I just chaired a very productive panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) on the impact of ICTs on human rights, political activism and resistance.
The panel featured the following presentations:
- Lucía Liste Muñoz and Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Information and Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.“
- Fabien Miard on “Call for Power? Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
- Patrick Meier on “iRevolutions: The Impact of ICTs on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” [slideshare]
- Joshua Goldstein on “Digital Networked Technologies: Case Study of Kenya’s Post Election Crisis.“
I’ve already blogged about each of the papers individually (see links above) so what follows are points from some of the presentations that I found particularly interesting. I also include the superb feedback that our discussant Professor Dan Drezner from The Fletcher School provided along with a summary of the productive Q&A session we had.
- Muñoz and de Soysa: Their results show that Internet access leads to increasing respect of human rights by governments. This is true of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.
- Joshua Goldstein: The role that Safaricom (a private telecommunications company) had in seeking to prevent and/or mitigate the election violence is unprecedented. Not only did the company refuse switch of the SMS network as per the government’s request, the company also sent out broadcast SMS to call on restraint and civic behavior.
Feedback to Panelists
Dan Drezner provided the following feedback:
- The papers were definitely panel material as they all address important issues related to ICTs that overlap in very interesting ways. So overall, this was great set of papers and presentations, and panelists ought to make sure they read and learn from each others’ papers.
- Most of the large-N papers blatantly seek to identify a positive correlation between ICT and human rights, political activism, digital resistance, etc. A less biased way to approach the research would be to formulate the question as follows: “How do ICTs benefit the State?”
- Patrick should expand his set of countries beyond the 22 countries.
- The dynamic between states and society vis-a-vis repression and circumvention may be an evolutionary one based on learning behavior.
- The papers should treat ICTs not as independent variables but as an interactive variable with factors such as unemployment. In other words, the question should be: to what extent does ICT interact with other variables that we know ought to trigger protests?
- The studies should separate anti-foreign protests from anti-government protests.
- The large-N analyses should include more control variables such as dummy varibales for elections and wars.
- The studies should also seek to assess the relationship between ICTs and the magnitude of protests and not only the frequency of protests.
- The papers do not take into account the role of the Diaspora in helping to mobilize, organize and coordinate protests.
Response to Feedback
Here I only respond the feedback relevant to my paper and presentation:
- On the bias towards finding a statistical relationship and expanding the number of countries in my study, I disagreed with Professor Drezner. I specifically chose the 22 countries in my dataset because the regimes in these countries are actively using ICTs to censor, repress, monitor and block information. So if anything, the cards are stacked against resistance movements when it comes to these countries. Hence my not planning to expand the dataset to include additional countries. Professor Drezner agreed on both points.
- I completely agree on the evolutionary dynamic, which I described in my dissertation proposal and which explains why I often refer to the dynamic as a cyber game of cat-and-mouse.
- I’m not entirely sold on treating ICTs as an interactive variable but will explore this nonetheless.
- Agreed on the suggestion that anti-foreign protests be treated seperately since these protests are often organized by repressive regimes.
- I fully agree on adding more control variables including elections, wars and population.
- I concur with the point made about the magnitude of protests but this information is hard to come by. More importantly, however, the dataset I’m using is based on Reuters newswires and the reason I’m using this data is because Reuters is highly unlikely to report on low-level protests but rather on protests that have a national impact. So the dataset serves as a filter for large-scale protests and hence magnitude.
- Very good point about the diaspora.
We had an excellent set of questions from the audience which prompted a rich conversation around the following topics:
- Repressive regimes learning from one another about how to use ICTs for censorship, repression, monitoring, etc. and resistance movement learning from each other.
- The side to first acquire and apply new technology generally gets a head start, but this prompts the other side, e.g., the State to catch up and regain the upper hand.
- Who are the users of these technologies? Demographics, gender, age, etc, should be important factors in the study of ICTs, State and society.
- One member of the audience was a policy maker with the British government and wanted to know what role Western governments should play vis-a-vis digital activism.
- The issue of civil resistance and the intersection with digital activism came up repeatedly in the discussion. Understanding one without the other is increasingly meaningless.