Beyond Liberation Technology? The Recent Uses of Social Media by Pro-Democracy Activists

Joshua A. Tucker, New York University * **

It is difficult to believe it, but it has been almost a decade since the publication of Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner’s Liberation Technology.[1]  In that period of time, we have gone from viewing social media as an exciting new phenomenon with the potential to fundamentally change the nature of political protest around the globe – a phenomenon which had to be painstakingly identified, labeled, and assessed in each new protest movement – to a world where it is practically impossible to imagine a protest movement that doesn’t involve some, if not many, aspects of social media in its planning, implementation, and coverage, to say nothing of the regime’s response to that protest.  At the same time, the speed and pace of change in the digital information environment seems to have accelerated to such a degree that we now have calls from social scientists for the importance of assessing the temporal validity of research studies.[2] One would suppose, therefore, that the nature of the relationship between social media and pro-democracy activism might have fundamentally changed over that period.

Counter-intuitively, then, perhaps, I argue the opposite. For the most part, the theoretical frameworks we have developed over the past decade to explain the relationship between social media and pro-democracy movements actually do a relatively good job in giving us the tools to understand what has been happening in recent pro-democracy movements outside the Middle East in places such as Belarus, Russia, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. Yes, there are new platforms (Telegram, YouTube, TikTok) that have risen to places of prominence in pro-democracy movements.  And yes, there are new forms of media (video, group chats) that are now utilized in ways they were not previously, both by pro-democracy movements and the regimes against which they mobilized.  But the purposes to which these tools are put, and the functions which they seem to be fulfilling, are remarkably similar to the purposes and functions ascribed to social media in pro-democracy movements in the first half of the previous decade.

To make these points, I organize the remainder of the essay as follows. First, I begin with a summary of a general theoretical framework for thinking about social media and protest drawn from three of my previous publications with different sets of co-authors on social media’s relationship to protest and pro-democracy movements in the first half of the last decade.[3] Next, I turn to the ways in which pro-democracy activists have used new platforms that were not as prevalent in our original Twitter and Facebook narratives of past protests, but I will argue that they are being used for essentially similar functions. I will then briefly address the ways that regimes have responded to recent protest movements, again arguing that existing theoretical frameworks can account for these types of responses. I will close, however, with what I think is a genuinely new development that is not accommodated by our prior theoretical frameworks: the fact that the platforms themselves have in some cases taken sides in these conflicts.  In all cases, I draw upon reports from other scholars and journalists regarding recent development over the past year or two in Belarus, Russia, Myanmar, and Hong Kong.[4]

Theoretical Frameworks for Social Media and Pro-Democracy Activists 

I will begin by positing that our current understanding of the uses of social media by pro-democracy activists can be (somewhat) concisely summarized by the following the propositions:

First, social media can serve to circumvent authoritarian rule by giving voice to those without access to mainstream media.[5]  In countries ruled by authoritarian – or competitive authoritarian[6] – regimes, those without access to mainstream media may include other would-be authoritarians, but also undoubtedly includes pro-democracy forces. Thus, social media provides tools to pro-democracy activists that would not likely otherwise be available in the absence of social media.

Second, social media can be used in a variety of formats by pro-democracy activists that are directly connected to mass protest.  This includes social media being used to organize protest events, to communicate real-time information about protests to protests participants, to drive media coverage of protests events, as well as to build networks of pro-democracy activists.[7]

Third, although social media clearly provides tools to pro-democracy activists, regimes are not powerless to respond to opposition on social media. Indeed, regimes possess a variety of options for doing so, including offline responses (such as arresting online activists or changing the liability or ownership structure of platforms), online restriction of access to information (think traditional attempts at censorship), and attempts to influence the nature of the online discussion (including actors such bots and trolls).[8]

As these arguments were laid out across articles published in 2017 and 2018, it is a legitimate question to ask whether or not they continue to adequately account for social media’s usage in pro-democracy struggle in recent years? To answer this question, I turn next to what I would argue are the two most important developments in the use of social media by pro-democracy activists outside of the Middle East in recent years: the rise of encrypted chat apps, and in particular Telegram; and the growing prominence of platforms that privilege images and video as opposed to text.


