The final panel of the Berkman Center‘s conference addressed the issue of methodology and empirical evidence in the study of the Internet and Democracy. Victoria Stodden and Corinna di Gennaro introduced the panel by outlining three core questions:
- How do we formulate testable hypotheses?
- What existing theories can we build on?
- What are appropriate methodologies?
Michael Best gave the first presentation on various methodological approaches. He began by making a distinction between democracy and Democracy. The former is people-centric while the latter is state-centric. Michael defines the relationship between the two as follows: democracy in the absence of Democracy. The distinction provoked a serious of questions and discussions. Do we mean bottom-up versus top-down? Informal versus the formal? Are the terms mutually distinct? Are we better off thinking of a spectrum? As far as we know, there is no theory of everthing vis-a-vis the study of Internet and Democracy that relates small d and big D democracy.
Quantitative studies (with K. Wade) suggest that a 1% increase in networks associates with a point increase on the democracy scale. Over the 1990s the Internet came to explain ten times more variations in levels of democratization. There is no statistically significant correlation between Internet usage and democracy in the Middle East and Asia regions. In his work, Michael combines natural language parsing with time series analysis and stylostatistical analysis.
Another research question Michael is pursuing is how new interactive media can help to reconcile and heal a nation such as Liberia. A pressing challenge is how to reach out to rural Liberians. The project developed a rural interactive mobile multi-media kiosk that can be added to the back of a 4×4. See TRCofliberia.org for further information.
Victoria Stodden is doing research to understand the relationship between Internet diffusion and democracy. The first stage of her research focuses on the Middle East and country-level analyses. The most reliable and consistent source of ICT data is from the International Telelcommunication Union (ITU), an organization that surveys local federal governments. On democracy data, the Freedom House data has a lot of inertia in that there is minimal variation in that dataset. The best source seems to be the World Bank Governance indicators. In particular, these include “Voice and Accountability” and “Rule of Law”.
Her analysis suggests that beyond a particular threshold of “Rule of Law”, the amount of mobile phone use (per 100 inhabitants) takes off. The threshold figure appears to be 40 users per 100. Internet use appears to accelerate faster with an increase in “Rule of Law” figures. She also measured the World Bank’s “Voice and Accountability” indicator against mobile phone use and Internet use.
The presentation prompted numerous backs-and-forths on the reliability of the data and the challenges of concluding certain trends. These are the same challenges that the conflict analysis field has faced over the past 5 years. Using macro-level aggregate data means making a host of assumptions regarding what these measurements mean vis-a-vis the questions we are asking. As long as we are transparent about these assumptions, there is no harm in proceeding with country-year econometric analysis. Ultimately, however, these studies need to be completemented with process-tracing methods and field-based qualitative research. This nested analysis approach is the one I am taking for my dissertation research.