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The paper traces new forms of pro-democracy political organising associated with the proliferation of digital platforms. Based on the study of the two radical pro-democracy organisations, the paper proposes a new model of a network platform-based campaigning organisation acting in authoritarian settings. The paper argues that the use of platforms enables four key adaptations observed for the model. These adaptations are segmentation of organisational structures, the emergence of misleading organisational narratives, pseudonymous representation and multi-step information distribution.
The data for cases studies is based on a long-term research project that focuses on the Anti-tax campaign in Belarus and the campaigns of Alexei Navalny in Russia in 2017 and 2018. Using extensive interviews with the campaign leaders and practitioners as well as content and network analysis, the paper answers the following research questions: How are organisations affected by and how do they address attempts of the authorities to control the online realm through activists’ persecution, censorship and surveillance?
To address these challenges of authoritarian settings, the two studied organisations, first, adopted a segmented organisational structure which confused observers and helped to reduce the levels of leader persecution. Second, they supported misleading narratives that would present them as spontaneous or leaderless movements. These narratives served to protect their real leaders from surveillance and persecution. Third, this segmented structure was coordinated by leaders who managed their visibility on digital platforms actively. Platform affordances enabled differential leadership modes. Some of them stayed public while others adopted pseudonyms to avoid persecution. Fourth, both organisations actively used information networks built around alternative digital platforms such as Telegram and OK that helped to overcome self-censorship of their followers. These four key characteristics constitute the model of a network platform-based campaigning organisation.