Tag Archives: digital resistance

An Analytical Framework to Understand Twitter’s use in Iran?

The digital activism and resistance witnessed in Iran go to the heart of my dissertation research, which asks whether the information revolution empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa? Iran is one of my case studies for my upcoming field research in addition to Burma, Tunisia and Ukraine.


There have been a number of excellent blog posts on the intersection between technology and resistance in Iran, and especially on the use of Twitter. The mainstream press is also awash with references to Twitter’s role. For example, Agence France Presse (AFP) recently cited my research in this piece entitled “Twitter Streams Break Iran News Dam.”

However, what I haven’t seen in the blogosphere and mainstream press is the application of an analytical and theoretical framework to place Twitter’s use in Iran into context.

For example, just how important is/was Twitter’s role vis-a-vis the mobilization and organization of anti-government protests in Iran? We can draw on anecdotes here and there but this process is devoid of any applied social science methodology.

This post seeks to shed light on how, when and why information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used by resistance movements in repressive environments. The framework I draw on (summarized below) is informed by Kelly Garrett’s excellent publication on “Protest in an Information Society: A Review of the Literature on Social Movements and New ICTs” (2006).


The framework seeks to “explain the emergence, development and outcomes of social movements by addressing three interrelated factors: mobilizing structures, opportunity structures and framing processes”  within the context of ICTs. (The figure below is excerpted from my dissertation, hence the figure 4 reference).


  • Mobilizing Structures are the mechanisms that facilitate organization and collective action. These include social structures and tactical repertoires.
  • Opportunity Structures are conditions that favor social movement activity. For example, these include factors such as the state’s capacity and propensity for repression.
  • Framing Processes are “strategic attempts to craft, disseminate, and contest the language and narratives used to describe a movement.”

These three factors should be further disaggregated to facilitate analysis. For example, mobilizing structures can be divided into categories susceptible to the impact of ICTs:

  • Participation levels (recruitment);
  • Contentious activity;
  • Organizational issues.

These sub-indicators are still to broad, however. Take, for example, participation levels; what is participation a function of? What underlying mechanisms are facilitated or constrained by the wider availability and use of ICTs? Participation levels may change as a function of three factors:

  • Reduction of participation costs;
  • Promotion of collective identity;
  • Creation of community.

These activities are of course not mutually exclusive but often interdependent. In any case, taking the analysis of ICTs in repressive environments to the tactical level facilitates the social science methodology of process tracing.


We can apply the above framework to test a number of hypotheses regarding Twitter’s use in Iran. Take Mobilizing Structures, for example. The following hypothesis could be formulated.

  • Hypothesis 1: The availability of Twitter in Iran increased participation levels, contentious activity and organizational activity.

Using process tracing and the above framework, one could test hypothesis 1 as follows:


These causal chains, or “micro theories,” are posited with the “⎥” marker to signify that the causal relationship is contended. The direction of the arrows above reflects the theoretical narratives extracted from the theoretical framework presented above. Note that the above “micro” theories are general and not necessarily reflective of Twitter’s use in Iran.

Iran Case Study

When the arrows are tallied, the results suggest the following general theory: there is a direct and positive relationship between the impact of Twitter and the incidents of protests and riots. The next step is to test these “micro theories” in the context of Iran by actually “weighting” the arrows. And of course, to do so comparatively by testing the use of Twitter relative to the use of mobile phones and the Internet. Furthermore, the results of this hypothesis testing should be compared to those for Opportunity Structures and Framing Processes.

I plan to carry out field research to qualitatively test these hypotheses once the first phase of my dissertation is completed. The first phase is a large-N quantitative study to determine whether increasing access to ICTs in repressive regimes is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests.

Patrick Philippe Meier

How To Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments

Update: The information below is now out of date, please do not blindly rely on the strategies and technologies listed!

Important: Please check the excellent comments provided by iRevolution readers below for additional tactics/technologies and corrections. The purpose of this blog post was to inform and elicit feedback so thank you very much for improving on what I’ve written!

FYI – I tried keep an up-to-date guide based on the comments below but was too busy to continue. Please see this link (Doc).

I’m preparing to give a presentation at The Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict (FSI 2009). The focus of my presentation will be on digital security, i.e., how to communicate safely and securely in repressive, non-permissive environments. I’d be very grateful for feedback on the information below.


Core to effective strategic nonviolent action is the need to remain proactive and on the offensive; the rationale being that both the resistance movement and repressive regime have an equal amount of time allocated when the show-down begins. If the movement becomes idle at any point, this may give the regime the opportunity to regain the upper hand, or vice versa. The same principle is found in Clausewitz’s writings on war.