Telegram, founded by VKontakte founder Pavel Durov with his brother Nikolai, is a kind of cross between WhatsApp and Twitter, in so far as it has the ability for one-on-one or group encrypted chats (as well as voice and video calls), but also provides for one-to-many communication through “channels” that users can follow in a way similar to following another account on Twitter. Telegram is also known for its privacy functions, including an even more secure “secret chat” function.[9]

The rise of the use of Telegram has been perhaps the biggest change in the use of social media by pro-democracy activists in the past couple of years.  In Hong Kong, for example, Telegram has been credited (along with Signal and WhatsApp) with facilitating the protesters’ “Flash Mob” strategy through enabling coordinated real time communication.[10]Alexandra Urman and co-authors argue that Telegram’s privacy features made it particularly attractive for Hong Kong protesters aiming to avoid detection and retribution; they also present evidence from content analysis of public telegram channels that the platform was used to distribute information about protest times, locations, and police presence.[11] One creative use of Telegram in Hong Kong was to use the platform to allow protest participants to vote in real time about protest strategy.[12]

Telegram has also proved quite popular among participants in the past year’s pro-democracy movement in Belarus, with it being described as “basically the only means of connecting to the internet” during attempts by the Belarusian state to shut down access to the internet.[13]  One interesting feature of Telegram that has seemed consequential for recent pro-democracy protesters has been the ability to set up chat groups based on location.  According to political scientists Aliaksandr Herasimenka’s analysis of Telegram activity in the 2020 Belarus protests, most of the protest leaders were anonymous individuals who created these local Telegram groups; indeed, Herasimenka’s assessment was that there was actually fairly little coordination of protest activity beyond these local groups.[14]  Fascinatingly, someone set up an interactive map ( that shows different local Belarusian Telegram groups by location that users can join:

Figure 1. Belarusian Localized Telegram Groups: Screen shots from on 5/13/21.

While Telegram is clearly “new” in the sense that it did not even exist at the time of Arab Spring and it is apparently taking on greater prominence in recent events, the role it is playing is exceedingly similar to that played by older social media platforms in prior pro-democracy movements: providing pro-democracy activists with a way to communicate and recruit participants without having to work through mainstream media and facilitating real-time communication during protest events.  Of course, while the ability to communicate privately (and anonymously) with small groups of people that can easily organize based on location may be somewhat different than the earlier days of social media inspired protest, it is striking how the function played by these forms of communication remains very much in line with the role played by Twitter in Gezi Park or Facebook in Tahir Square. Further, as much as Telegram has become a useful tool of pro-democracy movements, it is worth being aware of the fact that it has reportedly become similarly popular among far-right movements in the United States.[15] This nicely illustrates the point we made in our Journal of Democracy article “From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media and Democracy”: the very same affordances of social media that make it attractive for pro-democracy activists can also make it attractive for anti-democratic forces in open societies.[16]

Video and Images

The second new development in recent pro-democracy movements has been the rise of the use of images and video, and in particular social media platforms that have affordances that feature images and video.  So for example, in February, Russians posted images of themselves on Instagram wearing red clothing as a sign of support for opposition leader Alesei Navalny and his wife Yulia, as she had worn red during her husband’s trial.[17]  Russia was also the location of a series of protests on TikTok related to Navalny, where, according to the Moscow Times, videos with the hashtags “Free Navalny” and “Jan.23” had over 50 million combined views.[18]  The content of the videos were clever and in keeping with the ethos of TikTok being fun to watch: one set of videos showed young packing to go attend protests; another set involved people removing Putin’s portrait from the walls of their schools and replacing them with pictures of Navalny.[19]Navalny’s return to Russia in January of 2021 was accompanied by the release of his latest corruption exposé on YouTube, the “Putin’s Palace” video that had been viewed over 115 million times at the writing of this essay.[20]

While featuring the use of video and image friendly platforms that were either not present or less popular in the original waves of pro-democracy movements on social media, social media is still playing a similar role in these movements.  As Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza noted, “this modern technology gives us the tools to counteract and stand up to the massive machine for examples of government propaganda.”[21] The Navalny protest videos played a familiar role in supporting the protest movement by allowing would-be protesters to know that they would not be protesting alone, harkening back to arguments made decades ago by Timur Kuran[22] about the role played by knowing how many other people support a pro-democracy movement before deciding whether or not to join yourself.[23]  Additionally, Navalny’s use of YouTube to broadcast what in other times and places would have been a TV special shows how social media provides a broadcast platform to those denied access to traditional media.

