As the world grows more interconnected through the proliferation of the internet, social media and other instant messaging technology will play an increased role in the fight against authoritarianism. Though researchers remain wary of the efficacy of “virtual civil society” in achieving long-lasting political change, recent internet-based social movements demonstrate how the web is an increasingly robust tool in combatting autocratic rhetoric and actions across a variety of countries and governing systems. Previously disparate societies that had to develop their own countermeasures to state violence are now connected and able to quickly share strategies over the internet.
Political scientist Mark Beissinger compares what he calls “conventional” civil society with internet-based “virtual” civil society. He concedes that virtual civil society “injects a high degree of volatility into autocratic politics” but have limited capacity to bring about change because digital networks “substitute a logic of connective action for a logic of collective action.” Internet-based activism provides a false sense of representation and support and is unable to replace the bonds and comradery of conventional civil society. This is especially true in states with reliable internet service and a strong virtual civil society but a weak conventional civil society. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced the world indoors and onto the internet, accelerating two decades-long trends: a global resurgence of authoritarianism and increased social connectivity over the web. In 2020, these two factors collided to demonstrate the burgeoning value of virtual civil society and its adherents’ ability to strategize and strive for real-world change via the internet.
The Milk Tea Alliance (MTA), an emerging internet activist campaign in Asia, demonstrates how virtual civil society movements act not just as an organizing tool but as a motivator for fostering peaceful in-person protesting as well. Named after the soft drink popular throughout Asia, the MTA formed in 2020 between pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand after Chinese internet users focused their ire on a Thai celebrity couple and accused them of supporting Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence. Pro-democracy activists responded to the online vitriol by jointly creating the informal alliance as a show of regional solidarity. The MTA reflects the unease percolating throughout Asia over the proliferation of authoritarian rule in the region. The Communist Party of China essentially maintains a puppet government in Hong Kong and has acted with increasing belligerence towards Taiwan, threatening forceful reunification with the Mainland. Young Thai citizens took to the streets in protest last year over what they deemed to be a cruel and corrupt monarchy. This past February, Myanmar became the latest MTA inductee when the country’s armed forces placed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest and declared a year-long state of emergency, though the regime says it will hold a “free and fair” election once the state of emergency concludes.
While Bessinger argues virtual civil society flounders in countries with weak conventional civil societies, the MTA represents a new form of solidarity movement. It is amorphous and leaderless and can thrive across a variety of digital mediums, making it difficult for any single authoritarian regime to snuff out completely. The transnational nature of the movement also allows member countries with strong conventional civil society structures, such as Taiwan and, to an extent, Hong Kong, the ability to assist those with weak conventional infrastructure by sharing resistance strategies. Activists seized upon this dynamic in the wake of the protests in Thailand last year and the more recent Myanmar coup. The MTA activists recognize that virtual protest and hashtags alone are not enough to oust a dictator. Citizens in oppressed societies share tactics with protestors in other countries on how to combat state violence. The unrest in Hong Kong since 2019 has provided a useful model for protest organizers in Myanmar and Thailand. Activists in both those countries use gas masks and umbrellas to deflect tear gas canisters and write medical information on their arms in the event they are injured and require hospitalization.
This sense of solidarity is vital in nurturing the growth of opposition movements. In an interview with NBC News, Khin, a protestor from Myanmar, said “Sometimes we get tired…we feel hopeless…because we are human…but whenever we see that the Milk Tea Alliance is supporting us and trending on Twitter…that makes us get energy and stand up again.” Furthermore, the MTA has gained the attention and support of “influential allies,” a condition Kurt Schock considers vital for successful opposition movements. He claims foreign influential allies in particular can add pressure to tyrannical regimes and signal their sympathies to demonstrators. The Taiwanese vice president, Lai Ching-te, referenced the MTA on his social media and Joshua Wong, arguably the most well-known pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, expressed his support and encouraged anti-authoritarian movements around the world to consider “themselves as part of the Milk Tea Alliance.”
Though the MTA has succeeded in linking pro-democracy activists across different societies, it faces some of the same challenges Beissinger says are pervasive in virtual civil society. Virtual movements often collapse due to an inflated sense of support and representation the internet provides and difficulties in translating decentralized activism into effective alternatives to the incumbent government. More than 10,000 protestors gathered in downtown Bangkok last year to rally against the monarchy, but those numbers have dwindled due to a variety of factors ranging from factionalism amongst opposition forces to a spike in Covid-19 cases in the city. Furthermore, the decentralized movement can be subject to cooptation by actors with intentions contrary to the ethos of the movement. During a border clash with China last year, a spokesperson for the BJP, India’s ruling party, used an MTA hashtag in a social media post despite that country’s own swerve towards authoritarian rule. However, factionalism and co-optation are phenomena that occur in social movements borne out of conventional civil society. The unique circumstances of 2020 and the multinational nature of the MTA demonstrate how virtual movements are evolving in their significance and impact, even if they have some way to go before matching the effectiveness of in-person resistance networks. Nevertheless, the MTA in its current form provides crucial emotional and tactical support to real-world opposition forces in societies ranging from bastions of democracy such as Taiwan to protestors on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar.
I really enjoyed your blog, and you raise an interesting complication to Beissinger’s argument about the potential weaknesses of “virtual” civil society now that so much of our social world has shifted online. One difficulty that the MTA may continue to face is that virtual civil society tends to focus its efforts during the windows of contention and has difficulty sustaining solidarity outside those periods. You post makes me question though if we need to disaggregate “virtual” civil society further to better understand its effects on dismantling autocratic regimes, especially during the covid-19 quarantine. For instance, might virtual participation on platforms such as Facebook Groups, which invites sustained interaction between members, even outside the period of contention, generate stronger ties than other forms of virtual civil society? What about virtual groups that are territorially focused on smaller neighborhoods? Are there instances where participation in “virtual” civil society might increase the costs of organizing, contrary to Beissinger’s expectations, and help activists build the necessary skills to organize?
Jonna Maye Jacinto
Hi Jacob, thank you so much for writing this blog. A refreshing yet important topic. You were able to show the pros and cons of the use of virtual platforms on conflict issues. I think one thing that should be seen in this topic is credibility? The internet, especially today, are filled with fake users and news, and as much as the MTA is promoting the rights of people and supporting their advocacies, there will always be people who will be in doubt in this. The risk of trusting and believing people who you never meet and just saw online may be one of the challenge of the alliance. But maybe they can use that to further develop their strategy and the same time promote good governance.