition.
Civil resistance movements use guerrilla warfare. Their tactics and strategies are almost identical. The majority of guerrilla actions do not use violence. Given the similarities between civil resistance and guerrilla campaigns, we should look into how the latter are evaluated. If we used today’s media frames to evaluate passed successful resistance movements, they would all be failures.
The history of nonviolent struggle shows that movements which were counted out when major repression first hit – such as Solidarity in Poland in 1981 and nonviolent South African anti-apartheid strikers and boycotters in the mid-1980’s – were, a few years later, on the winning side (1).
This means that an evaluation framework for digital resistance should include a broader time frame and have a more micro-level focus. We should be looking at a group’s ability to organize an underground movement, recruit, spread propaganda, elicit support from the local population, employ a rich mix of tactics to over time to harass, provoke and delegitimize a repressive regime, and a group’s ability to continue existing even after government crack downs.
On this latter point, for example, “a more comprehensive and accurate frame on [Iran and Burma] would have reminded us that such shows of force are used only when a regime feels threatened, that is, when it perceives itself in a position of potential weakness if opposition is permitted to gain any foothold” (2).