Social media and an open Internet are seen by activists around the globe as tools for democracy, empowering disenfranchised communities, and social change. But in countries across Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, the power of digital communications can be a double-edged sword.

Katy Pearce

Katy Pearce, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, examines how social media and the Internet are used by dissenters and governments in authoritarian environments.

Technology as a force for repression (not just change) is a primary subject of Katy Pearce’s research. Pearce is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research covers social and political uses of technologies and digital content in non-democratic contexts, specifically in the semi- and fully-authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union.

On Thursday, June 5th, Katy Pearce is speaking at Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) about a double-edged sword: the use of social media to suppress activism in Azerbaijan (a nation in which she focuses her research) and other parts of the world. She is also participating in the From Memes to Movements panel.

We caught up with Katy to find more about her work, what she’s speaking about at PDF and its implications for campaigners and international social change groups.

Give our readers a quick taste of your research and what you’ll be talking about at Personal Democracy Forum.

Being a dictator today is harder than it used to be. You have to be more subtle. You don’t, for instance, barge in and shut down Radio Free Europe, you audit its books. Today’s authoritarian (or authoritarian minded) government relies on subtle bureaucratic ways to limit people. An accessible Internet open up all sorts of subtle routes to suppression.

You’re speaking at PDF as part of a segment titled “The Internet’s Double Edged Sword.” Can you say more about how you see that double edge operating?

In the course of our research, I and others in this field like Zeynep Tufekci and Emily Parker see first-hand how governments use the Internet. All the powers that make the Internet and social media good for action are same things that make it powerful for authoritarian regimes.

The Azerbaijani regime, for example, has taken tech and social media and is using it against dissent — it’s using technology to suppress people in very creative ways. Activists in the West use memes effectively online. The government in Azerbaijan is using memes in a similar way to raise public pressure against dissent.

It’s great that people can use social media tools to organize others but governments can also use the same tools as a way of intelligence gathering. Governments are really winning a lot.

Those of us studying this end up having to fight against the cyber utopians as far as the potential of the Internet to be a large causal factor in social movements and collective action.

How might a more restrictive digital communications/Internet play role in organizing for sustainable change or movement building?

That depends on what we mean by “sustainable?” Is Azerbaijan doing short term change well online? No. But there could be big long term changes that are harder to measure.

Preference revelation is an example of what social media enables in a country like Azerbaijan. Recently, a man came out publicly as gay (Azerbaijan has a strong anti-homosexual culture, it’s believed). This individual committed suicide after coming out and left a note behind online that others could read and share.

A surprising number of people responded online supporting this man. Social media gives people a place to see and share opinions they didn’t realize others had. I imagine that these sorts of experiences are exposing more Azerbaijanis to societal norms. Core values are barriers to change. It’s a “little a” authoritarian society. Authoritarianism is a cultural value that leads to BIG A authoritarianism. Facebook exposes people to new information and new ways of sharing information and opinions. Over time this can be powerful.

On your website you describe work on “context collapse.” Can you describe/explain context collapse and what it’s implications might be for organizing communications?

Context collapse is something that we all experience. Your childhood friend makes a joke about 4th grade on Facebook and all your current coworkers see it. Without social media the networks in our lives don’t come together. People react to that in different ways: some people don’t get on social media; some don’t post anything controversial; some use privacy settings.

Context collapse gives activists and dissidents a lot to think about when writing about work. You might have a large online following as an anti-government activist but meanwhile you’re talking to an embassy and you don’t want followers to know.

I suspect that activists in authoritarian environments that are using social media in their work are taking different kinds of strategies than you or I would. This summer, we’ll be interviewing Azerbaijanis about the strategies people take.

If all organizing (not just awareness building) relies on insecure digital communications then can we organize at all?

In Azerbaijan, people go to jail for things they READ on the Internet each week. Kids there went to jail for doing the Harlem Shake and being members of a Facebook group.

People don’t really organize in Azerbaijan. 2013 saw the biggest protest since 2006. A lot of people were swiftly arrested.

But there are other forms of organizing. In Azerbaijan there was a “5 cent campaign” to raise money for people arrested in these protests. Later, a law against online fundraising was passed in Parliament. Even when we look at people getting around things, the law can change quickly. There are laws about what news sites can look like – how wide the margins must be and so on. People can use technology to do great things but in many places the government makes information sharing very hard.

Tell us about humor as a form of dissent – it’s something you’ve been examining.

Humor can be tool of dissent. It’s salient and viral. The Internet gives us a culture of memes, jokes, and funny videos. Humor is a big part of activist work. I’ve been looking at how governments and others are using humor/memes as a way to suppress. They’re anonymous, cheap and spread easily. Everything good about humor and memes in activism can also be bad if used the right way.

Is this “double edged sword” visible in the West?

In Turkey, the Mayor of Istanbul is very active in this sort of method. In Russia, pro-government youth groups are active. Of course, it’s harder to tie this behavior to them because it’s a more open environment.

My takeaway is that all the good of tech can be flipped back at us. We love free speech but that also means people we don’t agree with. Internet is a great resource for hate groups, too. Be aware that internet can be used in different.

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