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‘Controlling reality’ Sociologist Jennifer Earl on the many faces of repression — and what can be done to resist them

Source: Meduza
Anton Vaganov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In Russia, where nearly anything can lead to criminal prosecution, repression affects an increasing number of people. Jennifer Earl, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware whose research on repression is among the most respected and cited in the field, has spent over 20 years studying the mechanics of repression. Earl calls for a wider than usual understanding of repression, explaining that threats to society come not only from the governments, but also from private entities. Just before the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions in Russia, Meduza special correspondent Margarita Liutova spoke with Jennifer Earl about the various forms of repression in Russia and around the world — and what society can do to resist them.

Jennifer Earl

Defining repression

While many scholars of repression focus on state violence, Jennifer Earl prefers a definition of repression that encompasses any actions that “raise the costs” of organizing or “actually constrain or influence the ability to act.” Taking a broader view of who engages in repression, she looks not only at governments but also at private actors. “It gets riskier and riskier not to notice the important role that companies and private organizations are playing in repression, because that role is becoming bigger over time and certainly more complex,” she explains.

Private entities engaged in repression can take the form of mercenary organizations, such as Russia’s Wagner Group. But companies selling surveillance technology to states and private actors fall into this category, as well. “Private companies are allowed to grab a very large amount of information about individuals and then begin to collect and organize that information so that what a company may know about an individual can be much more substantial than individuals realize,” explains Earl. “And then that can be bought and sold or fed into services.”

This information can be used for a variety of purposes, including creating targeted Facebook ads, which push offensive content to people in order to induce “a sense of distaste” that encourages them to disengage from politics.

Influencing the amount of dissent and the way in which it is expressed is what Earl refers to as “channeling.” This could be through the creation of systems for “voicing discontent in more manageable ways” that are easier for the authorities to contain, react to, and control. “What essentially that does as a state government is say, ‘We’re willing to listen, but only if you speak in this way,’” Earl explains. “And that is a way of controlling how people engage in activism.” Another example of “channeling” could be the implementation of laws that provide “tax advantages to organizations that do not engage in certain kinds of political activity.”

Repressive capacity

Repressive actions aren’t limited to autocracies. “Democracies hold a lot of repressive capacity,” Earl tells Meduza. “They just don’t necessarily use it as much as more authoritarian nations, although they certainly have the ability to use it — and they do.” At the same time, she notes that democracies generally don’t wield their repressive capacity as regularly or to the same extant as authoritarian governments. “It’s a different thing to live in North Korea, China, or Russia than to live in Britain, France, or the U.S.,” she underscores.

In order to properly understand repression, Earl stresses the importance of looking at a government’s administrative capacity rather than simply whether it’s democratic or authoritarian. “If you’re investing in your military, if you’re investing in local policing heavily, you have repressive capacity,” she explains, adding that investment in digital monitoring and surveillance technologies is another key indicator.

The more administrative capacity you have, the [more] quickly that can turn into repressive capacity, whether you’re a democracy or an authoritarian state.

The U.S. authorities, for example, took measures to restrict protest in response to unrest caused by the 2016 presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protests. At the time, those supporting restrictions on protest in the U.S. argued that it was “more important to have law and order and control than to have a voice.”

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Calculating the costs of repression

How do repressive actors decide to engage in repression? They may engage in a cost benefit analysis when deciding how to best achieve a goal. This could include calculating the cost of financing the military and police to carry out repressive work, explains Earl. What’s more, there are potential costs in terms of the repressor’s international reputation and there’s always a risk of repressions backfiring, resulting in more protests, rather than less.

But Earl doesn’t think that this can fully explain how actors decide whether to engage in repression, because it “may be assuming the ability to calculate things that are not calculable.” Instead, she suggests the role of perceived weakness.

[According to this school of thought,] the exercise of repression is in some ways performative. And so as a power holder, one would not want to perform repression and fail because you would actually make your appearance weaker. And some have argued that that makes repressive actors particularly likely to go after weaker groups or people so that they can have the performative success.

Others believe it is a probably a combination of the two: repressors find it easier to repress weaker groups but also respond to those who they perceive as posing a serious threat.