Nonviolent resistance movements are typically driven by students, i.e., young people, who are increasingly born digital natives. With expanding access to mobile phones, social networking software and online platforms for user-generated content such as blogs, the immediate financial cost of speaking out against repressive regimes is virtually nil. So resistance movements are likely to make even more use of new communication technology and digital media in the future. In fact, they already are.

At the same time, however, the likelihood and consequences of getting caught are high, especially for those political activists without any background or training in digital security. Indeed, recent research by Digital Democracy research suggests that organizational hierarchies are being broken down as youth adopt new technologies. While this empowers them they are also put at risk since they don’t tend to be as consequence-conscious as their adult counterparts.

Empire Strikes Back

It is no myth that repressive regimes are becoming increasingly more savvy in their ability to effectively employ sophisticated filtering, censoring, monitoring technologies (often courtesy of American companies like Cisco) to crack down on resistance movements. In other words, political activists need to realize that their regimes are becoming smarter and more effective, not dumber and hardly clueless.

That said, there are notable—at times surprising—loopholes. During the recent election violence in Iran, for example, facebook.com was blocked but not facebook.com/home.php. In any case, repressive regimes will continue to block more sites impose information blockades because they tend to view new media and digital technologies as a threat.

Perhaps technologies of liberation are a force more powerful?

In order to remain on the offensive against repressive regimes, nonviolent civil resistance movements need to ensure they are up to speed on digital security, if only for defense purposes. Indeed, I am particularly struck by the number of political activists in repressive regimes who aren’t aware of the serious risks they take when they use their mobile phones or the Internet to communicate with other activists.

Adaptive Learning

One way to stay ahead is to make the learning curve less steep for political activists and to continually update them with the latest tested tactics and technologies. To be sure, one way to keep the upper hand in this cyber game of cat-and-mouse is to continue adapting and learning as quickly as possible. We need to ensure that feedback mechanisms are in place.

There are clearly trade-offs between security and convenience or usability, particularly in the context of technologies. As DigiActive notes in the graphic below, the most secure tactics and technologies may not be the most convenient or easy to deploy. Most political activists are not tech-savvy.

This means that digital activists need to design tactics and technologies that are easy to learn and deploy.

The tactics and technologies listed in the next sections fall into all four different quadrants to one extent or another. It is important that political activists at minimum master the easy and convenient digital security tactics and technologies identified in this blog post.


Recall that both sides are allocated an equal amount of time to plan and execute their operations. Accelerating the learning process is one way for activist networks to remain pro-active and stay ahead of the curve. This is in part is the role that DigiActive seeks to play. Unlike the hierarchical, centralized structures of repressive regimes, networks have more flexibility and feedback loops, which make them more adaptable.

The normative motivation behind my research on digital resistance is based on the recognition by “many scholars and practitioners […] that the 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” (Walker 2007).

The potential to leverage those techniques is what makes Digital Security so important to integrate in the strategic and tactical repertoire of civil resistance movements.

Digital Security

I define digital security (DS) in the context of digital resistance as the art and science of staying safe when communicating in non-permissive environments. The reason I call it both an art and a science is to emphasize that both tactics and technology play an important role in staying safe when facing repression.

So the DS framework I want to propose is two-pronged: tactics vs. technology, and safety vs. security. I call it the 4-square approach for obvious reasons:


  • DS tactics: these can be “technology free” tactics as well as tactics that apply communication technology.
  • DS technologies: these include both high-tech and low-tech technologies that are designed to improve safe and secure communication in repressive environments.
  • Personal safety: in this context refers to physical, personal safety when communicating in non-permissive environments.
  • Data Security: refers to the security of the data when communicated from one devise to another.

As the graphic above suggests, personal safety and data security are a function of both tactics and technologies. For example, data security is best ensured when combining tactics and technologies.

What follows is a list of tactics and technologies for communicating safely and securely in repressive environments. The list is divided into technology categories and the bullet points are listed in order of relative convenience and easy to more complicated but more secure.

Note that the information below is in no way meant to be exhaustive, so pleasedo send suggestions! (See also the conclusion for a list of reference and suggestions on further reading).

Digital Security Tactics

As mentioned above, DS tactics come as both technology-free tactics and tactics that relate to communication technology. For example, making sure to pay for a sim card in cash and out of sight of security cameras is a technology-free tactic  that increases the chances of staying safe. Removing the batteries from your mobile phone to prevent it from being geo-located is a tactic that relates to the technology and also increases your safety.

