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MIT Better World

By Christine Thielman

“But mobilizing large numbers of people onto the streets takes collective action,” says Mai Hassan, associate professor of political science in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, noting that successful revolutions tap into broad, easily understood narratives and feelings that run deep among the general public. “The mantra of the Sudanese uprising in 2019 was ‘freedom, peace, and justice.’ Who doesn’t want that?”

Hassan, a social scientist examining contentious politics and collective action in autocratic regimes, also studies the barriers to democratization that follow in the aftermath. “Overthrowing a dictatorship is fundamentally different than building a lasting democracy,” she notes. People with different backgrounds may unite to oppose brutal rulers as they did in Sudan, but they usually don’t establish consensus about what should come next.

“Once an authoritarian regime is overthrown, then comes the bickering about what should replace it,” says Hassan. In the case of theocracies, some activists will expect the new government to be secular, while others might envision a less restrictive faith-based government. Some will advocate for a more expansive socialist and welfare state and find themselves in opposition to proponents of capitalism.

While Hassan studies several countries in Africa, she is particularly interested in Sudan, from which she and much of her extended family emigrated in the 1990s. After settling in Virginia, she frequently listened to adults talking about the political turmoil in the country they left behind, piquing her interest in history, economics, and political science.

Social movements in the age of social media

Modern political movements, Hassan believes, may be more susceptible to the problem of competing internal objectives because today’s activists are recruited differently than in the past. While the extensive reach of social media can quickly gather protest participants to engage in collective action, the result is often a group with diverse belief systems. “If an opposition political party or deeply ingrained labor union was at the forefront of the movement,” Hassan says, “they would have built up membership for years and instilled the organization’s core beliefs in its members. It would be very clear what the post-revolution landscape they were working towards would look like.”

While information and communication technologies are useful for coordinating collective action, Hassan points out, the regime can see social media posts, too. “But dissidents are smart,” she continues. “Living in an authoritarian regime for years, they have developed intuition of how the regime is likely to respond, and they come up with clever ways to outsmart them.” Her field research has uncovered stories of activists using subversive tactics, for example, keeping the date, time, and mode of a protest the same but quietly changing the location.

This poses a challenge for researchers like Hassan who, she says, can’t rely only on publicly available data, given that sources such as social media posts might be written to mislead the regime. For her most recent paper “Coordinated Dis-coordination,” Hassan conducted more than 100 interviews and focus groups with leading activists and dissidents in and around Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to study how dissidents used social media to coordinate among themselves while deceiving the regime.

Building—or protecting—democratic systems

Joining a political movement in an authoritarian country can subject participants to hostility and even violence, not just from the regime but from fellow citizens. “Every authoritarian regime has some popular base of support,” says Hassan.

The recent phenomenon of election denialism in the United States, she observes, “puts into perspective how polarized the United States is if some people are willing to overthrow democratic protections just to have a government that will instill their idea of what society should look like.” She explains that when social scientists evaluate other countries for democratization potential, they examine the thinking of that nation’s powerful elites. “Do they believe that democracy is the only valid form of government? When we turn that criterion on ourselves, the years 2016 to 2021 showed cracks in the system.”