Digitally Enhanced Civil Resistance

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Nov 20, 2013 10:35 AM |
This reflection looks at how civil disobedience unfolds in network societies. It explores the origins of nonviolence, describes digital and non-digital tactics of non-violent protest and participation and finally comments on the possibilities of this form of civil resistance to foster individual and collective civic engagement.

Reflections of the possibilities of non-violence flooded newspapers on October 2, commemorating Gandhi’s birthday and the long-lasting legacy of civil resistance and non-violence. Debashish Chatterjee reflected on India’s founding father as “the true source” of timeless principles on his column in the New Indian Express. He claimed that his unswerving commitment to the core purpose of truth and having non-violence as the main way to achieve his goals was the formula behind the success of his bloodless revolution for political independence.  Rajni Bakshi questioned the power and relevance of non-violence in our times in his article for the Hindu. “Stating and repeatedly restating our intention in favour of non-violence is an essential starting point (…) so vital to our species’ present and future”. Courage and ‘the ability to strike’, states Bakshi, are the pre-requisites of non-violence tactics; a claim that ignited reflections and considerations on the political motivations of Digital Natives and the nature of the strategies behind digital activism.

The idea of nonviolence that underpin civil resistance or ‘civil disobedience’ if you will, as outlined in the foreword of Richard Gregg’s essay The Power of Nonviolence, had its origins in the Upanishads back in the 500 BC. Since then, it traveled through Buddhism, Jainism, Jesus, Socrates, and Tolstoy among others, before making its way back to India and Gandhi in 1910. Since then, this idea has gathered “meaning, momentum, organization, practical effectiveness and power” as non-violence tactics are put into action in several instances of political and social resistance. Dr. Gene Sharp drew for the first time in 1973 a list of one hundred ninety eight methods to engage in nonviolent protest, persuasion and noncooperation in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action.  This repository was taken up in 2011 by digital activism scholars Mary Joyce and Patrick Meier, who are identifying the ways in which these methods have been digitally enhanced, in their crowd-source project Civil Resistance 2.0. Regardless of the larger debate that evaluates the effectiveness of non-violent tactics to deter the use of violence, the conceptualization of non-violent civil resistance is a body of knowledge that has not been explored from the point of view of network and information societies as of yet (Joyce, 2011).

Furthermore, tracing the idea of non-violent resistance in the light of Gandhi’s legacies is an interesting point to discuss digital strategies towards change. Is digital activism mainstreaming the use and proliferation of non-violent tactics of protest, taking them from a booming trend to an advocacy norm? Do non-violent online tactics make offline self-sustainable and continuous change more likely? Are these methods more conducive to citizen engagement and a consequent behavioral change in everyday practices? To start answering these questions we will refer back to the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha taken up by Gandhi for civil disobedience, complement them with Gregg’s work of the power of nonviolence, and finally with Sharp’s work on the tactics and complexities of defiance, resistance and struggles with social, economic, environmental and political objectives. These three texts will dialogue throughout this entry with the objective of understanding the nature of these methods and how they touch on civic and digital natives’ engagement.

Digital nonviolence and collective action

In Christopher Chapple’s account of nonviolence in Asian traditions, he describes the fundamentals of Ahimsa or non-violence as “the absence of the desire to kill or harm”. This concept, coupled with Satyagraha, the ‘power of truth’, was translated into what is civil disobedience and non-cooperation. Both methods were utilized to break unjust laws back in Gandhi’s struggle for political independence from the British. Aside from the moral debate on what constitutes truth and evil, we can already identify a relationship between these precepts and what sustains collective action. Mario Diani identified “shared beliefs and ties of solidarity attached to specific collective events” and “political and cultural conflicts arising for social change” as two fundamental characteristics in all sorts of social movements. The power of non-violent action and large-scale disobedience requires the intervention of suitably organized and disciplined individuals, acting collectively to stand up against authorities such as the thousands of peasants who stood up against soldiers under Gandhi’s leadership, or the thousands of Egyptian citizens who distributed copies of Sharp’s work on 198 non-violent methods to foster civil resistance and overthrow Mubarak’s regime. As stated by Gregg, the approach unified Indians by giving them the necessary self-respect, self-reliance, courage and persistence to collectively withstand the resistance efforts that ultimately led them to independence. In other words, in the midst of different ‘truths’, a shared set of beliefs and the use of non-violent methods invoked unity among citizens.

