Opinion: Technology and the Missing Celebrity Dissident

Technology has a net negative impact on free speech in authoritarian nations. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Technology has a strange effect on dissent. Across the internet, debates rage and new voices are heard, creating the impression that free speech is alive and well. But the innovations that enable these discussions can also stifle them. The recent Chinese experience surrounding Covid-19 is a chilling example, with online journalists disappearing after documenting the outbreak and “internet police” investigating hundreds for allegedly making politically unacceptable statements. While this echoes the experience with prior authoritarian regimes, one important difference is the lack of famous opposition voices. The vacuum is an unfortunate byproduct of technology’s impact on political debate, specifically the way it occurs and how it’s consumed.

The pro-democracy dissident as a global celebrity was a defining invention of the late 20th century. The dissidents’ mass media fame drew support and deterred oppression. For example, the 1988 concert for Nelson Mandela in Wembley Stadium, held while he was imprisoned in Pollsmoor Prison, was broadcast to 67 countries and seen by an estimated 600 million viewers. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid leader, later said that the concert “helped to generate the pressures which secured the release of Nelson Mandela.”

Soviet dissidents were also aided by their fame. In “Lenin’s Tomb,” David Remnick’s book on the fall of the Soviet Union, the scientist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov is described as “the dominant moral example of his time and place.” His celebrity may have saved his life, as released KGB documents show that Soviet leadership considered his high profile when debating his fate. The attention paid to leaders like Mandela and Sakharov undeniably mattered.

Unfortunately, today’s dissidents are comparatively ignored. Who is as famous as Mandela and Sakharov were? No one. But there’s no shortage of deserving candidates. In 2019, there were 250 journalists imprisoned worldwide, and more than 1,500 political prisoners detained or imprisoned in China alone. If we care about grassroots human rights and democracy, these are the people we should be spotlighting. As Ian Johnson wrote in “Wild Grass,” a study of Chinese dissidents, “the push for change comes mostly from people we rarely hear of: the small-town lawyer who decides to sue the government, the architect who champions dispossessed homeowners, the woman who tries to expose police brutality.” You could have written that in 1952 about a lawyer named Nelson Mandela or in 1970 about an electrician named Lech Walesa. But Mandela and Walesa didn’t remain anonymous.

One possible reason for dissidents’ declining visibility is economic globalization. China was relatively isolated and is now the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. Russia is far more economically integrated than its Soviet predecessor was. This is significant — it was easier to condemn an East Germany that banned blue jeans than it is to criticize a key trading partner.

But a better explanation is that technology has a net negative impact on dissent in authoritarian nations. Once critics access internet forums, they are easily identified and suppressed. Online discussions are censored using keyword searches, computers and phones are regularly monitored, and governments use control of the internet’s infrastructure to filter information. Chinese activists struggle to archive posts about Covid-19 before they disappear entirely. Compare this with the durability of Vaclav Havel’s widely circulated denunciations of the Czechoslovak government and the dissident Soviet press called samizdat. Typewriters were simply better advocates than laptops.

Who is as famous as Mandela and Sakharov were? No one.

Faced with this oppression, we frequently look away. On occasion, a person or cause will become a media sensation. But it remains too easy to lock up a politician, lawyer, or journalist without anyone noticing. This is likely a product of the fast pace of news in the internet era, which minimizes important events. According to a recent survey, most stories about politics, elections, and war are followed for less than five days. As a result, it’s hard to capture attention for a cause like dissent, as we can see from Hong Kong to Xinjiang to Hungary to Moscow.

To address these problems, we should revisit the celebrity dissidents of the past and our response to them. While there are many dedicated nongovernmental organizations and public servants working to advance human rights, the authoritarians often have the upper hand. But even as the internet fractures our attention span, it gives us the tools to better communicate. If we refocus our approach to pro-democracy dissidents, today’s campaigns could reach millions faster than Mandela ever could. This can be achieved through a targeted effort by civil society to understand how past leaders became prominent, identify new leaders to partner with, elevate those leaders’ profiles, and determine what organizational assets are needed. Success on these fronts would promote democracy and protect the people who stand up for it.

It was only a few months ago that Hong Kong protestors waved the American flag to ask for our help. Now they’ve been arrested during a pandemic. We owe them, and many others across the world, our attention.

Ben Holzer is an attorney and consultant living in Seattle, Washington. He served as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Research for the White House from 2011 to 2015.