Tag Archives: Tactical Survival

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.

ICNC_Fletcher

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

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Activists and Nonviolent Tactics in Burma

The Washington Post just published an interesting piece on the next generation of Burma’s political activists. The military Junta controls the sale of SIM cards for mobile phones, pricing them at $1,500. As Post reporter Jill Drew writes, the only way to make a phone call is by using on kiosks pictured below (credit: JD). These kiosks are located on street corners in Rangoon, which makes the communication of sensitive information virtually impossible.

Nevertheless, The Post argues that activists have been strengthened by the Junta’s crackdown and the post-cyclone bungling. The situation in Burma ties several interesting threads together: digital activism, nonviolent action and disaster diplomacy. In an effort to encourage more multidisciplinary research, I have included below specific excerpts that relate to these distinct but related topics.

Digital Activism:

They operate in the shadows, slipping by moonlight from safe house to safe house, changing their cellphones to hide their tracks and meeting under cover of monasteries or clinics to plot changes that have eluded their country for 46 years. If one gets arrested, another steps forward.

Another student said he and some of his peers acted as unofficial election monitors during the referendum, taking photos and interviewing voters who were given already marked ballots or coerced to vote yes.

Nonviolent Action:

The group has launched a series of creative civil disobedience campaigns. Last year, people were invited to dress in white as a symbol of openness; to head to monasteries, Hindu temples or mosques for prayer meetings.

One group of young people decided to organize votes against the proposed constitution, dismissing it as a sham that reinforces the military’s control of the country. So they created hundreds of stickers and T-shirts bearing the word “no” and scattered them on buses, in university lecture halls and in the country’s ubiquitous tea shops.

Outside experts have compared the network to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, a broad-based coalition of workers, intellectuals and students that emerged as a key political player during the country’s transition to democracy. Just as Solidarity organized picnics to keep people in touch, some new groups here meet as book clubs or medical volunteers but could easily turn at key moments to political activity.

Monks remain politically active, too, in spite of increased harassment from security forces since the protests. Some have hidden pamphlets inside their alms bowls to distribute when they go out to collect food in the mornings, according to a Mandalay monk. They have smuggled glue and posters inside the bowls to stick on street walls.

Disaster Diplomacy:

A new generation of democracy activists fights on, its ranks strengthened both by revulsion over last year’s bloodletting and the government’s inept response after a cyclone that killed an estimated 130,000 people two months ago.

Meanwhile, the devastation wrought by the cyclone has sometimes been a trigger for more overt political activities. A handful of members of an embattled activist group called Human Rights Defenders and Promoters headed to the delta after the storm to hand out relief supplies as well as copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They were subsequently sentenced to four years in jail.

The cyclone’s aftermath has also spurred vast new stores of anger, sometimes among monks, who take vows of nonviolence. “Now we want to get weapons,” said a monk known to other dissidents by the nom de guerre “Zero” for his ability to organize and vanish without a trace. “The Buddhist way is lovingkindness. But we lost. So now we want to fight.”

For more information, please see my recent blog on the Burmese cyclone, nonviolent action and the responsibility to empower.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Zimbabweans turn to Blogs and SMS

The Associated Press reports that Zimbabweans are increasingly going online and using SMS to “share stories of life and death in a country where independent traditional media have been all but silenced, and from which reporters from most international media have been barred.” Zimbabwe’s bloggers are mainly opposition activists who “provide valuable independent information and can even make the news.” Some additional excerpts of interest:

Harare-based Kubatana is a network of nonprofit organizations that runs a blogging forum. The forum relies on 13 bloggers in Zimbabwe, who e-mail submissions to an administrator who posts them to the site. The network also reaches beyond the Web by sending text messages to 3,800 subscribers.

In late June, the “This is Zimbabwe” blog started a letter-writing campaign against a German firm that was supplying paper for the sinking Zimbabwean dollar. After about a week, the international media picked up the story and the company, Giesecke & Devrient, announced it would stop dealing with Zimbabwe.

Another typical posting simply lists names of victims of political violence, each accompanied by one sentence on how the person was beaten to death.

