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Can State Surveillance Strengthen Dissent?

Although authoritarian governments have access to a dizzying array of modern surveillance techniques to monitor real and suspected opponents, protest movements continue to thrive in many countries. New research offers insight into why being watched can actually drive people to take to the streets.

TURIN – The increased use of sophisticated surveillance techniques, including digital monitoring, make it harder for dissidents in authoritarian states to evade the authorities’ radar. Thousands of secret police agents in Belarus, China, Russia, and many other countries watch, listen to, and follow opponents and suspected opponents of the regime. According to one estimate, 39% of governments in 2019 used surveillance in partial or full violation of their citizens’ right to privacy.

At first glance, state surveillance should suppress dissent. After all, effective anti-government opposition requires a considerable amount of collective effort, skillful coordination, and strict secrecy. This kind of organization should be difficult if not impossible to establish and sustain in an environment where the regime can reliably access activists’ communications and monitor their movements.

Many scholars conclude that surveillance is effective at dampening resistance. By helping the authorities identify and eliminate key opposition figures, it instills fear in the population. The experience of being surveilled can induce an almost obsessive compliance with the law, as Eugeniusz Gatnar, a dissident in communist-era Poland, described in his memoirs: “I knew that the secret police were following me. I always told myself: don’t cross the street on a red light, validate tickets in the tram.”

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