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The Battle for Civic Space in the Digital Age

Societies must address the distribution of political and economic power that drives efforts to use digital technologies for repressive ends. Otherwise, governments and corporations will continue to diminish digital citizenship to enhance their own powers or advance their private interests.

As COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions became part of daily life for billions of people around the world, activities such as shopping, education, and staying in touch with loved ones moved almost exclusively online. This accelerating shift toward new digital technologies also has major implications – both positive and negative – for the future of civic activism and political participation.

When the pandemic spread worldwide in March 2020, Facebook reported an unprecedented spike in global usage, the bulk of it consisting of private messaging and video calling. Shortly before that, WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging platform (which is owned by Facebook) reached the milestone of two billion users. Around the world, fixed and mobile operators saw internet traffic surge – with countries such as South Africa temporarily allocating additional spectrum to avoid network congestion – while US telecommunication providers like AT&T reported big increases in mobile voice calls.

Despite this increase in usage, the digital divide remains, owing to barriers such as cost, language, and quality of connectivity. South Africa’s population has significant access to internet-enabled devices, but low-income consumers remain mostly disconnected, because price discrimination by mobile network operators means the poor pay more for data than wealthier citizens do.

Still, as the pandemic underscores, digital connectivity has become an essential part of most people’s everyday lives. These new technologies are here to stay, and civic activists in particular must observe them with a critical eye.

Already in the 1980s, activists employed tools such as encryption technology to advance their causes. Their successors nowadays are using newer digital innovations, including social media.

Prominent digitally inspired campaigns include the recent #EndSARS protests against police brutality in Nigeria. Likewise, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used almost 3.7 million times per day on Twitter between May 26 and June 7, 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a white US police officer. Both campaigns went beyond short-term online viral sensationalism and had a sustained impact, beyond the digital realm.

Previously, increased digital access led to the emergence of civic tech organizations like the Nairobi-based Ushahidi, an open-source platform for crowdsourcing crisis information. The tool was first used to map reports of violence in the country in the two months following the 2007 presidential election, in which an estimated 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands internally displaced. The platform’s features have since been developed further, and it has been deployed over 120,000 times, including in COVID-19 response efforts around the world.

But both governments and non-government actors are using digital technologies to shrink and even close civic space, showing that we are a long way from the early optimism regarding these tools’ democratizing potential. In early April 2021, for example, Kenyan activist Edwin Kiama was arrested on suspicion of being behind a poster shared online that opposed International Monetary Fund loans to Kenya and featured Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Despite facing no charges, Kiama was detained on a hefty KSh500,000 ($4,685) cash bail, and his social media accounts were ordered blocked. Although he was later released, the episode sent a chilling message about the potential consequences of online dissent.

Arrests are not the only tactic for curtailing civic space. Others include the expansion of surveillance, information blackouts through internet shutdowns, legislative attacks, and targeted misinformation and disinformation campaigns. In some cases, tech giants have colluded with repressive governments. Google and Facebook have allegedly aided and abetted a vicious Indian government campaign against climate activists, while social media companies have been complicit in inciting ethnic violence in Myanmar.

According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report, global internet freedom declined for the tenth consecutive year in 2020. The study found that the pandemic has fueled digital repression worldwide, with more countries scoring worse compared to the previous year than registering gains. This follows years of warnings that the world is descending into an era of digital authoritarianism.

Likewise, a recent analysis of the state of digital rights in ten African countries – the first comparative study to consider the continent’s wider political, civic, and technological context – found that digital technologies were being used almost twice as often to close online civic space as to open it.

Societies must address the distribution of political and economic power that drives efforts to use digital technologies for repressive ends. Otherwise, governments and corporations will continue to diminish digital citizenship to enhance their own powers or advance their private interests.

Of course, the use of digital technologies both to open and to close civic space shows that technology per se is neither good nor bad. What matters is how the prevailing social order shapes technologies and uses them to maintain the status quo and advance the interests of its dominant members. Building the capacity to advance a public policy and digital governance agenda centered on public interest, rather than control, extraction, and profits, is a good start. And, as we have learned from both the United States and South Africa, we also must urgently address the structural injustices that those with nefarious agendas exploit to spread disinformation and manipulate people. These solutions are not about the new technologies, but rather the ways they reflect and reproduce the values of dominant power interests.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown how critical digital technologies have become. They can be a powerful tool in the struggle to build a more just post-pandemic world, or they can be a formidable weapon in the hands of those defending injustice. The record so far suggests they will be both.

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