How are digital technologies mainstreaming these methods in the social imaginary of digital natives? Collective action requires the mobilization, organization and coordination of “networks of informal interactions” according to Diani’s characterization. This task is being facilitated and amplified by rapid and low-cost communication enabled by digital technology as argued in Anastasia Kavada’s essay on digital activism. She adds that the potential of internet for social movement activities lies on the possibilities of information dissemination, decision-making, and a crucial pillar for citizen engagement: the building of trust and a sense of collective identity. Therefore, although connectivity and collectivity are indeed made more likely through technology, digital tools are still value and content neutral. The challenge for digital non-violent civil resistance is the degree to which it is appeals to the populace and persuades them into being actors of the movements as opposed to loosely connected by-standers; in other words, the need for Gandhian digital leaders that transmit the need and power of civic involvement and public opinion.

Individual and collective resistance

The concept of non-violent civil resistance should be feasible and desirable for the 21st century digital native, both in the digital and offline realm due to its individual and collective possibilities. In terms of individual resistance; while collective defiance is powerful it starts through individual awareness and everyday actions that build up the public opinion (Gregg, 1960). As Nishant Shah notes while distinguishing resistance from revolution: resistance-based change comes about to correct failures of infrastructure, administration, policy or law, and is not only an integral part of the system but it is also an encouraged form of citizen action, among others (2011). Individuals have now broader options than before to exert this resistant, starting with Sharp’s list of 198 methods. From group-coordinated persuasion strategies including social non-cooperation boycotts, withdrawal from institutions to the use of arts and symbolisms and psychological interventions, there is plenty of room for creativity and action. Furthermore, 196 of these methods have been digitally enhanced through peer-production, self-broadcasting, media attention-competition and other methods which, according to Joyce and Meier, can be feasibly executed by the fluent digital native.

What is more, aside from coordinating offline activities, individuals can also exert civil disobedience on the online realm as demonstrated by Andrew Chadwick’s list of online defiance tactics in Internet Politics. Instances of hacktivism, denial-of-service boycotts and virtual sit-ins (Kavada, 20120) are a few examples of expressions of activism through non-cooperation that showcase the digital autonomy of netizens. For example, recently, the Vietnamese activist group Viet Tan launched a visible and creative online campaign showing citizens how to remove the block from the Facebook site, denouncing state’s censorship and advocating for freedom of expression through ethical hacking. Ultimately, non-violent resistance methods have never been as relevant as today, when citizens are recurring to new mechanisms of participation and contestation to claim their rights, reclaim citizenship and assert democratic freedoms through increased participation (Sharp, 2002; Khanna, 2012).

On the side of possibilities for enhanced collectivity, it is worth looking into the moral covenants present in social justice struggles. Gregg’s work, in spite of being written in 1935 and revised in 1960, provides a very up to date description of the power of information in network societies:

“Although there have been violations of moral laws in the world, there has never been such clear, strong recognition on the part of the holders of power of the importance of public opinion […] shown by propaganda and censorship practiced by governments and the press”.

Whether it comes from the state, civil society or the citizens; attempts to put justice, democracy and rightness at the forefront of all public discourse is today a norm, demonstrating the persuasive power of moral laws if put at the core of citizen action. Glasius and Pleyers also state that democracy, social justice and dignity are the main tenets of collective action enabling solidarity networks and the rise of a collective consciousness that transcends borders (2012). In this respect, it seems that connectivity and collectivity to engage in non-violent resistance is made more likely through technology, and although these tools remain ‘value neutral’, the processes of change will be defined by the consistency between methods and rhetoric brought forward by the citizen. This will also lead to a more complete model of citizenship as these individuals take ownership of the methods, content and the values cross-cutting both; not only for and during the protest, but as a value system defining coherent every day activities and the exercise of responsible democracy beyond the spectacle of mass protests (Pleyers, 2012; Shah, 2013).


Gandhi’s implementation of civil disobedience methods and his adherence to Ahimsa were the result of a combination of religious and cultural factors, which coupled with education and experience, deemed his beliefs a lifestyle as opposed to a mere political strategy. This reflection puts the citizen on the spot light. Having non-violent and digitally facilitated methods of protest and participation on hand what is defining the political motivations and engagement of the digital native? Having the flexibility to adapt these methods to their skills and lifestyles, what is holding back the civic energy of the 21st century citizen? According to Gaventa and Barrett, confidence, awareness and self-identity are the pre-conditions for citizenship and action. The first two can be fostered by non-violence: Sharp argues that experience in applying effective non-violent struggles increases self-confidence, while Gregg explains how unity is a result of adding oneself to a mass civil movement. The latter: self-identity and how the citizen looks at its role in the larger discourse of social struggles, as well as other factors that enhance its civic engagement, sense of citizenship and creativity in political movements, is a question I will leave open to explore in my following blog posts.