How can NGOs and people’s movements oppose the rise of digital repression?

By Jennifer Earl - 12 June 2023
How can NGOs and people’s movements oppose the rise of digital repression?

Jennifer Earl provides the eleventh chapter to Global Policy's e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. Please find the other chapters here.

Research on social movement repression has often focused on explaining the use of repressive capacities and its consequences, with less attention to how to reduce repression (Earl and Braithwaite 2022) or mitigate its impacts (save important counterexamples, e.g., Reynolds-Stenson 2022). Research on digital repression, though, has focused more on its methods (Knockel et al. 2020; Marczak et al. 2015) and policy implications (Feldstein 2021). Taking advantage of these differences, I make three arguments about how digital repression can be opposed and/or mitigated.

Applying Existing Resistance Techniques          

Because so many scholars who study digital repression don’t have a background in the study of social movement repression, discussions of digital repression often forget that social movements have been challenging repression long before the Internet existed. For instance, local and international human rights organizations have worked together to shame countries for their use of traditional forms of repression (Murdie and Davis 2012). This is so common that highly repressive countries may attempt to curtail the ability of organizations to monitor and raise awareness about human rights abuses (Smidt et al. 2021). Playing a longer game for the reduction of repression, other scholars have examined attempts to prosecute former leaders for their roles in human rights abuses (Sikkink and Kim 2013). Still other researchers have examined how social movement communities and organizations support activists who repeatedly experience repression (Reynolds-Stenson 2022).

It is quite likely that some forms of digital repression may be opposed or mitigated in similar ways, particularly forms of digital repression that have strong parallels to pre-Internet forms of repression such as the use of physical violence against digital targets or the use of digital surveillance (Earl, Maher, and Pan 2022). To be sure, digital forms of repression like digital surveillance will create pressure on advocacy groups (Richard, Rigaud, and Maddow 2023) and researchers (e.g., Hulcoop et al. 2017; Marczak et al. 2018) to grow their capacities to discover and monitor digital repression. Moreover, it will be important that technologists who help identify digital repression also aid in efforts to, for instance, name and shame in hopes of raising international scrutiny and pressure.

Making Repression Risky

While substantial agreement exists amongst repression researchers about the causes of traditional social movement repression, the consequences of repression have remained fundamentally unsettled (Davenport 2007). In fact, empirical research can be found that shows repression reduces protest, amplifies it, deters specific activists, radicalizes specific activists, alternates over time between these, or has some curvilinear shape, amongst many other empirically supported options (Earl 2011). From the perspective of the repressor, one of the most dangerous outcomes of repression is backlash or backfire (Sutton, Butcher, and Svensson 2014; Hess and Martin 2006). While often discussed in relation to nonviolent resistance, backfire or backlash generally refers to situations in which social movements experience increases in engagement as a result of repression (e.g., Odabaş and Reynolds-Stenson 2018). Key to efforts to reduce repression, the risk of backfire makes the decision to repress riskier for repressors. When the risk of repression is simply resilience, repressors gamble only against the risk of inefficiency and/or lost resources. But, when repressors risk actually escalating support and engagement in the very social movements they were hoping to diminish, the decision to repress becomes far riskier.

Connecting this with digital repression, the very real potential for backfire or backlash is often ignored. This leads some, for instance, to make doomsday claims about the impacts of digital repressive capacities under the assumption that digital repression always ‘works’ (e.g., Morozov 2011). Fortunately, a growing amount of research shows that backlash or backfire effects are quite likely with digital repression (Beyer and Earl 2018; Earl and Beyer 2014; Odabaş and Reynolds-Stenson 2018). Since social movements and allies can work to facilitate backfire (Hess and Martin 2006), mitigating repression should take advantage of the risk of backfire to make digital repression more of a gamble for repressors.

Keying Mitigation to the Form of Digital Repression

Digital repression encompasses a very broad and divergent set of actual activities, which can be committed by various levels of government and also by private actors. Drawing on a review of research on digital repression, Earl, Maher, and Pan (2022) provide the most comprehensive and nuanced typology of forms of digital repression to date. For instance, they integrate scholarship ranging from research on the imprisonment of bloggers to digital surveillance to more active measures campaigns like disinformation. Key to their argument is that both explanations of digital repression and explanations of the impact of digital repression need to be keyed to more specific forms of digital repression instead of a one-size-fits-all view.