Regimes Respond and the Cat and Mouse Games Continue 

Just as was the case in earlier rounds of pro-democracy movements, regimes have responded to protesters’ use of social media to bolster their cause.  Recent developments in Myanmar provide good examples. As pro-democracy protesters attempted to use social media such as Facebook to “share information to create international awareness” of the situation on the ground,[24] the regime responded by using both heavy handed measures to restrict access to social media by essentially shutting down the internet at regular intervals for extended periods of time in February, 2021, as well as, supposedly, more surgically precise measures such as “blocking individual SIM cards that were believed to be in use by activists”.[25]  Moreover, in Myanmar members of the military actually took to TikTok to issue death threats to protesters, making their own videos where they showed themselves brandishing large guns.[26] While soldiers making TikTok videos is new, the fact that the regime would respond to online opposition by using social media to try to silence opposition voice is exactly what political scientist Margaret Roberts referred to as the regime’s “Fear” tactic.[27]

What does appear to be genuinely new and outside of the existing framework of thinking about social media platforms as neutral arenas in which political actors compete with one another,[28] however, is that in Myanmar the platforms themselves do appear – however tentatively – to be taking sides.  So, the TikTok video of soldiers issuing death threats?  TikTok issued an announcement that it would remove the videos of soldiers issuing death threats.[29]  Even more dramatically, Facebook banned the Myanmar military from the platform on March 3, 2021, a little more than two months after Donald Trump had been indefinitely kicked off the platform.[30] As Marwa Fatfata, Ahmad Shaheed and others show in this collection, Facebook and Instagram removed significant amount of pro-Palestinian content during the most recent crisis with Israel.

Of all the recent developments in the use of social media in pro-democracy movements, this one may be the one worth watching the most in the future. While it is clear that pro-democracy movements will find creative ways to utilize new platforms and new affordances of these platforms, for now it seems like the goals to which they are putting social media – publishing content that mainstream media would not have published, planning protest actions and sharing information about them in real time, and driving international media coverage – in recent arenas such as Belarus, Hong Kong, Russia, and Myanmar seems fairly similar to those from the first wave of social media assisted protests.  But if the platforms themselves are going to be increasingly weighing in support of – or in opposition to — these movements or their targets, then that might be a consequential change worth watching closely in the future.


* Essay prepared for presentation at the “Digital Activism and Authoritarian Adaptation in the Middle East” conference jointly hosted by Stanford University CDDRL and POMEPS. I thank Trellace Lawrimore for helpful research assistance, and am grateful for the many excellent co-authors I had on the previous papers summarized in the first section of this essay: Megan Metzger, Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, Pablo Barbera, Molly Roberts, and Yannis Theocaris.

** Professor of Politics, Affiliated Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, Affiliated Professor of Data Science, Director, Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, and Co-Director, Center for Social Media and Politics (, New York University. Email: joshua dot tucker at nyu dot edu; Twitter: @j_a_tucker.

[1] Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds. Liberation technology: Social media and the struggle for democracy. JHU Press, 2012.

[2] Kevin Munger. “Knowledge decays: Temporal validity and social science in a changing world.” Unpublished manuscript. https://osf. io/4utsk (2019).

[3] Megan MacDuffee Metzger and Joshua A. Tucker. “Social media and EuroMaidan: A review essay.” Slavic Review 76, no. 1 (2017): 169-191. Tucker, Joshua A., Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá. “From liberation to turmoil: Social media and democracy.” Journal of democracy 28, no. 4 (2017): 46-59. Sanovich, Sergey, Denis Stukal, and Joshua A. Tucker. “Turning the virtual tables: Government strategies for addressing online opposition with an application to Russia.” Comparative Politics 50, no. 3 (2018): 435-482.

[4] We have not conducted original research on any of these conflicts at the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, so the examples given in this essay – at the direction of the conference organizers – all represent secondary assessment of reports from other scholars and journalists.