DS tactics can also improve data security when communicating information. “Sneakernet” is a technology-free tactic to share information. The term is used to describe tactics whereby the transfer of electronic information such computer files is done by physically carryingremovable media such as hard drives and disk drives. In contrast, using encryption software for mobile phones is a tactic that uses technology. The communication may be intercepted by eavesdroppers but they may be unable to decipher the message itself.

These tactics are listed below along with a number of other important ones. Please keep in mind that tactics are case- and context-specific. They need to be adapted to the local situation.

  • Mobile Phones
    • Purchase your mobile phone far from where you live. Buy lower-end, simple phones that do not allow third-party applications to be installed. Higher-end ones with more functionalities carry more risk. Use cash to purchase your phone and SIM card. Avoid town centers and find small or second-hand shops as these are unlikely to have security cameras. Do not give your real details if asked; many shops do not ask for proof of ID.
    • Use multiple SIM cards and multiple phones and only use pay-as-you go options; they are more expensive but required for anonymity.
    • Remove the batteries from your phone if you do not want to be geo-located and keep the SIM card out of the phone when not in use and store in separate places.Use your phone while in a moving vehicle to reduces probability of geo-location.
    • Never say anything that may incriminate you in any way.
    • Use code.
    • Use Beeping instead of SMS whenever possible. Standard text messages are visible to the network operator, including location, phone and SIM card identifiers. According to this recent paper, the Chinese government has established 2,800 SMS surveillance centers around the country to monitor and censor text messages. The Chinese firm Venus Info Tech Ltd sells real-time content monitoring and filtering for SMS.
    • Use fake names for your address book and memorize the more important numbers. Frequently delete your text messages and call history and replace them with random text messages and calls. The data on your phone is only deleted if it is written over with new data. This means that deleted SMS and contact numbers can sometimes be retrieved (with a free tool like unDeleteSMS. Check your phone’s settings to see whether it can be set to not store sent texts messages and calls.
    • Eavesdropping in mobile phone conversations is technically complicated although entirely possible using commercially available technology. Do not take mobile phones with you to meetings as they can be turned into potential listening/tracking devices. Network operators can remotely activate a phone as a recording device regardless of whether someone is using the phone or whether the phen is even switched on. This functionality is available on US networks.
    • Network operators can also access messages or contact information stored on the SIM card. If surveillance takes place with the co-operation of the operator, little can be done to prevent the spying.
    • Mobile viruses tend to spread easily via Bluetooth so the latter should be turned off when not in use.
    • Using open Bluetooth on phones in group situations, e.g., to share pictures, etc., can be dangerous. At the same time, it is difficult to incriminate any one person and a good way to share information when the cell phone network and Internet are down.
    • Discard phones that have been tracked and burn them; it is not sufficient to simply destroy the SIM card and re-use the phone.
  • Digital Cameras
    • Keep the number of sensitive pictures on your camera to a minimum.
    • Add plenty of random non-threatening pictures (not of individuals) and have these safe pictures locked so when you do a “delete all” these pictures stay on the card.
    • Keep the battery out of the camera when not in use so it can’t be turned on by others.
    • Practice taking pictures without having to look at the view screen.
  • Computers/Laptops
    • Use passphrases for all your sensitive data.
    • Keep your most sensitive files on flash disks and find safe places to hide them.
    • Have a contingency plan to physically destroy or get rid of your computer at short notice.
  • Flash disks
    • Purchase flash disks that don’t look like flash disks.
    • Keep flash disks hidden.
  • Email communication
    • Use code.
    • Use passphrases instead of passwords and change them regularly. Use letters, numbers and other characters to make them “c0mpLeX!”. Do not use personal information and changer your passphrases each month. Do not use the same password for multiple sites.
    • Never use real names for email addresses and use multiple addresses.
    • Discard older email accounts on a regular basis and create new ones.
    • Know the security, safety and privacy policies of providers and monitor any chances (see terms of service tracker).
  • Browsers and websites
    • Turn off java and other potentially malicious add-ons.
    • Learn IP addresses of visited websites so that history shows only numbers and not names.
    • When browsing on a public computer, delete your private data (search history, passwords, etc.) before you leave.
    • When signing up for an account where you will be publishing sensitive media, do not use your personal email address and don’t give personal information.
    • Don’t download any software from pop-ups,  they may be malicious and attack your computer or record your actions online.
    • Do not be logged in to any sensitive site while having another site open.
  • VoIP
    • Just because your talking online doesn’t mean you are not under surveillance.
    • As with a cell or landline, use code do not give salient details about your activities, and do not make incriminating statements.
    • Remember that your online activities can be surveilled using offline techniques.  It doesn’t matter if you are using encrypted VOIP at a cyber cafe if the person next to you is an under-cover police officer.
    • When possible, do not make sensitive VOIP calls in a cyber cafe.  It is simply too easy for someone to overhear you. If you must, use code that doesn’t stand out.
  • Blogs and social networking sites
    • Know the laws in your country pertaining to liability, libel, etc.
    • When signing up for a blog account where you will be publishing sensitive content, do not use you personal email address or information.
    • In your blog posts and profile page, do not post pictures of yourself or your friends, do not use your real name, and do not give personal details that could help identify you (town, school, employer, etc.).
    • Blog platforms like wordpress allow uses to automatically publish a post on a designated date and time. Use this functionality to auto-publish on a different day when you are away from the computer.
    • On social networks, create one account for activism under a false but real-sounding name (so your account won’t be deleted) but don’t tell your friends about it.  The last thing you want is a friend writing on your wall or tagging you in a photo and giving away your identity.
    • Even if you delete your account on a social networking site, your data will remain, so be very careful about taking part in political actions (i.e., joining sensitive groups) online.
    • Never join a sensitive group with your real account.  Use your fake account to join activism groups. (The fake account should not be linked to your fake email).
    • Don’t use paid services.  Your credit card can be linked back to you.
  • File sharing
    • Use a shared Gmail account with a common passphrase and simply save emails instead of sending. Change passphrase monthly.
    • For sharing offline, do not label storage devices (CDs, flash drives) with the true content.  If you burn a CD with an illegal video or piece of software on it, write an album label on it.
    • Don’t leave storage devices in places where they would be easily found if your office or home were searched (i.e., on a table, in a desk drawer).
    • Keep copies of your data on two flash drives and keep them hidden in separate locations.
    • When thinking of safe locations, consider who else has access. Heavily-traveled locations are less safe.
    • Don’t travel with sensitive data on you unless absolutely necessary.  If you need to, make sure to hide it on your person or “camouflage” it (label a data CD as a pop music CD). See Sneakernet.
  • Internet Cafes
    • Assume you are being watched.
    • Assume computers at cyber cafes are tracking key strokes and capturing screenshots.
    • Avoid cyber cafes without an easy exit and have a contingency plan if you need to leave rapidly.