This is clearly an important point when considering resistance to repression. For instance, private repressors, with their multiplicity of motives, are likely to be dissuaded from repression in very different ways than regimes. While naming and shaming tactics may cost both private and state-based repressors, it may be possible to create market consequences for private repressors and export controls that are more effective than the closest analog for regimes, economic sanctions. Similarly, there are likely very different ways of supporting resilience or backfire to digital surveillance than to censorship campaigns, for instance. It is important that policymakers and academics attend to these differences and key their plans for mitigation to the specific form of digital repression and its perpetrator.

In conclusion, while the rise of digital repression may seem novel in many ways, it is important to connect research on digital repression to research on more traditional forms of repression as important insights can be drawn. In this essay, I have pointed to the ways in which traditional forms of mitigation (e.g., shaming), risks to repressors (e.g., backfire), and attention to differences amongst types of digital repression can aid in the mission to reduce digital repression and mitigate its impacts.



Jennifer Earl is a Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on social movements, information technologies, and the sociology of law, with research emphases on social movement repression (including digital repression, youth activism, Internet activism, and legal change. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research from 2006-2011 on Web activism, was a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics, and co-authored with Katrina Kimport, Digitally Enabled Social Change.

Photo by Markus Spiske




Beyer, Jessica L., and Jennifer Earl. 2018. "Backfire Online: Studying Reactions to the Repression of Internet Activism." In The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements, edited by Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey, 102-142. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Davenport, Christian. 2007. "State Repression and Political Order." Annual Review of Political Science 10 (1): 1-23.

Earl, Jennifer. 2011. "Political Repression: Iron Fists, Velvet Gloves, and Diffuse Control." Annual Review of Sociology 37: 261-284.

Earl, Jennifer, and Jessica L. Beyer. 2014. "The Dynamics of Backlash Online: Anonymous and the Battle for WikiLeaks." Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 37: 207-233.

Earl, Jennifer, and Jessica Maves Braithwaite. 2022. "Layers of Political Repression: Integrating Research on Social Movement Repression." Annual Review of Law and Social Science 18 (1): 227-248.

Earl, Jennifer, Thomas V. Maher, and Jennifer Pan. 2022. "The digital repression of social movements, protest, and activism: A synthetic review." Science Advances 8 (10): eabl8198.

Feldstein, Steven. 2021. The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance. Oxford University Press.

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Knockel, Jeffrey, Christopher Parsons, Lotus Ruan, Ruohan Xiong, Jedidiah Crandall, and Ronald J. Deibert. May 7, 2020 2020. We Chat, They Watch How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus. Citizen Lab.

Marczak, Bill, John Scott-Railton, Sarah McKune, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and Ron Deibert. 2018. Hide and Seek: Tracking NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware to Operations in 45 Countries. University of Toronto.

Marczak, Bill, Nicholas Weaver, Jakub Dalek, Roya Ensafi, David Fifield, Sarah McKune, Arn Rey, John Scott-Railton, Ronald J. Deibert, and Vern Paxson. 2015. China’s great cannon. Citizen Lab.

Morozov, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs.

Murdie, Amanda M., and David R. Davis. 2012. "Shaming and Blaming: Using Events Data to Assess the Impact of Human Rights INGOs." International Studies Quarterly 56 (1): 1-16.

Odabaş, Meltem, and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson. 2018. "Tweeting from Gezi Park: Social Media and Repression Backfire." Social Currents 5 (4): 386-406.

Reynolds-Stenson, Heidi. 2022. Cultures of Resistance: Collective Action and Rationality in the Anti-Terror Age. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Richard, L., S. Rigaud, and R. Maddow. 2023. Pegasus: How a Spy in Your Pocket Threatens the End of Privacy, Dignity, and Democracy. Henry Holt and Company.

Sikkink, Kathryn, and Hun Joon Kim. 2013. "The Justice Cascade: The Origins and Effectiveness of Prosecutions of Human Rights Violations." Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9 (1): 269-285.

Smidt, Hannah, Dominic Perera, Neil J. Mitchell, and Kristin M. Bakke. 2021. "Silencing Their Critics: How Government Restrictions Against Civil Society Affect International ‘Naming and Shaming’." British Journal of Political Science 51 (3): 1270-1291.

Sutton, Jonathan, Charles R. Butcher, and Isak Svensson. 2014. "Explaining political jiu-jitsu: Institution-building and the outcomes of regime violence against unarmed protests." Journal of Peace Research 51 (5): 559-573.

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