Tag Archives: Gene Sharp

The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen published this piece in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. It was a notable step up from the “Cyberspace and Democracy” article in the same issue. In any case, Eric and Jared address the same core questions I am writing my dissertation on so here’s my take on what they had to say.

I far prefer the term “connection technologies” over “liberation technologies”. I also appreciate the authors’ emphasis on the diffusion of power via mini-rebellions as opposed to full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy. Any serious student or practitioner of strategic nonviolent action knows full well that power is not monolithic but defuse—even in the most autocratic regimes. Repression is driven by obedience. As Gene Sharp noted in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”:

By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.

This is why power is necessarily diffuse in every single society. Rulers operate thanks to just a few key pillars of support including: the police, military, civil service, educational system, organized religion, media, business and financial communities, etc. These pillars are only there because of obedience—and individuals comprising these pillars always have the power to withdraw their support. In strategic nonviolent action, obedience is regarded as the heart of political power. Indeed, if people do not obey, the decision-makers cannot implement their decisions, simple as that.

Manifestations of disobedience are most powerful when public, which is where mini-rebellions come in. These can slowly but surely erode the pillars of support temporarily propping repressive regimes. Eric and Jared write that, “taken one by one, these effects may be seen as impractical or insignificant, but together they constitute a meaningful change in the democratic process.” Ah, but there’s the rub. How does one string a series of mini-rebellions into more than just a series of mini-rebellions? Otherwise, digital activists run the risk of winning the battles but losing the war.

Here is why lessons learned and best practices from the long history of nonviolent civil resistance and guerrilla warfare are crucial. This was the crux of my response to Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Civil resistance takes careful planning, grand strategy to tactics and specific methods. Successful civil resistance movements are not organized spontaneously! Concerted and meticulous planning is key.

There are two principles of strategic planning:

Strategic sequencing of tactics: “The strategic selection and sequencing of a variety of nonviolent tactics is essential. Tactics should be directly linked to intermediate goals which in turn flow from the movement’s or campaign’s grand strategy. There are over 198 documented types of nonviolent tactics, and each successful movement invents new ones” (1).

Tactical capacity building: “Successful movements build up their capacity to recruit and train activists, gather material resources, and maintain a communications network and independent outlets for information, such as encrypted emails, short-text messaging, an underground press, and alternative web sites. This also involves detailed campaign and tactical planning, and efficient time management. Time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle” (2).

This is why I disagree with Eric and Jared when they write that “in many of these cases, the only thing holding the opposition back is the lack of organizational and communications tools, which connection technologies threaten to provide cheaply and widely.” The tools themselves won’t make up for any lack of organizational or communication skills, planning, strategy, and so on.

Towards the end of their article, the authors note that, “these kinds of cat-and-mouse games will no doubt continue…” referring to the dynamic between repressive regimes and resistance movements. The point is hardly whether or not this dynamic will continue. The more serious question has to do with what drives this dynamic, what factors influence whether or not the cat has the upper hand?

If you’re interested in learning more about civil resistance and strategic disruption, I highly recommend reading these short books:


Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology

Major civil nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to lead to sustainable democratic transitions than violent campaigns. This conclusion comes from a large-N statistical study carried out by my colleague Maria Stephan (PhD Fletcher ’06) and Erica Chenoweth. Recently published in International Security, the study notes that civil resistance movements have achieved success 55% of the time while only 28% of violent campaigns have succeeded.

Another colleague, Chris Walker (MALD Fletcher ’07), wrote in his excellent Master’s Thesis that “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.”

It stands to reason, then, that increasing access to modern communication technologies may in turn up the 55% success rate of nonviolent campaigns by several percentage points. To this end, the question that particularly interests me (given my dissertation research) is the following: What specific techniques associated with civil resistance can tactical uses of modern communication technologies amplify?

This is the question I recently posed to Dr. Peter Ackerman—another Fletcher Alum (PhD ’76) and the founding Chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—when I described my dissertation interests. When Peter suggested I look into Gene Sharp’s work on methods of nonviolent action, I replied “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

  • Quickie walkout (lightning strike): Flashmob
  • Hiding, escape, and false identities: Mobile phone, SMS

Do please let me know (in the comments section below) if you can think of other communication technologies, Web 2.0 applications, examples, etc. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

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.


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