Citizens of authoritarian regimes face multiple constraints when they express critical political views using digital media. The regime may monitor their activities, censor their speech or persecute them. Despite these challenges, politically-active citizens organise outside of traditional hierarchical arrangements to advocate for pro-democracy changes.
I analyse how the affordances of digital media help activists to organise, to select and to protect their leaders, as well as to distribute information. I use interviews, content analysis and participant observation to study two recent cases of successful political campaigning on digital media. Unusually, both cases managed to challenge the state elites in authoritarian countries, Belarus and Russia respectively.
I found that the two studied organisations relied on ad hoc, segmented and shadowed organisational configurations that deployed vast digital communication infrastructures to disseminate information. Journalists, the authorities and the public often misperceived these configurations as either over-centralised or not organised at all. This misperception, as well as the management of leadership visibility on social media, allowed activist groups to protect some of their leaders from persecution.
The findings contribute to the discussion regarding the nature of political organising in the digital age by refining and problematising social movement theories for digital authoritarian contents. The study also contributes to the discussion of the strategies that authoritarian regimes use to respond to and combat online opposition. These findings challenge the idea that authoritarian regimes have neared full co-optation of the internet. Instead, the internet should be considered as a battlefield for political influence.