Digital Security Technologies

When combine with the tactics described above, the following technologies can help you stay safe and keep your data relatively more secure.

  • Mobile phones
    • Use CryptoSMS, SMS 007 or Kryptext to text securely (this requires java-based phones).
    • Use Android Guardian as soon as it becomes available.
    • Access mobile versions of websites as they are usually not blocked. In addition, connecting to mobile websites provides for faster connections.
  • Digital cameras
    • Use scrubbing software such as: JPEG stripper to remove the metadata (Exif data) from your pictures before you upload/email.
    • Have a safe Secure Digital Card (SD) that you can swap in. Preferably, use a mini SD card with a mini SD-SD converter. Then place the mini SD into a compatible phone for safekeeping.
  • Computers/Laptops
    • Use a different file type to hide your sensitive files. For example, the .mov file extension will make a large file look like a movie.
    • Mac users can use Little Snitch to track all the data that goes into and out of your computer.
    • From a technical perspective, there’s no such thing as the delete function. Your deleted data is eventually written over with new data. There are two common ways to wipe sensitive data from your hard drive or storage device. You can wipe a single file or you can wipe all of the ‘unallocated’ space on the drive. Eraser is a free and open-source secure deletion tool that is extremely easy to use.
  • Email communication
    • Use https when using Gmail.
    • Use encrypted email platforms such as Hushmail and RiseUp.
  • Browsers and websites
    • Use Firefox and get certain plugins to follow website tracking such as ghostery and adblock, adart to remove ads/trackers.
    • User Tor software or Psiphon to browse privately and securely.
    • I shan’t list access points for secure browsers, Proxy servers and VPNs here. Please email me for a list.
    • Always use https in “Settings/General/Browser Connection.”
  • VoIP
    • Use Skype but not TOM Skype (Chinese version). Note that Skype is not necessarily 100% secure since no one has access to the source code to verify.
    • Off The Record (OTR) is a good encryption plugin. For example, use Pidgin with OTR (you need to add the plug-in yourself).
    • Gizmo offer encryption for voice conversations, and then only if you are calling another VoIP user, as opposed to a mobile or landline telephone. However, because neither application is open-source, independent experts have been unable to test them fully and ensure that they are secure.
    • Adium is a free IM application for Macs with built-in OTR encryption that integrates most other IM applications.
  • Blogs and social networking platforms
    • There are no safe social networks.  The best way to be safe on a social network is fake account and a proxy server.
    • The anonymous blogging platform Invisiblog no longer exists, so the best bet now is WordPress + Proxy (preferably Tor) + anonymity of content.
    • Log out of facebook.com when not using the site.
  • File sharing
    • Use Drop.io to create a private, secure media sharing site.
    • Use BasecampHQ with secure/SSL option to create more specific usernames and passwords for each user or remote site.
  • Internet Cafe
    • Tor can be installed on flash disk and used at Internet cafe and also used from LiveCDs if flash drives are not allowed.
  • Other potential tech


