[…] Though the internet does offer some alternatives for protest movements, online activism isn’t easily employed everywhere—especially in places where street protests aren’t just a method of signaling dissent, but the dominant form. Such has been the case in Algeria, where twice-weekly demonstrations against the country’s military-backed regime were called off last month for the first time in a year to comply with lockdown measures. The Algerian government has since imposed a year-long ban on street protests and imprisoned many of the movement’s participants, prompting human-rights activists to accuse the government of exploiting the pandemic to quell dissent.
“That’s a movement in particular where the regular public protest had really been the kind of tentpole,” Jonathan Pinckney, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, whose research focuses on nonviolent action, democratization, and political violence, told me. “Everything had revolved around those Tuesday and Friday protests, so that’s a situation where I think it will likely be challenging for the movement to adapt.” The democratic threat facing protests in Algeria exists elsewhere. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has passed legislation that enables him to govern by decree indefinitely, giving him the power to prevent public demonstrations. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte authorized a shoot-to-kill order for those who defy the country’s coronavirus lockdown, including would-be protesters. In places such as these, the digital sphere offers a safe alternative to physical protests. But in some parts of the world, the online sphere can prove to be just as vulnerable. This is particularly true in authoritarian states, where online surveillance and internet shutdowns are commonplace. “There is a huge level of protest that happens in Iran that’s just online that few of us see through a variety of different platforms,” Brannen said, noting that “the Iranian government is looking heavily to the Chinese and the Russians to help support and stamp out that digital piece.”