Adjusting Democracy Assistance to the Age of Digital Dissidents
Authoritarian regimes benefit from cheaper and more ubiquitous digital technologies. They use them to increase their control over society through surveillance, censorship, and persecution of citizens. However, these citizens also learn how to use technologies to their advantage. They rely on platforms such as social media and messengers to organize, inform, mobilize, and advocate for civic freedoms so to resist authoritarian resurgence.
This increased reliance on digital technologies, as well as the need to address surveillance and censorship, facilitates the emergence of the newer forms of civic organizing and leadership in autocracies. These forms are less hierarchical and centralized than the pro-democracy movements of the past. Recent examples from Eastern Europe illustrate three emerging types of digitally enabled organizing by comparison with the more traditional hierarchical movements: segmented in Belarus, connective in Ukraine, and hybrid in Russia. These show movements that developed high levels of potential to inspire democratic change.
These three forms of organizing are, to a large extent, digitally enabled groups that mobilized citizens for large-scale protests. They often facilitate rather than direct political activity, have many centers of influence, and can adapt to the changing circumstances quickly by shifting between forms of organizing.
Many international donors that focus on democracy promotion rely on approaches that do not fit this evolving context in digitized authoritarian regimes. They still favor larger, hierarchical civic or state-oriented organizations that fit their standard templates. However, hierarchical organizations appear to be less effective as explicit mobilizing agents and advocates for civic freedoms because it is easier to repress and control them. At the same time, segmented and connective structures are perceived as fragmented and weak because their leaders often remain in shadows, while their organizational configurations look unfamiliar and obscure.
In order to counter digitized authoritarian resurgence and revitalize democratic assistance, international donors should recognize digitally enabled approaches to civic organizing under authoritarian regimes. They should consider the following measures to address changing authoritarian environments.
- The assumption that a civic organization is weak if it appears fragmented should not shape democracy-assistance programs.
- International donors should focus on supporting a wider array of groups rather than focusing on hierarchical organizations as their exclusive partners.
- Established hierarchical civic organizations should be encouraged to communicate and learn from digitally enabled segmented and connective groups. However, they should avoid building rigid coalition bureaucracies and focus on less formal links.
- Support should be directed toward building sustainable media ecologies and advancing media skills.
- Another high priority should be assisting those groups that help to develop local fundraising and donation infrastructure because the cells of segmented and connective groups often cannot accept foreign funding.
- Policymakers should understand the needs of the citizens under authoritarian regimes who require anonymous and uncensored communication channels.
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