The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 2

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth discusses recent trends in nonviolent resistance, the flip side of social media, and how successful terrorism really is.

Image of graffiti with the message the revolution will not be tweeted

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the second of a two-part series with Erica Chenoweth about their work on nonviolent resistance. Read part 1 on Epicenter

When they started their predoctoral fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in 2006, Erica Chenoweth believed in the strategic logic of armed resistance. They had studied terrorism, civil war, and major revolutions—Russian, French, Algerian, and American—and suspected that only violent force had achieved major social and political change. So, when a workshop challenged Chenoweth to prove that violent resistance was more successful than nonviolent resistance, they thought: of course. The question had never been addressed systematically, so with their colleague Maria J. Stephan, turned it into a research project.

For the next two years, Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 that resulted in the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation. They created a dataset of 323 mass actions, and, leaving no angle unexamined, Chenoweth analyzed and regressed nearly 160 different variables related to success criteria, categories of participants, state capacity, and more. The results turned Chenoweth’s long-held paradigm on its head—in the aggregate, nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were far more successful in effecting change than violent ones. 

Q: The main argument of Why Civil Resistance Works is that nonviolent campaigns have a higher rate of success than violent ones. The data in your book start in 1900 and end in the early 2000s. Is this trend still holding up?

A: I have some preliminary data that run through 2017, and it's still the case that nonviolent resistance campaigns of a maximalist nature like the ones in the book are lots more successful than violent ones. However, they're not as absolutely successful as they were in the period that we looked at in our book. The average rate of success over that century was about 50 percent. And in the past eight years it's dropped down to 33 percent. However, the average success rate for violent campaigns dropped from 27 to 10 percent. It’s actually surprising because in absolute terms both types of resistance have become less effective this decade, but nonviolent resistance is now three times more effective than violent resistance. Therefore, the relative gap between effectiveness has increased. 

Q: Why were the early 2000s so successful for resistance campaigns? 

A: In the first decade of the 2000s, nonviolent resistance was impressively effective. That's largely explained by the color revolutions but also perhaps by other long-term democratization trends. There were a lot of central Asian and Eastern European uprisings in the mid 2000s that were confronting Russia-backed regimes, like the one in Kyrgyzstan. There was the Georgian Rose Revolution. The decade began with the iconic Bulldozer Revolution of Serbia. There were resistance campaigns in sequence that were connected in the sense that the activists were actively meeting and learning from one another. Then the Arab Spring uprisings—particularly Tunisia and Egypt—followed that trend, and turned into a wave which nobody expected. 

Q: What accounts for the absolute downward trend since then?

A: I think that the digital age has led to an age of smart repression. My sense is that regimes have basically caught up to whatever advantage there was to the Internet for activists. The Internet provides lots of opportunity for more narrow, discriminating repression that's more effective than the blunt, brute force that would take place in the streets. We even see this in the US context. In Ferguson, Missouri, activists were singled out by police who knew that they were the organizers and leaders of the movement. What happens with social media in particular is that we essentially reveal all of our preferences and activities, publicly or privately, and all those preferences can be very easily surveilled now. Even if you're not saying much, it's not hard to figure out whose side you're on.

Q: Can you give an example of how regimes have used social media against activists?

A: There was a case in Sudan in 2011 where the Bashir regime allegedly anticipated that it might face its own Arab Spring uprising. To prevent and preempt it, someone in the security forces or intelligence services created a fake Facebook event that looked legitimate. The graphic art for the event looked like something that a millennial activist would have created and put on their website. It was announced as an uprising, and something like 17,000 people RSVPed for it. When people showed up, security forces rounded up a bunch of people. All they needed was their Facebook password. Some people were tortured and passwords revealed; then it was easy to round up other people. This is an example of using these tools to entrap people, but also to get a handle on the sentiments of thousands of people in the country that can be watched and surveilled.

Quote by Erica Chenoweth

Q: Are the social media tools that were critical for the Arab Spring somehow backfiring?

A: Twitter and Facebook are very good at mobilizing huge numbers of people very quickly. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of crowd mass that link directly to people organizing with these tools. The problem is, numbers alone don't do it in terms of creating change; they're necessary but insufficient, as sociologist Zeynep Turfecki has argued. There's also a danger that people will assume that because there are huge numbers of people showing up and nothing's changing, that mass action doesn't work, which is the totally wrong conclusion to draw. People being in the streets isn't necessarily the most effective thing without a strategy. The second thing that can happen is that people show up places and think that protests or mass gatherings are the only tool in the toolkit. Organizing an effective nonviolent campaign of the kind that Maria and I describe in our book requires sometimes years of preparation before people are ready to actually mobilize. So, there's a danger that people think that organizing means setting up a Facebook event instead of actually doing the work to prepare a population for years of struggle.

Q: You recently coauthored a textbook, The Politics of Terror. How does terrorism as a type of violent resistance stack up in terms of its success rate?

A: If you look at the same kind of metric of success, which is that militants get what they say they want, terrorism is a very futile activity. The rank ordering is something like this: nonviolent resistance is the most effective, followed by large insurgencies such as the Chinese Revolution or peasant rebellions, and the least effective is terrorism. That doesn't mean terrorism doesn't have any effects. It depends on the strategy of terrorism. Some people argue that the primary strategy of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. It's impossible to say that al Qaeda or its affiliates have succeeded in creating a global caliphate or destroying Israel or driving the United States out of Saudi Arabia. You can't say that they achieved those aims as such. But it is definitely true that they had some tactical success in forcing the United States into taking on commitments abroad that have been incredibly costly and counterproductive.

Q: Do you have another book planned?

A: One of the books that I'm eager to write with Zoe Marks, also a Harvard Kennedy School faculty member, is a survey of civic engagement in the United States since Trump was elected. This is in part a response to the idea that democracy is dying. We want to highlight how certain elements of democracy are surviving and thriving in this time, even as people seem to doubt the resilience of more formal democratic institutions. I am also working on another book with Maria Stephan on ways that international assistance can support nonviolent movements without undermining their local bases of support. And my next book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be out this summer. It uses updated data and cases to challenge myths about nonviolent resistance in an accessible style, so it could be of interest to a general audience as well as students and scholars of the topic.  

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Erica Chenoweth is a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. They have two forthcoming books: Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know® (Oxford University Press, 2019) and The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2019), coedited by Chenoweth and Richard English, Andreas Gofas, and Stathis N. Kalyvas.

Photo Caption

Hossam el-Hamalawy, the revolution will not be tweeted. Graffiti in Qasr el-Aini Street. Taken on November 29, 2011. (CC BY-SA 2.0)