Online Activism, Digital Domination, and the Rule of Trolls
49 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2019 Last revised: 19 Jun 2020
Date Written: September 26, 2019
The internet and social media have revolutionized activism. In response, governments seeking to curb opposition have recently learned to target the very same technologies that gave rise to activist empowerment in the first place. This article challenges the accepted framework for discussing these efforts by governments, focused on surveillance and privacy. It argues, first, that governments’ actions should be evaluated in the aggregate and understood as measures of digital domination, whose harm extends beyond the harm to individual privacy. Applying the republican concept of freedom as non-domination, the article suggests that the core harm resulting from governments’ actions is to activists’ freedom. Since activism is a check on the government, these measures also have devastating consequences for the freedom of the citizenry as a whole. Second, the article argues that governments’ reliance on digital militias allows them to sidestep the limits of their legitimate authority, therefore posing a grave threat to the rule of law. Finally, third, the article underscores that governments deploy digital measures of control beyond surveillance. Rather, they (1) gather information on activists; (2) disrupt communication channels; (3) flood online conversation to drown out the opposition; (4) deploy the state’s coercive power based on information gathered, and (5) mobilize digital militias to bully activists online. The article therefore proposes a new conceptual framework: rather than discuss political freedom through the lens of privacy, we ought to retain appreciation of privacy’s importance but refocus the discussion around individual freedom. Similarly, rather than subsume government control measures under the category of surveillance, we ought to recognize the much broader set of tools employed by them.
Keywords: law and technology, surveillance, privacy, freedom of speech, political freedom, domination, political theory, democratic theory, republicanism, neo-republicanism, authoritarianism, backsliding democracy, activism, civil society
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