The above material was collected in part from these sources:

As mentioned above, please send suggestions and/or corrections as well as updates. And again, please do check the comments below. Thanks! Patrick Philippe Meier

Steganography 2.0: Digital Resistance against Repressive Regimes

A team of Polish steganographers at the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw are doing some neat work that should be of interest to digital activists. Steganography is is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity.

Wojciech Mazurczyk, along with Krzysztof Szczypiorski and Milosz Smolarczyk are using the Internet’s transmission control protocol (TCP) to create fake web traffic that can mask the transmission of secret messages.

As the NewScientist explains,

“Web, file transfer, email and peer-to-peer networks all use TCP, which ensures that data packets are received securely by making the sender wait until the receiver returns a “got it” message. If no such acknowledgement arrives (on average 1 in 1000 packets gets lost or corrupted), the sender’s computer sends the packet again. This scheme is known as TCP’s retransmission mechanism – and it can be bent to the steganographer’s whim, says Mazurczyk.”

The team’s project is called Retransmission Steganography, or RSTEG, proposes to use software that deliberately asks the receiver of information to prompt a retransmission from the sender even when the data was successfully received in the first place. As Mazurczyk explains, “the sender then retransmits the packet but with some secret data inserted in it,” which means, “the message is hidden among the teeming network traffic.”

The use of RSTEG as a tactic for digital resistance could be quite effective. While eavesdroppers could monitor the fact that a first sent package is different from a second retransmitted one containing the secret message, this would be somewhat useless since all retransmitted packages differ from original ones anyway. In other words, “Retransmissions in IP networks are a ‘natural phenomenon’, and so intentional retransmissions introduced by RSTEG are not easy to detect if they are kept at a reasonable level.”

Mazurczyk and Szczypiorski are also working on a parallel project that draws on steganographic techniques to creating covert channels for Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) streams. This approach, called Lost Audio Packets Steganography, or LACK, “provides hybrid storage-timing covert channel by utilizing delayed audio packets.”

For more information on the technical specifications of the RSTEG and LACK techniques, please see the authors’ papers here and here respectively.

The team plans to demonstrate their approach at a workshop on network steganography in China later this year. Yes, China.

Patrick Philippe Meier

iRevolution One Year On…

I started iRevolution exactly one year ago and it’s been great fun! I owe the Fletcher A/V Club sincere thanks for encouraging me to blog. Little did I know that blogging was so stimulating or that I’d be blogging from the Sudan.

Here are some stats from iRevolution Year One:

  • Total number of blog posts = 212
  • Total number of comments = 453
  • Busiest day ever = December 15, 2008

And the Top 10 posts:

  1. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence
  2. The Past and Future of Crisis Mapping
  3. Mobile Banking for the Bottom Billion
  4. Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes
  5. Towards an Emergency News Agency
  6. Intellipedia for Humanitarian Warning/Response
  7. Crisis Mapping Africa’s Cross-border Conflicts
  8. 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation
  9. Digital Resistance: Digital Activism and Civil Resistance
  10. Neogeography and Crisis Mapping Analytics

I do have a second blog that focuses specifically on Conflict Early Warning, which I started at the same time. I have authored a total of 48 blog posts.

That makes 260 posts in 12 months. Now I know where all the time went!