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‘Active measures’

In order to understand the motivation for repressive actors, Earl references Russian journalist Masha Gessen who has argued that people “misunderstand why Putin may say things that are objectively untrue.” Earl explains:

The exercise of saying something that is verifiably untrue but confidently putting it [out there] to be repeated and believed is itself an exercise of power. [It shows] that [what’s] much more powerful than controlling a government is controlling reality. […] You are showing that you have the ability to control what people do not just through carrots and sticks; […] that you have the ability to control how people understand the world.

Asked about whether misinformation campaigns are more effective than traditional censorship, given that many people in Russia believe Putin’s version of reality despite having access to verified information, Earl explains that they operate “in relationship to one another.” “Certainly disinformation campaigns benefit from some level of censorship,” she says. “Although they may be able to be effective even when censorship is pretty low.”

Recently, however, governments in many countries have realized that it’s nearly impossible to have complete control over information. This has led to “active measures campaigns,” Earl says. Realizing that information can’t be fully controlled, governments instead take advantage of how much information is out there and attempt to distract audiences or feed them disinformation. States often attempt to focus people’s limited attention and information consumption on non-political or very patriotic content, explains Earl.

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“Active measure campaigns” work to promote favorable messaging, constructing a specific reality and demobilizing specific groups. Earl points to Russia’s influence campaigns in the U.S. as one salient example.

The Russian influence campaigns in the United States, for instance, appear largely to be about using polarization not to support one actor versus another, but rather to create more disagreement between actors. [This] has the benefit, from a Russian government perspective, of creating more tension, disagreement, [and] gridlock in American politics, and also moderating the influence of people who have less extreme views.

At the same time, some Russia experts argue that disinformation spread by Putin or the government is not intended to construct another reality, but rather to convince people that there is no truth at all. This, in turn, convinces people that they shouldn’t believe anyone — especially not independent media outlets, which the Russian authorities paint as Western agents.

In Early’s opinion, “not believing anything is a very demobilizing point of view.” In the absence of anything trustworthy, she explains, people may begin to “substitute [their] own personal experience as a totalizing truth,” which would have its own set of consequences.

Repression is often much more effective in preventing people from engaging in certain actions or making them ignore repressors altogether. Engaging in the opposite — attempting to induce certain actions through repression — is much more difficult, as seen in the challenges Russia faced during their efforts to mobilize recruits to fight in Ukraine.

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‘As a repressor, you’re rolling the dice’

There is a substantial amount of research into the causes of repression, explains Earl, but research on its actual deterrence ability has been much more limited. There are still questions about whether repression is actually successful in stopping people from engaging in undesirable activities or if it instead radicalizes them or even brings previously uninvolved people into the conflict.

As a repressor, you’re rolling dice on what happens when you repress. There is a possibility that you succeed in your repressive goals and deter people from participating. There is also a very real chance that some of the people who experience repression become more committed to their cause by virtue of the experience of repression. And there’s a very real risk that other people in your country or around the world observe that repression and become supporters of that cause when they weren’t already supporters before.

When repression backfires, continuing to repress can become a riskier course of action, given concern that it can cause a situation to further deteriorate. That’s why finding ways to make sure repressive actions backfire is key to making repressors “think twice before repressing.”

As for the feeling of helplessness among people in authoritarian states such as Russia, Earl says that this is the exact aim of authoritarianism. “What you often see in authoritarian nations is periods of quiescence ended by periods of mass mobilization when there was an appetite building for backfire,” she says. “But it all needed to come together in a particular moment.” Referencing the recent protests in Iran and the Arab Spring, Earl says that particularly repressive incidents can suddenly catalyze protests, even in the face of ongoing repression:

Looking at mobilization as the only indicator of the potential for backfire is like looking at the surface of the ocean and not knowing that there are currents.

These currents, which can take the form of underground networks, are capable of going unnoticed by repressive actors. Earl stresses the importance of supporting any such initiatives which help build capacity to create “a much bigger wave” and cause future instances of repression to backfire.

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Adapted for Meduza in English by Sasha Slobodov

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