Experts Say Internet Shutdowns Don't Thwart Protests

from the the-last-refuge-of-simple-minds dept

Like so many authoritarians, Belarus “President” Alexander Lukashenko has taken to violence, intimidation, and censorship in a ham-fisted bid to stifle those critical of his dubious election win. On the technology side, that has involved hiring U.S. network gear maker Sandvine to help the country block citizens’ access to the broader internet. During August’s contested election, citizens found their access to social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook prohibited thanks to Sandvine and the Belarusian government, which originally tried to claim that the blockade was the result of a cyberattack. News outlets like CNN and the BBC, and search engines like Google, were also blocked.

Aside from being harmful, there’s increasing evidence that this kind of censorship simply doesn’t work. A recent study in the International Journal of Communications took a closer look at what happened to protest movements in African countries when governments attempted massive censorship of the internet, and it found that while there wasn’t evidence that such shutdowns drove greater unrest, there also was no evidence such behavior thwarted protests:

“For example, a social media blackout in Ethiopia in December 2017 ?completely failed? to suppress protests caused by ethnic tensions in part of the country, the authors wrote. There was actually a surge in clashes during the shutdown itself. The study used data on the locations of protests and whether they were considered violent or not, but the researchers didn?t have access to detailed information on the number of demonstrators present or what form their online activity had taken prior to the internet shutdown or social media blackout.

Experts have been quick to note such censorship doesn’t magically thwart the underlying grievances driving the protests, and creative protesters are likely to develop tools to bypass internet lockdowns anyway. In Belarus and countless other areas users most frequently simply migrate to VPNs to dodge the watchful eye of governments and their private sector allies like Sandvine (which, you’ll recall, played a starring role in the early days of the net neutrality fights here in the States).

At the end of the day, experts are clear that internet crackdowns are the last resort of cowardly authoritarians, whose last option is to try and drive further unrest in the hopes it somehow plays into their hands:

“It?s often as a ?last resort tactic? says Joss Wright, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. But the strategy is also a crude one, he adds, noting that it can result in the spread of rumours and misinformation through other channels?with unpredictable consequences. Rydzak agrees: ?It?s about creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.? As a blunt demonstration of power, he adds, shutdowns may heighten the overall sense of chaos in a country or locality, creating a fluid situation that authorities may hope ultimately plays into their hands.”

Except, again, there’s no indication that’s actually a successful tactic.

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Comments on “Experts Say Internet Shutdowns Don't Thwart Protests”

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Well, can't blame the inept dictator for being inept...

…because it should have been obvious by now that revolutions and public dissent are not and never have been a function of the communications medium.

"Experts have been quick to note such censorship doesn’t magically thwart the underlying grievances driving the protests, and creative protesters are likely to develop tools to bypass internet lockdowns anyway."

You need an expert to discover this? I would have thought the origin story of most countries as taught in basic education would suffice.

Anonymous Coward says:

i wonder what’s gonna be needed to get Trump to realise that continuously stomping on peoples rights is, sooner or later, gonna bite him in the ass? the continual appointing of all people Republican and/or Conservative leaning to prominent positions wont stop people being upset and voting how they think either. preventing them from voting how they want, as still happens in various places due to total intimidation against the oposition though, will help them to make up their minds.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Killing the messenger does not kill the message ;)

"Well, the title says it all. I mean, people didn’t revolted against any governement before the internet, so blocking it should stop them, right? RIGHT? ;)"

Well, to be fair every unpopular dictator in recorded history always ends up, eventually, asking his secret police to silence dissent. So they tromp out and "deal" with the obvious outspoken dissenters in full public view, escalating the hatred the population holds for him and triggering an even bigger whisper campaign, requiring the secret police to get even more heavy-handed; At which point in time the battle lines can said to be officially drawn between citizenry and government forces.

It’s basically Step 1 in "How to start a revolution 101".

And yet dictators just can’t help themselves. As soon as someone says something mean about them their retaliation meters hit 1,8 Trumps on the Asshat scale and they blow their tops.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: It leaves people terrified

"So you can say it actually achieves its goal of terrorizing people, a bit different goal though…"

A self-defeating one. A government or dictator can survive a grumbling people and even an upset people. A people which is afraid, however, means a people learning how to hate.

Every dictator to try to intimidate his/her population ends up with said population rising up. Lukashenko now clings to his post solely for as long as his people fear him more than they hate him. And he’s gone way beyond the point where he can de-escalate this. His choices now are to flee the country or tough it out until he faces the pending uprising.

Matt says:

Re: Re: It leaves people terrified

There are regions in the world where power is based on oppression and fear. Europe used to be like that centuries ago. The right to democracy is still not universal. So it’s extremely concerning to see democratic countries or business in those countries supporting oppressive regimes. They make it way more real, the path of getting back to oppression.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It leaves people terrified

"There are regions in the world where power is based on oppression and fear…"

And it always, invariably, ends in revolution, eventually. In many of those regions there isn’t even a central government – only scattered warlords and an in-name-only "president" whose writ ends at the capital walls.

The only way to use power and oppression as a sustainable mechanic is to ensure that the citizenry is well enough not to rise as a whole. China has bloody perfected this golden cage approach. Putin still has massive support at home because with him at least the country works.

The US, however, can’t function that way, because the aggressors in the alt-right have as their primary goal to hurt the majority of the citizenry. In the end fuck liberals is all they want out of this. That’s the end result of centuries worth of negative partisanship where every election has been centered around who the evil guy is.

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