The Top 10 posts:

  1. Crimson Hexagon: Early Warning 2.0
  2. CSIS PCR: Review of Early Warning Systems
  3. Conflict Prevention: Theory, Police and Practice
  4. New OECD Report on Early Warning
  5. Crowdsourcing and Data Validation
  6. Sri Lanka: Citizen-based Early Warning/Response
  7. Online Searches as Early Warning Indicators
  8. Conflict Early Warning: Any Successes?
  9. Ushahidi and Conflict Early Response
  10. Detecting Rumors with Web-based Text Mining System

I look forward to a second year of blogging! Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mobile Tech 4 Social Change Barcamp: Roundup

Skypenote Address

Ethan Zuckerman kicked off m4change with a Skypenote address on social changes generated by mobile technology.


Here are the main conclusions I drew from his presentation:

  • Ownership versus access to technology: While not everyone in Tanzania owns a mobile phone, 97% have access to one.
  • Endogenous versus exogenous protests: Protesters in Jordan turned up in front of the US Embassy not because they intentionally sought to join a centralized political movement but because five of their friends were going. Friend-to-Friend (F2F) communication?
  • Impact of ICTs on nondemocratic regimes: Those who doubt that modern ICTs pose a threat to authoritarian rule should explain why repressive regimes often switch SMS networks and restrict Internet access.
  • Communication technology ecosystems: Convergence of ICTs is far more powerful than the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. When mobile phones and SMS are paired with radio talk show programs, the combination replicates much of the functionalities that characterize the Internet. Once information is broadcase over radio, it becomes public knowledge.

Mobile Tech in Repressive Contexts

I offered to guide a session on Mobile Tech 4 Social Change in Repressive Regimes. The proposal was to identify challenges and opportunities. I stressed the need to look at both tech and tactics since a one-track approach is not full-proof.


Here are the main points I took away from the session:

  • Ensuring data security in Peer-to-Peer (P2P) meshed mobile communication (see Terranet for example) is very difficult but a 1-hop approach like Comm.unity (screenshot above) is doable and far more secure. The idea is to leverage knowledge, awareness and learning of the user’s social relationships and integrates this information into the communication protocols and network services.” Furthermore, the platform “runs on mobile phones, PDAs, and regular old laptops and PCs, allowing them to easily communicate with each other and build networks of interactions for their users without the need for any centralized servers, coordination, or administration.”
  • Steganography is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no-one apart from the sender and intended recipient even realizes there is a hidden message, a form of security through obscurity. This tactic is one that we should apply more often. Steganography can be applied to images, audio recordings and texts. For example, poems mocking the Burmese junta have appeared in the state-run newspaper using the first word of every sentence in an article.
  • Pseudonymity describes a state of disguised identity resulting from the use of a pseudonym. The pseudonym identifies a holder, that is, one or more human beings who possess but do not disclose their true names. Pseudonymity should be more actively used in digital resistance.

Mobile Tech and Communication Security

The second session I participated in was led by Nathanial Freitas. This was an excellent review of the latest tech developments with regards to ensuring that your mobile communications are secure, encrypted, nontraceable, etc. Nathanial used the Android phone as the basis for his presentation. Here are some of the highlights I took away from this informative session:

  • Zfone is a new secure VoIP phone software product which lets you make encrypted phone calls over the Internet. Zfone uses a new protocol called ZRTP, which has a better architecture than the other approaches to secure VoIP.
  • GetPeek is a new mobile tech that offers unlimited email texting for just $20 a month without the need for a contract. GetPeek will be available in India next week.
  • Icognito is an anonymous web browser for the iPhone and iPod.
  • Mobile phones that can immediately encrypt, transmit and delete pictures are necessary.
  • Browser history on mobile phones should not be deleted as this would be calling attention to oneself. Instead, an alternative browser history should be settable.
  • Mobile phones need an actuall off button. Activists always take out the batteries of their phones in order not to have their location traced. Other phones like iPhones do not have a real off button.
  • President Obama’s Blackberry has been modified to require fingerprint authenitication.
  • The competition between authoritarian control and circumvention by activists is like an arms race, a point I make in my own dissertation research. Andrew Lewman from the Tor Project made a very interesting comment in that regard: “It is very important that this arms race be as slow as possible.” According to Andrew, whatever new technology emerges next is unlikley to be a complete game-changer. Instead of investing considerable time and resources into trying to develop the ultimate tool, he suggests that we take small iterative steps that contribute to momentary advantages in this cyber game of cat-and-mouse.

Mobile Tech, Art and Activism

The final self-organized session I attended addressed the intersection between mobile technology and art for political activism. I’m particulary interested in the subservive art within the context of nonviolent civil resistance.


