Dissenting the digital way

The nebulous nature of digital platforms has ensured that digital dissent is agile and ever-changing

Dissenting the digital way


igital spaces, of late, have become a lightning rod for critique due to their deleterious effects on society and outsized impact on shaping public opinion. The uncritical embrace of social media, at its zenith in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has faded, giving way to scepticism and calls for regulation. While much of this criticism is justified, particularly when directed at the profiteering by big tech companies, the ability of digital platforms to absorb and amplify dissent still requires highlighting.

As India makes sense of its election result despite high levels of suppression of dissent, the role of digital voices critical of Narendra Modi presenting alternative narratives has been recognised as pivotal. In the lead-up to the Indian elections, repressive tactics were used to silence opposition voices. Several journalists had already been edged out of the mainstream, leading many to refer to Indian media as ‘godi media.’ Erstwhile mainstream journalists, however, found an audience on YouTube, allowing them to reach large audiences on their own terms and have sustainable incomes. Without digital platforms, these voices, would not have found space in the present-day India.

In the United States, supporters of Palestinians have thrived on TikTok, leading many to speculate that this is the reason for the government’s recent decision to ban the platform in the near future, unless it finds a US-based owner. The accusations of pro-Palestine ‘bias’ on the platform led TikTok to clarify in a statement that the reason for the surge in such content is not the app per se, rather that the “attitudes among young people skewed towards Palestine long before TikTok existed.” Be that as it may, the platform has provided a space for dissent and expression at a time when others such as Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) have been actively silencing pro-Palestine content creators and downgrading content through shadow-banning.

On TikTok, it is evident that young users are savvy about nestling pro-Palestine content between more ‘engaging’ trends and encouraging users to interact with posts about Palestine to get more traction in an effort to game the algorithms. Despite these platforms being imperfect hosts for dissent, they have inevitably emerged as the site of resistance, creative dissent and digital expression.

These threats to dissent are not abstract—online dissent has resulted in enforced disappearances, arrests and lengthy prison sentences. These tactics have a chilling effect on dissent, both online and offline. 

Closer to home, despite the gratuitous use of draconian laws such as the PECA and the wholesale banning of X for over three months, dissent in digital spaces has been resilient. Journalists who have been harassed by the state for their online content and activists subject to disappearances either continue to speak out or are replaced by others. The hydra-like quality of digital dissent has had the authorities extremely worried, leading to a host of reactionary legislative proposals and actions. Much like the Indian government, Pakistani authorities have tried to rein in social media platforms by mandating that they comply with local laws.

The hasty passage of the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, despite opposition from some quarters, speaks of the perceived threat of dissent. While the legal future of the bill is uncertain, parallel proposals to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in order to set up a so-called Digital Rights Protection Authority indicate that digital repression will not relent anytime soon. In their statements, officials from the government have cited safety concerns and misinformation as the reason for introducing these reforms. The short history of the PECA indicates that this is an old government playbook that weaponises legitimate concerns for the safety of women and children to generate moral panics that justify legislation intended to clampdown on dissent. The manner in which the government has gone about this, with rushed consultation and legislative proposals not being made public, are signs of bad faith.

These threats to dissent are not abstract. Online dissent has resulted in enforced disappearances, arrests and prison sentences. These tactics have a chilling effect on dissent, both online and offline. Nevertheless, the nebulous nature of digital platforms has ensured that dissent is agile and ever-changing. Tech-savvy activists have learned to circumvent censorship, crackdowns and state-sponsored disinformation through a range of tactics.

Governments will do well to embrace dissent and diversity of voices online, using social media platforms to gauge the pulse of the populations they serve. As online advocacy around Palestine shows, the young know digital spaces better than most governments so that efforts to control them are often futile.

The writer is a researcher and campaigner on human and digital rights issues

Dissenting the digital way