Ukraine Shows Us the Power of the 21st-Century Citizen

From Crowdsourced Community Organizing to DIY Weapons, Ordinary People Are Waging a New Kind of War

Ukraine Shows Us the Power of the 21st-Century Citizen | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Volunteers sew Ukrainian flags and first aid kits at a workshop in Lviv, western Ukraine, Monday, March 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

This is a new kind of war, waged by a new kind of citizen.

The failure of the Russian forces to subdue Ukraine quickly has astonished experts, officials, and journalists worldwide. It shouldn’t. The Ukrainian resistance is just the latest example of the new attitudes and abilities of 21st century citizens.

While social media has been getting a lot of attention in this “TikTok War,” the real story is the growing determination and capacity of ordinary people. Around the world, ordinary people are fundamentally different from people of generations past. They have dramatically higher levels of education, far less deference to authority figures, and much greater facility with technology.

These trends have changed citizenship itself. We need to understand this shift so that societies, especially democratic ones, can figure out how to adapt, both in war and peace.

The war in Ukraine is instructive, in at least four ways.

First, citizens now have the ability to make their own media; Ukrainians, under attack, are mass-producing reality TV. Thanks to footage produced by thousands of people and viewed by millions, the war has a constantly unfolding cast of characters. Ukrainian farmers towing Russian vehicles, a soldier moonwalking in a field, people joyriding on a captured Russian tank, and a little girl singing “Let It Go” in a Kiev bomb shelter have become relatable, inspiring figures in the conflict. Seemingly every time Ukrainians have success on the battlefield, they upload videos of burned tanks and downed planes.

Perhaps most poignant are the videos of Russian POWs—young, hungry, and confused—being fed by their captors and allowed to call their mothers. These conversations, in which they tell their parents they are OK and aren’t sure why they ended up in a war, may be the best hope for affecting Russian public opinion. The Ukrainian hotline set up for Russians trying to get information on their loved ones on the front lines has also produced heartrending recordings. These videos expose the one thing Putin can’t easily hide: Russian deaths on the battlefield.

All that citizen-made media has been fuel for a second major trend of 21st century citizenship: crowdsourced community organizing.

Nonviolent protests have sprung up around the world, both on the internet and on the streets, including in Russia and in occupied Ukrainian cities. The capacity of citizens to make this civil disobedience visible has rallied millions of others to their cause. People are filming the crowds that slow Russian convoys, and mapping protests around the world in precise geo-located detail, so that others can join in.

But the war in Ukraine is revealing how much things have advanced in the last 20 years: the full flowering of a gigantic global network of person-to-person connections; the blurring of the lines between professionals and amateurs; the ability of almost everyone to make their experiences visible and immediate to millions of other people.

This organizing happens rapidly and shows advanced collective thinking. People aren’t simply protesting the war, they are focusing on specific priorities and pressuring Western governments to move on them: singling out Russian oligarchs, denying SWIFT access to Russian banks, banning Russian oil, and shaming international corporations into halting their Russian operations. Community organizers call this “finding winnable issues.” Many of these economic sanctions are unprecedented, and it seems unlikely that Western governments and businesses would have taken all of these drastic steps if not for large-scale public pressure.

In addition to pressuring governments, many citizens are also sidestepping civil society institutions. They are supporting Ukrainians not just through traditional means like donating money to the Red Cross, but by using networks like AirBnB to send money directly to Ukrainian families. This is international aid without institutional intermediaries.

It isn’t just the aid that is do-it-yourself. The warfare is DIY, too.

The contributions of Ukrainian citizens to the war effort includes all generations: grandmothers making Molotov cocktails, mothers brandishing assault rifles, young couples getting married at the front, schoolchildren sewing camouflage nets.

Some of the combatants aren’t even in Ukraine: a small army of hackers is helping to disrupt Russian technologies, interfere with defense communications, and broadcast news about the war to Russian citizens. In an interview with Politico, Ukraine’s deputy digital minister Alex Bornyakov reported that there are 300,000 people worldwide contributing to these efforts.

“We don’t have a chain of command or any structure at all,” Bornyakov said. “So, [Russia] can’t fight it. It’s impossible to disrupt it or break it down. You can’t bomb it or cut off connections or take down a top person—because there is no top person.”

Of course, such warfare isn’t entirely new. For thousands of years ordinary people have taken up scythes and muskets against invading armies; for hundreds of years there have been propaganda campaigns; for decades people have been able to see in real time events happening on the other side of the world.

But the war in Ukraine is revealing how much things have advanced in the last 20 years: the full flowering of a gigantic global network of person-to-person connections; the blurring of the lines between professionals and amateurs; the ability of almost everyone to make their experiences visible and immediate to millions of other people.

Five years ago, the American writer and democracy advocate Eric Liu wrote that “We are in the midst of a profound global Great Push Back against concentrated, monopolized, hoarded power.” Today in Ukraine, we are witnessing not just the decentralization of power—along with knowledge, skill, and authority—but the ability of the “crowd” to wield those decentralized resources in coordinated ways.

The changes in citizen attitudes and capacities are not all positive. Just like previous generations, 21st century citizens can be selfish and unwilling to compromise, saddled with bias and racist assumptions, and fundamentally misinformed. There is no guarantee that the crowd will wield power in ways that are wise, equitable, or just.

But these dangers are unavoidable when people are empowered. And the best way to reckon with them is to seize the related opportunities that this change in citizenship creates for democracy.

We are already seeing what is possible when democratic governments support, inform, and collaborate with 21st century citizens. Countries like Colombia, Iceland, Taiwan, and Brazil have been leaders in democracy innovation: reforms and practices that strengthen relationships between people, give them a meaningful say in decisions, and support their volunteer efforts. Many of these ideas, like participatory budgeting and citizen’s assemblies, create situations where people can learn about an issue, talk with people who have different views, and make decisions together. (Some Ukrainian cities have also been hotbeds of this kind of democratic experimentation.) Others, like crowd-resourcing, inspire and coordinate volunteer efforts to solve public problems.

The desire of citizens to connect, be heard, and get things done seems universal. Even in Russia, the “demand for democratic input” in governance has been on the rise.

Governments should adapt to the shift in citizenship by explaining these potential democracy innovations to their citizens, offering different democracy options and working with citizens to implement them, and measuring their impacts.

Putin’s regime seems more like a criminal institution than a political or military one. And it still may be effective enough to win the war, because of the overwhelming Russian advantage in traditional military resources. But even if the Russian military is victorious on the battlefield, it seems unlikely that the Russians can occupy, let alone govern, Ukraine for long.

Whenever peace comes to Ukraine, and the rest of the world, we need to appreciate the new realities of what citizens want and can do. The greatest hope for democracy, justice, and peace is for leaders and institutions to interact more productively with the people they serve.


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