Here are some of the ideas I took away from this session:

  • Stencil art for political activism. “Political stencil art has been significant for centuries as a device for communication and opression. Propoganda was a hallmark of political art in the 20th century in both democratic and communist regimes, at time of war and peace.” See ArtFlux for example.
  • Newmindspace is interactive public art, creative cultural interventions and urban bliss dissemination.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Resistance and the Orange Revolution

My colleague Joshua Goldstein recently researched the role of digital networked technologies in the Ukranian Orange Revolution (PDF). There are few case studies out there that address both digital activism and civilian resistance, i.e., digital resistance, so what follows is a detailed summary of Josh’s report for the Berkman Center along with some of my own research.


Compared to the other three panel presentations, this study takes a narrative case study approach and focuses on a single case study, the role of the Internet and mobile phones during the Orange Revolution.

For Josh, one of the most fascinating questions about the Orange Revolution is how the Internet became such an influential tool when only 4% of the population was online? Even though such a small percentage of the population had Internet access, “the Orange Revolution may have been the first in history to be organized largely online.”


To understand what contributed to this digital revolution, Josh draws on the Two-Step Flow Theory developed by sociologists Katz and Lazardsfeld (1955), which delineates a ‘two step’ information path. The first is the direct path between mass media and the general public. The second path is among elite opinion makers who strongly influence public opinion.

According to Josh,

This theory helps delineate how a relatively small group of activists and citizen journalists helped create a distinct information environment that challenged the narrative presented by state sanctioned media.

In the Ukraine, both the rise of citizen journalism and  influential opinion makers from the opposition were in large part consequences  of the widespread self-censorship that existed in the country.

‘Self censorship was not enshrined in law, but it was well known that oligarchs owned all of the major television stations. Station managers received temnyky, unsigned directives from the President’s office that urged them to cover the news in a particular way. Managers knew that if they did not please the ‘key viewer,’ the President and his regime, they would be in danger of losing their jobs.

As Josh notes, however, Channel 5 was the notable exception. The small television station had been bought by members of the opposition to promote an independent view on Ukranian politics. Although Channel 5 only available to 30% of the population, the station became well known for it’s alternative view on domestic affairs.

In addition, citizen opposition journalism posed a central challenge to the semi-autocratic regime. However, Josh writes that the Ukranian public already recognized the Internet as a legitimate news source. Online news sites including Pravda, Obozrevatel and ProUA, were well already well known. Moreover, they were a “hybrid between citizen and professional media [since] they were predominantly staffed by professional journalists but often received low pay or were motivated by changing the Ukranian landscape.”

To build on his theoretical framework, Josh also draws on Stephen Bandera’s empirical study on political participation during the Orange Revolution. The results of this study revealed that “Ukranians who use the Internet were more likely to be online political citizens than their American counterparts.”

Lastly, Josh recognizes that technologies alone do not explain the success of the Orange Revolution:

The ability to diffuse tension through humor and satire was crucial to the success of the Orange Revolution. […] Every joke and pun created by this community of activists and directed at [the regime] further drew attention to the vastly different information environments and political futures that the two candidates represented.

Case Studies

Josh draws on two case studies to test out his theoretical framework. The first is Maidan and the second Para.

Maidan was a group of tech-savvy pro-democracy activists who used the Internet as a tool to support their movement. Maidan in Ukranian means public square and Maidan’s website features the slogal “You CAN chnage the world you live in. And you can do it now. In Ukraine.”

The main activity of Maidan was election monitoring and networking with other pro-democracy organizations around Eastern Europe. Maidan hosted around 27 election monitoring trainings, in nearly every Ukranian region, with support from Serbia’s Otpor movement. […] In the year leading up to the election, Maidan trained 500 Ukranians to observe the election. This evidence collected […] was central to proving the existence of massive election fraud.

However, the founder of Maidan argues that “websites cannot produce an activist organization.” As Josh explains, it was crucial for Maidan to frequently host real world meetings as their membership base increased. The human element was particularly important. This explains why Maidan encouraged users to disclose their identity whenever possible.

Maidan was not a completely decentralized organization. The community benefited from centralized leadership that developed the organization’s culture, controlled its assets and provided the strategy to achieve desired goals. The Maidan experience thus demonstrates a hybrid organization.

In sum, the Internet was clearly a vital, multi-faceted tool for Maidan. The Internet facilitated outreach, training, awareness raising, fundraising and marketing. At the same time, centralized, top-down leadership was necessary to accomplish the organization’s goals.

