The Whole World is Texting

by Heidi Reynolds-Stenson and Jennifer Earl

How repression impacts mobilization, and specifically why repression is effective at deterring protest in some cases and not others, is a perennial question among repression scholars. Studies have found markedly different results: some research suggests that repression can be effective in discouraging participation or otherwise quelling protest but other findings demonstrate that repression can “backfire,” escalating mobilization and/or galvanizing commitment. Classic work by Barkan, for instance, showed that violent repression, in particular, might galvanize bystanders and lead to movement victories where failure would have otherwise been likely. We argue that recent unrest in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine can be read as contemporary evidence of backfire. At the very least, these are stories in which state repression failed to quell protest. After providing some quick evidence on this point, we consider a larger theoretical question raised by these recent events: might digital media use be affecting the underlying likelihood of backlash?

First, to the cases… In Syria, initially peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad were inspired as social media shared the news of Egyptian uprising. But, protest exploded into Civil War after government security forces began routinely firing on crowds of protesters. It is estimated that around 500 peaceful protesters were killed in March and April 2011 alone. The violent response of the government to the protests fueled the opposition, as people joined the protest movement out of outrage. Funerals for murdered protesters became the sites of large protests, sometimes with as many as 20,000 participants. The violence continues now, over three years later.

In Venezuela, what began as a small student protest in San Cristobal ballooned into a nation-wide, large-scale protest and the unwarranted use of violence, arrest, and demonizing propaganda against demonstrators has been critical to the escalation every step of the way. While initial grievances related to food shortages and inflation continue to be voiced, the brutal crackdown on dissent has made fighting for the right to free assembly an increasingly salient motivation in sustaining mobilization.

In Ukraine, not only violent repression, but also legalistic repression, led to significant backlash. The passage of strict anti-protest laws, which banned the use of masks or anything that might make one less identifiable and criminalized “camping” (i.e. tent cities) in public, sparked massive protests and violence on both sides, ultimately leading to not only the repeal of the anti-protest laws, but also the ouster of President Yanukovich and the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. This turn of events flies in the face of extant social movement scholarship that predicts laws like these will be especially effective at deterring protest, in part because they are generally seen as more legitimate than the use of violence or arrest.

In these three cases, as well as in some Arab Spring uprisings, repression did not “work” and instead backfired. We argue that the increasing use of digital media may have played some role in this turn of events, and more broadly may be upping the odds that repression backfires. We offer three reasons why this may be the case, although others have also made this argument, but for different, although complimentary, reasons (Earl and Beyer 2014; Beyer and Earl 2014).

First, while it may not be true that “the whole world is watching,” it is now the case that social media make it likely that the whole word can watch states abuse their citizens. Social media and the rise of amateur journalism have decreased the power of traditional media gatekeepers, making repression harder to hide. Online media is arguably less easily censored by authoritarian regimes compared to traditional offline media. And, corporate and state news organizations no longer hold a monopoly on the news; citizen journalism can balance the proverbial airwaves if corporate or state news ignores a story or parrots the state’s view (Earl et al. forthcoming).

In Syria, amateur videos of police firing on peaceful protesters and mobile phone images of the dead posted on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet were critical in spreading dissent. Such media coverage of repression may encourage mobilizing by motivating sympathizers to join in and by helping the victims of repression to feel heard. It may also bring shame on a regime within the international community, as we saw when the U.S. and other countries officially decried the repression in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine.

Second, ICTs and social media in particular have the power to decrease the information asymmetry between police and protesters. We already know that ICTs can spread news of street protests quickly. During the Arab Spring, social media was used by activists and potential activists to monitor police action at protests in real time and to assess the consequences of joining in. At the 2009 G20 meetings in Pittsburg, protesters used Twitter to communicate with each other about their locations and actions, and about the locations and actions of the police, disrupting the monopoly police once enjoyed over such logistic information and evening the protest playing field.

Third, ICTs are enabling more decentralized leadership and networked forms of collective action. These modes of organizing may be better able to resist repression as they create a moving target for regimes. Small cells not moored to mainstream concerns by mass organizations may also more easily radicalize.

Of course, rigorous research will be needed over the coming years to determine whether backfire is actually becoming more common and under what circumstances and in what forms of social media helps to forestall deterrent effects of repression. But, we see these three cases as offering some early fodder for this discussion. Even when repression does not trigger the downfall of a regime, as in Ukraine, and is able to keep an unpopular regime in power, as in Syria, (violent) repression may be increasingly costly way to handle political dissent. Despite Morozov’s well-publicized concerns about potentially repressive uses of ICTs, we argue that social media usage may be ushering in an era in which regimes increasingly pay a price for repression in their international reputation and in which movements are increasingly able to resist state repression.


Unlinked Citations
Beyer, Jessica L. and Jennifer Earl. Unpublished manuscript. “Backfire Online: Studying Reactions to the Repression of Internet Activism.”

Earl, Jennifer and Jessica Beyer. Unpublished manuscript. “The Dynamics of Backlash Online: Anonymous and the Battle for WikiLeaks.”

Earl, Jennifer, Jayson Hunt, R. Kelly Garrett, and Aysenur Dal. forthcoming. “New Technologies and Social Movements.” Forthcoming in Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, edited by Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani. Cambridge: Oxford University Press.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Violent State Repression

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