As thousands of protesters took to the streets in Belarus last month, authorities partially blocked internet access across the country. If the move had been designed to stymie the demonstrations, it failed. Huge numbers of people were still out protesting weeks later, incensed at President Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to remain in power.
In the last decade, regimes around the world have become more and more accustomed to flicking the switch on internet services, seemingly as a means of disrupting activists’ efforts to communicate and mobilise. But researchers are finding that, as in Belarus, the approach seldom seems to work. In fact, it may even backfire in some cases, sparking prolonged or more violent demonstrations.
“Rarely do we actually see a shutdown being followed by a complete drop-off in the number of protests,” says Jan Rydzak, a research analyst at Ranking Digital Rights, a non-profit that promotes civil liberties.
In a recently published study, Rydzak and colleagues documented what happened to protest movements in African countries when governments launched internet shutdowns or censored parts of the web, such as social media sites.
The researchers were not able to show a causative effect, for example that shutdowns were always tied to aggravated demonstrations, but they found no evidence that they were effective measures of quelling uprisings either.
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.
Understanding this latter point would be key to further explaining the resilience of protest movements in the face of disrupted communications, suggests Deborah Brown, senior researcher and advocate on digital rights at Human Rights Watch.
Ultimately, she adds, technological interventions are unlikely to be enough to silence activists: “It doesn’t change fundamentally what people want – they want their voice to be heard, they’re not going to stay at home just because they can’t communicate.”
And, as Rydzak points out, mobilised groups are likely to find innovative ways to adapt their communicative strategies when under duress. In the case of Belarus, for instance, protestors there have turned to using virtual private networks (VPNs) to maintain access to social media sites and they have also relied on Telegram for communications when network disruptions have at times prevented some apps, including WhatsApp, from working.
If internet shutdowns don’t stop protests, it begs the question: why do authorities use them?
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.
And yet the data suggests that, much of the time, it doesn’t.