Mapping digital resilience challenges in social justice organisations: learnings from our partners

Barbara Paes
Quito Tsui

Earlier this year we started a new project to examine and strengthen our digital resilience, in an effort to further integrate social justice principles into our tech choices and practices and deepen our capacity to support our partners.

What is digital resilience?

We use the term “digital resilience” to refer to a set of practices that enable an organisation to protect itself from — and respond to — digital security threats, to ensure the wellbeing of its people, and to adopt infrastructures that respond to ever-changing needs and contexts

As part of this project, we have been reflecting on our own practices in order to better understand our digital resilience needs and also mapping digital resilience issues that social justice organisations we work with are facing, as well as strategies to approach them.

For this mapping process, we are gathering data from our support programmes and research projects to identify common challenges our partners are grappling with, ranging from organisational security and technical concerns, to tool selection and values alignment, and accessibility issues. In this blog post, we share an overview of the main challenges we’ve mapped so far. Given the complex and intricate nature of digital resilience, many of the themes intersect with one another.

Tool selection: a balancing act

Tool selection, one of the most pressing challenges cited by organisations, involves two key aspects: 1) a practical aspect, related to selecting tools that meet organisational needs and technical capacities and 2) a principle aspect, related to ensuring the tools align with organisational values. 

In other words, selecting the right tool is about simultaneously addressing technical needs and aligning with mission and advocacy goals. But addressing both can be difficult. Social justice organisations we work with mentioned limited knowledge about existing tools and an absence of internal expertise to support tool selection as some of the obstacles they face while trying to make tech decisions they feel confident about.  

Tech choices in low-tech environments

Tool selection can also be difficult when working in a low-tech or limited-connectivity context. For many social justice organisations — especially those in the Majority World — navigating between selecting tools according to values and facing context-specific limitations can be a delicate and demanding balancing act. 

Organisations frequently ask us questions about managing data responsibly when working within a low-tech environment, or when there are limitations on tools due to organisational capacity. For example, some organisations that had chosen to work with open-source, privacy-respecting tools for video conferencing due to organisational security concerns ended up having to move back to proprietary platforms after facing severe connectivity issues. 

In their efforts to improve digital resilience, some of our partners frequently found themselves confronting hard decisions between ease of use and familiarity versus security and privacy concerns. Partners noted that, in choosing to continue to communicate sensitive information across social media platforms, they needed to prioritise convenience and accessibility. While many are interested in finding more secure ways to communicate, they fear that switching from popular platforms could decrease their impact and ability to communicate with audiences/partners. 

Making justice-focused tech decisions isn’t always a straightforward process, and it can take a lot of trial and error (like our colleague Steffania explained in this post about our new video conferencing tools!) and many organisations described feeling frustrated and confused on how to move forward. 

Get support

If you’d like support identifying tools that fit your needs, schedule a call with our team! You can also take a look at Alidade, an interactive tool that explains what to look for when using technology for social change.

Pathways to digital resilience: access to information 

Being able to access knowledge about tech and data, including information about digital security, tool selection and responsible data is another important aspect of digital resilience we identified during this first phase of the project. Factors with a negative impact on digital resilience decision-making include: 

Even when organisations know where to find information to help them navigate conversations about digital resilience, most resources are published in English and aren’t necessarily focused on the realities of social justice organisations in resource-constrained environments.

Digital rights threats and their impact on civil society organisations 

We also heard repeated concerns regarding government surveillance and internet shutdowns. These are key areas within the digital resilience conversation and they fundamentally influence the way organisations go about their work. 

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Internet shutdowns are “intentional disruptions of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.” The number of governments imposing internet shutdowns is growing and the practice is not limited to authoritarian regimes: it has been observed in long-established democracies and more recent democracies alike. At the same time, digital security is being increasingly criminalised and politicised by repressive states, with some countries also targeting internet shutdown circumvention tools, such as browsers and tools based on Tor technology, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and proxies that use encryption.

Government surveillance is one major cause for concern for human rights defenders and civil society organisations, as many states have been using technologies to surveil: to read activists and journalists’ private emails and remotely turn on their computers’ camera or microphone to secretly record their activities. Governments around the world are investing in their capacity to silence dissent, through tools for both mass and targeted surveillance. Journalists, workers for non-governmental organisations defending human rights, and women’s rights organisations are particularly at risk of government surveillance. In many countries, communities of colour are subject to disproportionate levels of surveillance.

These digital rights threats need to be taken into account when designing security support interventions, and when thinking about digital resilience of civil society organisations more broadly. Despite the level of concern, we heard that organisations found it difficult to plan for threats or predict impacts. Addressing concerns about government surveillance, for instance, could look very different from one organisation to the next, depending on what they do and where they’re based. 

Get support

Our team offers pro-bono support to social justice organisations interested in improving their digital resilience: schedule a call with us to learn more! And if you/your organisation are facing a digital security emergency, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline offers real-time, direct technical assistance and advice to civil society groups & activists, media organisations, journalists & bloggers, and human rights defenders.

Access to resources: digital resilience doesn’t just happen!

Many social justice organisations we work with face challenges related to digital security and tech infrastructure, and some are unable to fully address these without access to dedicated funding, resources and relevant networks. Through our work with social justice organisations, we’ve seen how difficult it can be for them to focus on digital resilience, since most are overworked and tending to pressing needs from the communities they serve. 

Even when there are financial resources available, seeking out support (and information!) about  digital security and tech infrastructure — from knowing how to find trusted support and networks in the first place, to being able to stay up to date with a shifting landscape for digital threats, to figuring out what tech is right for the organisation – is a process that can consume a significant amount of time, energy and resources. 

Related resources

How to think about tech when you don’t have time to think about tech: We know that rethinking an organisation’s use of tech and data does take quite a bit of time (and resources!). So we wrote a short blog post with ideas for low(ish) hanging fruits that organisations can start tackling to slowly improve their tech and data landscape.

Image by Mahdi Bafande via Unsplash.