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Ukraine shows us the power of the 21st century citizen

This is a new type of war, waged by a new type of citizens.

The failure of Russian forces to quickly subdue Ukraine has stunned experts, officials and journalists around the world. It shouldn’t. The Ukrainian resistance is only the latest example of the new attitudes and capacities of citizens of the 21st century.

While social media has garnered a lot of attention in this “TikTok war,” the real story is the growing resolve and capacity of everyday people. All over the world, ordinary people are fundamentally different from people of past generations. They have considerably higher levels of education, far less respect for authority figures, and far more comfortable with technology.

These trends have changed citizenship itself. We need to understand this change so that societies, especially democratic societies, can understand how to adapt, both in times of war and in times of peace.

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

First, citizens now have the ability to create their own media; The Ukrainians, under attack, mass-produce reality TV. With footage produced by thousands and viewed by millions, War has an ever-changing cast of characters. Ukrainian farmers towing Russian vehicles, a soldier walking on the moon in a field, people riding a captured Russian tank and a little girl singing “Let It Go” in a kyiv bomb shelter have become inspirational and inspirational figures of the conflict. Apparently, every time the Ukrainians are successful on the battlefield, they upload videos of burnt-out tanks and downed planes.

Perhaps most poignant are the videos of Russian prisoners of war – young, hungry and confused – being fed by their captors and allowed to call their mothers. These conversations, in which they tell their parents that they are fine and do not know why they ended up in a war, may be the best hope of affecting Russian public opinion. The Ukrainian hotline set up for Russians trying to get information about loved ones on the front line has also produced harrowing recordings. These videos reveal the one thing Putin cannot easily hide: Russian battlefield deaths.

All of these citizen media have fueled a second major trend in 21st century citizenship: participatory community organizing.

Non-violent protests have erupted around the world, both on the internet and on the streets, including in Russia and occupied Ukrainian cities. The ability of citizens to make this civil disobedience visible has rallied millions of others to their cause. People are filming crowds slowing down Russian convoys and mapping protests around the world in precise geotagged detail, so others can join them.

This organization happens quickly and shows advanced collective thinking. People are not just protesting the war, they are focusing on specific priorities and pressuring Western governments to act: targeting Russian oligarchs, denying SWIFT access to Russian banks, banning oil Russia and shame international companies into stopping their operations in Russia. Community organizers call it “finding winnable problems.” Many of these economic sanctions are unprecedented, and it seems unlikely that Western governments and corporations would have taken all of these drastic measures without large-scale public pressure.

In addition to lobbying governments, many citizens also bypass civil society institutions. They support Ukrainians not only through traditional means like donating money to the Red Cross, but using networks like AirBnB to send money directly to Ukrainian families. This is international aid without institutional intermediaries.

It’s not just help that needs to be done yourself. War is also DIY.

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

Some of the fighters aren’t even in Ukraine: a small army of hackers helps disrupt Russian technologies, interfere with defense communications, and spread information about the war to Russian citizens. In an interview with Politico, Ukrainian Deputy Digital Minister Alex Bornyakov reported that there was 300,000 people around the world who contribute to these efforts.

“We have no chain of command or structure at all,” Bornyakov said. “So, [Russia] can’t fight it. It is impossible to disturb or break it. You can’t bomb it or cut the connections or shoot down a superior person – because there is no superior person.

Of course, such a war is not entirely new. For thousands of years, ordinary people have taken 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 taking place on the other side of the world.

But the war in Ukraine reveals just how far things have come in the past 20 years: the full development of a gigantic global network of person-to-person relationships; the blurring of boundaries between professionals and amateurs; the ability of almost everyone to make their experiences visible and immediate to millions of other people.

Five years ago, American writer and democracy advocate Eric Liu wrote that “We are in the midst of a deep great global pushback against concentrated, monopolized and hoarded power.” Today in Ukraine, we are witnessing not only the decentralization of power – as well as knowledge, skills and authority – but the ability of the “crowd” to use these decentralized resources in a coordinated way.

Changes in citizens’ attitudes and capacities are not all positive. Just like previous generations, citizens of the 21st century can be selfish and unwilling to compromise, burdened with prejudice and racist assumptions, and fundamentally ill-informed. There is no guarantee that the mob will wield power wisely, fairly or justly.

But these dangers are inevitable when people are empowered. And the best way to take this into account is to seize the related opportunities that this change of 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 democratic innovation: reforms and practices that strengthen relationships between people, give them a meaningful voice in decision-making and support their voluntary efforts. Many of these ideas, such as participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies, create situations where people can learn about an issue, talk with people who have different points of view, and make decisions together. (Some Ukrainian cities have also been hotbeds of this type of democratic experimentation.) Others, like crowd-resourcing, inspire and coordinate the efforts of volunteers to solve public problems.

Citizens’ desire to connect, to be heard and to get things done seems universal. Even in Russia, therequest for democratic inputin governance is on the rise.

Governments need to adapt to changing citizenship by explaining these potential democratic innovations to their citizens, offering different democratic options and working with citizens to implement them, and measuring their impacts.

Putin’s regime looks more like a criminal institution than a political or military institution. And it may still be quite effective in winning the war, due to the overwhelming Russian advantage in traditional military resources. But even if the Russian army is victorious on the battlefield, it seems unlikely that the Russians will be able to occupy, let alone rule, Ukraine for long.

Every time peace comes to Ukraine and the rest of the world, we must 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.

Matt Leighninger is responsible for democratic innovation at National Citizenship Conference, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening civic life in America. He and Tina Nabatchi are the authors of
Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy
. This article was originally published by The Conversation.

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