Category Archives: Essay Dialogues

The Digital Repression of Social Movements, Protest, and Activism

There is a growing interest in the growth and impact of digital repression on protest and civic engagement globally. Yet this interest has been diffused across Communication, Political Science, Media Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and Sociology creating challenges for generative conversations and building a community of scholars studying the topic. Earl, Maher, and Pan’s recent article “The Digital Repression of Social Movements, Protest, and Activism: a synthetic review” attempts to synthesize these literatures by using a framework that distinguishes between who is responsible, whether it is overt or covert, and whether acts as a carrot (channeling) or a stick (coercion). The essays in this Dialogue are intended to continue this work of building a cross-disciplinary community of scholars interested in questions of digital repression, and to open a conversation about other ways to build this cross-disciplinary community and/or what we still need to build this community. We ask authors to reflect on their own work and their views on community building and/or reflect on what aspects of the framework are helpful, what it misses, and what we still have to learn about how digital repression operates globally.   

We have four outstanding contributors. Many thanks for their contributions on this topic:

We would also like to give special thanks to Thomas V. Maher and Jennifer Earl, who proposed and organized this wonderful dialogue.

Current Editors in Chief,

Rory McVeigh, Chang Liu and Natalie Bourman-Karns

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Strategic Digital Repression and the Consequences for Dissent Activities

BY Emily Hencken Ritter

Earl, Maher, and Pan (2022) present a fascinating synthesis of existing knowledge of digital repression across scholarly disciplines. The typology they apply and extend to frame digital repression highlights who uses digital repression and how it depresses and structures mobilization and dissent actions. In so doing, they center digital repression on existing understandings of how repression attempts to constrain dissent and illuminate what repression studies do not yet know about digital repression and how it functions.

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International Cybersecurity Norms and Dissent

BY Jessica L. Beyer

Earl, Maher, and Pan’s recent article (2022), “The Digital Repression of Social Movements, Protest, and Activism: a synthetic review,” captures digital repression across states and presents invaluable conceptualizations of difficult concepts and clear typologies. The article illuminates many threads that need further development and study. Among them are the role of private industry in digital repression, along with the tie between cybersecurity laws in non-democratic contexts and the struggle over questions of international cybersecurity norms and international internet governance.

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Digital Repression: Transnational Reach, Psychosocial Effects, and Political Consequences

BY Marcus Michaelsen

What is new about digital repression? This is what I have been asked frequently ever since presenting the first findings of my research on digital threats against exiled activists from authoritarian countries. Prompting further reflection on this question, Jennifer Earl, Thomas V. Maher and Jennifer Pan, in their synthetic review, organize the different strands of scholarship on the repressive use of digital tools and connect them to research on more traditional forms of repression.

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Internet Platforms Find Themselves at a Crossroads

BY Steven Feldstein

Global norms are shifting as governments demonstrate an increased willingness to exert control over platforms. This generally represents a troubling development; states are aggressively pressing for content takedowns, pushing platforms to provide access to user data, enacting enhanced surveillance, and filtering content. But there are some auspicious signs as well. In Europe, for example, regulators are nearing passage of the Digital Services Act (DSA) to rein in big internet tech companies and allow for greater user control and privacy. This essay highlights three specific areas of contestation. First, trends of internet fragmentation are expanding quickly – in both authoritarian states and democratic countries – challenging global norms and human rights principles. Second, regulatory action stemming from Europe may offset certain harms, particularly in relation to platforms, but the consequences remain unclear. Third, platforms exist in a complicated landscape. They are facing increased pressure from governments to control how they operate, yet they remain deeply reluctant to reform.

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Violence, Social Media, and Market Authenticity: A Review of Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy by Forrest Stuart

By Ana Velitchkova

One of the books from my pandemic reading list that has stayed* with me is Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy by Forrest Stuart. I binge listened to it while exploring my local trails and remember the unease and awe it provoked despite my scenic surroundings. The book opened my eyes to a phenomenon I had no idea existed: a violent social media spectacle that spills into real life. We have known for some time that violence sells in movies and in video games. Forrest Stuart’s Ballad of the Bullet shows that violence sells on social media too. What is fascinating to me, as someone who did not grow up with social media, is that the product sold in the social media marketplace is the image of an “authentic” self. (Young) people nowadays can attempt to make a living by turning themselves into products to sell. Consumers, in turn, can choose which selves to celebrate, i.e. to buy.

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Political Movements in an Authoritarian Regime: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Revisited

BY Fei Yan

The Chinese Cultural Revolution presents students of Chinese politics and history with a remarkable intellectual puzzle. From 1966 to 1968, China experienced an incredibly chaotic period of mass conflict that ranks among the largest political upheavals of the twentieth century. A student rebellion that began in the summer of 1966 spread to industrial workers in the urban areas in late November of that year, and by early 1967 had reached deep into the rural interior. Within a very short period after early January 1967, civilian government in virtually every one of China’s thirty provincial-level units had been overthrown by mass opposition movements. Immediately afterwards, these insurgents broke into rival factions that clashed violently in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, leading to anarchy in large parts of China until the imposition of military rule in late 1968.

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Perspectives on Power: A Review of ‘The Global Police State’ by William I. Robinson

By Kai Heidemann

As a sociologist working full-time at a Dutch university, I find that my summer readings come in many flavors, which range from pure escapism to essential must reads. My recommendation to social movement scholars for this summer definitely falls in this latter category. “The Global Police State” by William I. Robinson (Pluto Press, 2020) is a relatively small book that addresses some very big questions about contemporary issues of power and repression that are of immediate relevance to social movement scholars and activists alike. Although firmly grounded in critical and neo-Marxian strands of global comparative sociology, this book is intended for a broad audience and packaged as a quick read. I especially recommend this book to scholars who tend to engage in micro-level and cultural analyses of social movements, such as myself, as Robinson’s work does very well to spark some serious macro-sociological thinking about the material and class-based relations of power that contribute to the widespread silencing and subjugation of progressive social movements around the world.

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The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s & 1940s by Michael Goldfield

BY Barry Eidlin

The U.S. Civil Rights Movement (CRM) from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s has served as the template for contemporary social movement scholarship. Not only has the movement itself been the most widely studied, but many of the core theoretical concepts, most notably political process theory, either were developed as part of explaining the emergence and development of the CRM, or had the CRM as a key empirical vantage point.

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Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, by Kari Marie Norgaard: A Review

BY Todd Nicholas Fuist

If you’re anything like me, you spent a not-insignificant chunk of 2020 marveling in dismayed awe at the cavalier ability of so many peopleeveryone from folks in your community to celebrities to government officialsto engage in various forms of denial about the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, some of the most visible deniers were those who adamantly refused to believe that the pandemic was happening at all. Yet, an equally prominent strain of Covid denialism came in the form of people who acknowledged the crisis yet seemed not to care. You almost certainly heard comments from people you know like “I’m not going to live in fear” or “it’s no worse than a regular flu” or “what are we supposed to do, destroy our whole economy to save a few lives?” Even as doctors and scientists proposed actionable solutions for individuals and societies to take that could mitigate the harmful effects of the pandemic, the inertia of people’s lives and the underlying logic of our systems were, it seemed, too powerful to be moved by even the gravest of threats.  Continue reading

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