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Closing Civic Space in the Digital Age

Virtual Roundtables

Lucy Bernholz, Chris Worman, Mandeep Tiwana, Wilneida Negrón, and Dan “Blah” Meredith discuss the role of digital resources in shaping civic spaces.

Civic spaces are closing around the world. Digital data and infrastructure are playing an increasing role in this trend, as they reshape the foundation and boundaries of civic spaces, and create new digital dependencies and vulnerabilities for nonprofits, foundations, activists, journalists, and others agents of civil society. 

Digital Impact hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss the role of digital resources in the shrinking of global civic spaces and next steps for civil society in an age of digital dependencies and disruptions.

The panel discussed the digital threats and constraints faced by civil society actors and organizations across global contexts; identified gaps between principles and practices in democratic societies; and described the increasingly complex ecosystem for civil society, as shaped by rapid shifts and evolutions in technology, policy, markets, and social change.

Audio Podcast

Watch the video or listen below and visit the Digital Impact podcast on iTunes. Follow us on Twitter @dgtlimpact for updates.



  • Closing civic space is the new norm: Addressing the state of civil society across global contexts, Mandeep Tiwana discussed how offline events, including the rise of “right-wing regressive parties and old-school autocrats,” are shaping online civic spaces, with governments using advanced technology and the “language of security” to crack down on civil society organizations, which by and large possess fewer resources and less digital capacity to defend themselves against more heavily resourced actors.
  • Assume public: Considering varying threats to civic spaces, Chris Worman discussed the ways civil society organizations (CSOs) and social justice movements are getting creative in their efforts to grow “big enough, fast enough” to achieve and sustain their work; one such approach is to adopt “radical transparency” as an adaptation to an increasingly interconnected world where actions and communications are subject to wide exposure, attack, and manipulation.
  • The ecosystem for civil society is increasingly dynamic and deeply intersectional:  Wilneida Negrón described the complex, multi-layered, and continually shifting technological and sociopolitical landscape in which social change is being both fostered and suppressed, and she described how CSOs are constantly playing catch up on digital security while struggling to look both ahead and abroad for emerging threats and lessons learned.
  • The sweeping new scale of digital behemoths raises new questions and challenges: Dan Blah discussed the challenges civil society faces in remaining effective, independent, and competitive in an age when privately controlled digital platforms reach billions and new, competing platforms and technologies are developed outside the context of democratic norms.

Speaker-Recommended Resources

  • Open Technology Fund
    • Supports projects and people that develop open and accessible technologies promoting human rights and open societies, and helps advance inclusive and safe access to global communications networks
  • NetSquared
    • A project of TechSoup that brings together nonprofits and activists, tech leaders and funders, and anyone who is interested in using technology for social change (see below for more info)
  • Transparencee
    • Community of nonprofit, IT, and media organizations using technology to foster transparency, accountability, and governance in the Central and Eastern Europe region

Panelists Respond to Unanswered Audience Questions

Given the fast pace of change — and the cross-sector nature of the challenge — what are the first three things a small-ish nonprofit needs to do or NOT do? Skills? Strategies? Connection?

“Map your data. Where is it (be specific) and who has access to it? Then start asking practical questions such as ‘when was the last time your team updated their passwords?’ More to come from TechSoup on digital security over the coming year but that is a useful exercise to get one thinking.”

“Read the fine print. Some ‘freemium’ web services that civil society likes to use because it is ‘free’ sell your data. Maybe don’t use those and look for alternatives.”

“Check out This year more than 50,000 people will attend one of our volunteer community offline meetups. They are a mix of NGO people and tech people and all civil society. They meet and talk about tech in social change, help each other and come up with some pretty amazing tools and projects. Check it out, there may be one near you. If not, start one, we will happily help you get up and running.”  Chris Worman

“Within the realms of market, social, technical, and policy, it can be super overwhelming for a small organization to constantly try to consider them all when evaluating appropriate strategy. Pick one and do it really well, while creating team space for regular but not frequent points of reflection the other non-priority realms. Do the a similar thing with support streams: pick one do it well and think of others later.”

“Maintain a non-competitive way of being, both in principle and practice, in both the organization’s work and how they engage with donors (don’t let them create a competitive spirit). The right line is different for every organization but strive for improvement always. Look for responsible ways to overcome fears of openness.”

“Double down on experimenting with community approaches, allowing for ever-changing but clear and multi-faceted definitions for what improving diversity, equity, and inclusion does, can, and could mean for you. Again, there is no right line, but strive to always improve it. Within this, continue to improve how the organization is assessing impact by those most affected by the organizations work.” Dan “Blah” Meredith

“One thing I would add is the need for CSOs to invest in learning on cutting edge technology as a means to advance their advocacy and campaigning work as those who oppose social justice work are way ahead of us at the game. However, at the same time it’s important that the technology we use to communicate is not exclusive and easily accessible to the public at large and to our colleagues in civil society, many of whom still struggle with basic things such as internet connectivity in substantial portions of the world.” – Mandeep Tiwana

Have thoughts or case studies to share regarding the role of digital resources in shaping civic spaces? Leave a comment below.