Online connections play an overwhelmingly influential role during protests such as the Arab Spring. Protesters and activists themselves acknowledge the importance of social networks, while authoritarian governments’ rapid reactions and threats to shut down Internet connections also suggest that they feel threatened by large-scale online mobilisation (Tkacheva et al. 2013). In a world in which authoritarian states frequently attempt to curtail free speech and control the media, the Internet can become a crucial sphere of resistance. In the Middle East, political and economic grievances certainly provided the backdrop for the Arab Spring demonstrations, but countless citizens also used online tools to organise their efforts, mobilise protests and hold authorities to account. Similarly, in Russia, a civil society created online helps to monitor elections, communicate with citizens and counter certain government narratives (Howard and Hussain 2013). Platforms such as blogs and social media are often able to present a contrarian message and have become a space for alternative opinions, something that is crucial in states that lack a free and independent media environment. An influential civil society vanguard can often organise itself online (Tkacheva et al. 2013) and create an atmosphere of opposition that can spread to other social sectors, even in states with low Internet penetration.
The Internet’s political impact in the EU’s southern neighbourhood has been extensively studied by scholars, somewhat to the detriment of its impact among Europe’s eastern neighbours. Yet Europe’s eastern neighbours, as well as some of its member states, are feeling the impact of a hybrid warfare campaign that also has an informational dimension, necessitating an effective digital foreign policy response. In the past, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty effectively tackled the Soviet message because they not only broadcast Western views, but also interviewed civil society leaders in the Soviet sphere (Howard and Hussain 2013). Similarly, promoting active discussions online and aiding political activists in Russia would contribute towards an organic alternative public sphere that could weaken the Kremlin’s propaganda grip and information monopoly within Russia and the surrounding regions. At the same time, media environments are not always fully mature, especially in authoritarian, developing or post-Soviet states, and many major publishers are often reluctant to disseminate politically sensitive content. The EU should therefore consider supporting independent publishers, news outlets or online platforms on which activists could post freely.Footnote 1 Such support could come in the form of technological help, since many activists do not have sufficient technical knowledge, or simply in the shape of funding for independent and investigative journalism.
With the notable exception of China,Footnote 2 most states find it difficult to eliminate politically troublesome content online. They prefer cracking down on those who author this content over pre-emptively preventing its spread.Footnote 3 Governments nonetheless have the upper hand in terms of digital resources and can wield control over the Internet’s physical infrastructure, while civil society representatives often require outside assistance, such as media or cybersecurity training. While the Internet’s low barriers to entry make it easy to create political blogs or platforms, activists also need to be wary and sufficiently well trained so as not to become easy targets of state repression (Morozov 2012). During the Arab Spring uprisings, as governments began to restrict Internet connections, a ‘speak to Tweet’ system developed by Google and Twitter helped protesters and dissidents to express themselves. It provided them with a phone number so that they could dictate messages which would be turned into Twitter posts. Similarly, tools such as The Onion Router (Tor), which anonymises online connections and was partially developed and funded by the US government, are also frequently employed by activists. Finally, many opposition figures would benefit immensely from better encryption services, which could help them to evade government surveillance.
In the digital era, technology can empower activists and authoritarians alike, and the EU should ensure that the former benefit the most from it. This could be achieved through providing tools and trainings that cover topics such as encryption, anonymous browsing, and overcoming government bans and blockades of websites. European institutions should therefore look into measures such as spreading anonymisation software and training activists in digital skills and cybersecurity. These activities should be framed as both democratisation assistance and countermeasures against Russian propaganda. Politicians must resist the temptation to blame encryption and threaten to restrict it in the wake of successful terrorist attacks. Criminals and terror groups will always find ways of using or smuggling effective encryption products (Doctorow 2015), while any ban on secure communications will cause the most harm to human rights activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that need to relay anonymous messages in repressive environments. Finally, the EU should strengthen its export ban on surveillance technologies (Pop 2011), as many European companies continue to create products used for authoritarian surveillance.