In many cases it’s impossible to tell who is doing the postings because the risks are so great. Government eavesdroppers are believed to be roaming the Web and intercepting cell phone calls, especially after a law was passed last year allowing authorities to monitor phone calls and the Internet. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the legislation was modeled after counter-terrorism legislation in America and the U.N.

Only the state-run TV and radio stations and The Herald, a government newspaper, provide daily news in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio stations broadcasting from within the country. Journalists without hard-to-come-by government accreditation find it hard to operate.

For those who are online, near-daily power outages, followed by power surges, can make the Web an inconsistent means of communicating and gathering information. Cell phone service is also inconsistent at best; it can sometimes take hours to send text messages.

SW Radio Africa, a station based outside London that broadcasts into Zimbabwe, sends texts to 25,000 listeners a day, and they are adding about a thousand numbers each week. And it’s not just one-way. The radio station has a local phone number in Zimbabwe so listeners can send text messages or leave voicemail messages without long distance charges, and then someone from the station can call them back. Radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe from outside are forced to broadcast on multiple frequencies to avoid being jammed by the government.

A recently imposed import duty on newspapers charges a 40 percent tax for independent voices like the newspaper The Zimbabwean, published abroad and shipped in and available on the Web. Weekly circulation has recently dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 and the paper has stopped publishing its Sunday edition.

See my post here for information on the Dial-Up Radio project in Zimbabwe.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Burmese Cyclone, Nonviolent Action, and the Responsibility to Empower

I just got this piece published in PeaceWorks:

Repressive regimes continue to play the sovereignty card regardless of international condemnation, and the military regime in Burma is no exception. Prior to the cyclone disaster, the regime maintained an effective information blockade on the country, limiting access and communication while forcefully cracking down on the pro-democracy resistance movement.

The military regime’s decision to block humanitarian aid following the cyclone disaster should really come as no surprise. The international community clearly remains at the mercy of regimes that scoff at the Responsibility to Protect.

The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, as endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility of all to prevent or stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity) is a noble principle: sovereignty is contingent upon the state’s ability to protect its citizens. Burma’s military regime has shown absolutely no interest in doing so, but quite the opposite—even in the case of a “natural” disaster. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has advocated that the principle of R2P justifies overruling the Burmese military junta’s right to territorial sovereignty.

Originally, Gareth Evans, Director of the International Crisis Group, strongly disagreed, arguing that Kouchner’s approach would create a precedent to intervene in post-disaster environments, which would potentially undermine the general consensus that currently exists in the developing world vis-à-vis R2P. Many other humanitarians have also voiced their opposition to engaging in non-authorized intervention. They (mistakenly) assumed such intervention requires the use of force. The result? An international community yet again bowing down to the wishes of a repressive regime; a terribly inadequate in-country humanitarian response to save lives; and an increasingly high death toll. It is high time that alternative approaches to humanitarian intervention be considered that depend less on potentially resistant governments — approaches such as people-centered tactics and nonviolent action. In other words, what nonviolent options exist for civilian protection and non-consensual humanitarian intervention? Continued…

Patrick Philippe Meier

Burma and the Responsibility to Empower

The military dictatorship’s blocking of foreign aid to Burma/Myanmar has drawn worldwide condemnation. For me, however, the crux of the problem is twofold: first, the tradition of external response, and second, the nature consensual intervention. It is high time we shift to people-centered disaster/conflict early warning & response.

The UN’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems for natural disasters defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

To empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.

Precisely because of cases like that of Burma, the international humanitarian community should focus more seriously on “the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster”  (Manyena 2006). The question that most interests me is how information communication technology can increase community resilience to disasters and conflict.

Humanitarian aid and disaster response is still subject to the principle of state sovereignty. This in part continues to plague international responses to violent conflict such as the genocide in the Sudan. State-based intervention is anything but timely and efficient. This is why the humanitarian community should consider more decentralized and tactical approaches to rapid response. The field of strategic nonviolent action is specifically focused on these types of responses. The humanitarian community should take heed.

We need a far more cross-disciplinary approach to humanitarian response; one that does not divide disaster response from conflict prevention. And one that does not shy away from a more tactical and proactive approach to saving lives.

Patrick Philippe Meier