Pora, meaning “It’s Time” in Ukranian, was a well-organized group of  pro-democracy volunteers that “emerged as an information sharing campaign and during the elections morphed into coordinators of mass protest centered around tent cities in towns throughout Ukraine. The grassroots movement took its inspiration from Serbia’s Otpor movements as well as “older civic movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.”

The organization described it’s raison d’être as follows:

Under conditions of far-reaching censorship and absence of independent media, the main idea of Pora is the creation of alternative ‘mass media,’ in which volunteers deliver election-related information ‘from hand to hand’ directly to people throughout the Ukraine.

Pora promoted “the active use of modern communication systems in the campaign’s management,” and “mobile phones played an important role for mobile fleet of activists.” According to Pora’s post-election report, “a ssytem of immedate dissemination of information by SMS was put in place and proved important.” In addition, “some groups provided the phones themselves, while others provided SIM cards, and most provided airtime.”

The Internet also played a role in Pora’s campaign by providing rapid reporting in a way that no other medium could. As tent cities across the Ukraine became the sign of the revolution,

The news feed from the regions [became] vitally important. Every 10 to 15 minutes another tent city appeared in some town or other, and the fact was soon reported on the air. News from the region was read by opposition leaders on Maidan to millions of listeners in the streets of Ukraine.

While the government certainly saw the Internet as a threat, the government had not come to consensus regarding the “legal and political frameworks it would use to silence journalists that published openly on this new medium.” Ukrainian law considered the Internet to be a “peer-to-peer communication tool and not a mass media platform,” which explains why “online sites were able to blossom” and why many online journalists unlike mainstream journalists were free from the threat of defamation charges.

In addition to new technologies, the grassroots movement also “successfully leveraged traditional methods of spreading information [such as] print products (leaflets, brochures, stickers, and small souvenirs), public activities and demonstration, visual representations (posters and graffiti), media presentations (clips and interviews), and periodicals.”

Josh argues that these activities make the Orange Revolution one of the earliest examples of what Steven Mann calls “sousveillance,” meaning, “the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance.” In short, Pora’s campaign represents the clearest link between the small percentage of Ukranian elite who were online and the general public.


Josh concludes that the Internet and mobile phones proved to to be effective tools for pro-democracy activists.

First, the Internet allowed for the creation of a space for dissenting opinions of ‘citizen journalists’ in an otherwise self-cencosred media environment.

Second, pro-democracy activists used the convergence of mobile phones and the Internet to coordinate a wide range of activities including election monitoring and large-scale protests.

In sum, Josh observes that “pro-democracy forces used the Internet and mobile phones more effectively than the pro-government forces, such that in this specific time and place these technologies weighed on the side of democracy.” Nevertheless, as Ned Rossiter cogently points out,

Technology certainly does not make possible a direct democracy, where everyone can participate in a decision, nor representative democracy where decision makers are elected; nor is it really a one-person-one-vote referendum style democracy. Instead it is a consultative process known as ‘rough consensus and running code.’

This points to a larger question for further research, which forms the basis for my dissertation:

Are these tools inherently conducive to the expansion of civic engagement and democratization or will authoritarian governments adapt the technology to their own advantage?

My Own Conclusion

One very interesting anecdote not reported in Josh’s report demonstrates the real power of traditional media. Natalia Dmytruk worked for the Ukraine’s state-run television news program as an interpreter of sign language for the hearing-impaired. As the revolution picked up momentum, she decided she couldn’t lie anymore and broke from the script with the following message:

I am addressing everybody who is deaf in the Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies. . . . And I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you. Maybe you will see me again…

According to a Washington Post article at the time, “Dmytruk’s live silent signal helped spread the news, and more people began spilling into the streets to contest the vote.”

Overall, what really strikes me about Josh’s peace is the very real convergence between civil resistance and digital activism, or digital resistance. Citizen journalists and digital activists participated in civil resistance trainings across the country, courtesy of Otpor. The use of humor and puns directed at the regime is a classic civil resistance tactic.

I spoke with Josh just yesterday about his research on the Orange Revolution and he was adamant that one of key reasons that explains the success of the revolution has to do with the fact that “the protesters were very well trained and very good at protesting… very, very good.”

This highlights just how critical training in civil resistance is. Digital activists need to acquire the tactical and strategic know-how developed over decades of civil resistance movements. Otherwise, tactical victories by digital activists may never translate into overall strategic victory for a civil resistance movement.

Patrick Philippe Meier