[5] Joshua A. Tucker, Andrew Guess, Pablo Barberá, Cristian Vaccari, Alexandra Siegel, Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, and Brendan Nyhan. “Social media, political polarization, and political disinformation: A review of the scientific literature.” Political polarization, and political disinformation: a review of the scientific literature (March 19, 2018) (2018).

[6] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. Competitive authoritarianism: Hybrid regimes after the Cold War. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[7] See Metzger and Tucker 2017, 179-187. The last of these functions – building networks – is probably the most contested. The very fact that social media usage can build online networks is not in debate, but arguments persist about the durability of these networks compared to traditional in-person networks. For example, the TikTok protest video in Russia described later in this essay were assessed to be relatively short-lived with little legacy effect in the form of establishing a linked network by political scientists Alexandra Urman this is a probably a good example of the importance of paying attention to the affordances of social media platforms. (Navalny and the Kremlin: Politics and Protest in Russia. New York City-Russia Public Policy Series. NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia and Harriman Institute at Columbia University, February 1, 2021. watch?v=BUfcxe8BT68). Facebook, for example, is very well suited for growing networks due to the “Groups” and “Pages” features in a way that Twitter, TikTok, and even What’s App (due to maximum groups sizes) may not be. In contrast, Telegram seems well positioned to do so due to its ability to facilitate communication among large private groups.

[8] Sanovich et al. 2018. For a closely related alternative classification, see Roberts, Margaret Censored. PrincetonUniversity Press, 2018, where Roberts categories the options of regimes as the “three Fs”: fear, friction, and flooding.

[9] For more details, see or

[10] Tin-yuet Ting. “From ‘be water’to ‘be fire’: nascent smart mob and networked protests in Hong Kong.” Social Movement Studies 19, no. 3 (2020): 362-368. Flash mob protests have also been used in Belarus:

[11] Aleksandra Urman, Justin Chun-ting Ho, and Stefan Katz. ““No Central Stage”: Telegram-based activity during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.” (2020)



[14] Belarus: Looking Forward and Looking East to Russia. New York City-Russia Public Policy Series. NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia and Harriman Institute at Columbia University, December 8, 2020.


[16] Tucker et al. (2017)





[21] Nathan Hodge, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Andrei Soldatov. Inside Russia’s Protest Movement. Online broadcast. Chicago Council on Global Affairs, March 31, 2021.

[22] Timur Kuran. “Now out of never: The element of surprise in the East European revolution of 1989.” World politics 44, no. 1 (1991): 7-48.

[23] Point made by Alexandara Urman during the Q&A of  Navalny and the Kremlin: Politics and Protest in Russia. New York-Russia Public Policy Series. NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia and Harriman Institute at Columbia University, February 1, 2021. watch?v=BUfcxe8BT68.

[24] How the internet has redefined protest in Myanmar. Online. CNN, March 24, 2021.

[25] Doug Bock Clark. “Internet Access Complicates the Coup in Myanmar”. The New Yorker (March 2, 2021). For more on internet shutdowns globally, see “Woodhams, Samuel and Simon Migliano. The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2020. Top10VPN, January 4, 2021. and Jamjoom, Mohammed. Will internet shutdowns become the norm? — Inside Story. Online broadcast. Al Jazeera English, February 14, 2021.

[26] Mohammed Jamjoon. What will break the stalemate in Myanmar? — Inside Story. Online broadcast. Al Jazeera English, March 5, 2021.

[27] Roberts 2018. Putin also directed the police to monitor social media, including TikTok, in the aftermath of the Navalny protest videos; see Sherwin, Emily. Russia: Kremlin targets TikTok over content critical of Putin. Online. DW News, March 26, 2021.

[28] Tucker et al. 2017.

[29] Mohammed Jamjoom. What will break the stalemate in Myanmar? — Inside Story. Online broadcast. Al Jazeera English, March 5, 2021.

[30] Paul Mozur, Mike Isaac, David E. Sanger, and Richard C. Paddock. “Facebook Takes a Side, Barring Myanmar Military After Coup”. The New York Times (March 3, 2021).