Online Activism, Digital Domination, and the Role of Trolls

Technology has revolutionized activism. However, governments have learned to target the affordances it provides. This article challenges the accepted framing of this phenomenon, centered on surveillance and privacy. First, it conceptualizes such government action as digital domination. Applying the republican concept of freedom as non-domination, it argues that domination’s core harm is to activists’ freedom. Since activism is a check on government, undermining the possibility for activism jeopardizes the freedom of the citizenry as a whole. Second, governments’ reliance on digital militias allows them to circumvent limits on their authority, endangering the rule of law. Finally, governments do more than surveillance: they (1) gather information on activists; (2) disrupt communication channels; (3) flood online conversation to drown out the opposition; (4) deploy the state’s coercive power based on information gathered, and (5) mobilize digital militias to bully activists online.