My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Chris Spence’s opening remarks along with my critiques:
- [T]he introduction of new media and other technologies should not be seen as a panacea for democratic development nor goal in and of itself. These technologies, paired with effective methodologies, can help organizations make significant contributions toward advancing democratic process in authoritarian states.
- Activists and civic groups have demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with traditional organizing principles, can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian states.
- The key is not only to employ effective technologies but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment in which the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative gains and even game-changing democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use.
Me: I’ve been advocating for this two-pronged approach, nonviolent action and digital activism, for a while now. Indeed, my dissertation research is founded on the premise that a combined strategy is imperative if activists are to gain the upper hand in authoritarian states. See also this blog post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.
- While regimes make quickly catch up or clamp down by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap between early adoption and governmental response can have long-term, positive consequences for democratic activists. The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.
Me: This hypothesis is identical to one that I have advanced in my dissertation research. One needs to accelerate activists’ learning curve and early adoption of new technologies and tactics. Hence the importance of DigiActive’s mission and my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Regimes.
- However, […] the tools have been less effectively utilized for the organizing required that can lead to constructive political outcomes. In some situations, information has been produced by citizens using innovative new media tools that initiate the process of change, but the process is stalled due to a lack of the organizations or institutions in the country required to capture the interests and channel the process toward purposeful, strategic and peaceful direct action. Assisting organizations in these countries to build this capacity is an important component in leveraging new media tools toward political reform.
Me: This is precisely why nonviolent tactics and strategies need to inform digital activism. More about this here.
- One set of institutions that are particularly well-suited to this role but are often overlooked in international circles are political parties. Relatively little attention is paid to the important role that parties play in aggregating citizen interests and channeling them into constructive and peaceful means toward democratic reform.
- One area of opportunity, with tremendous potential in countries where NDI works, is to provide more new media technology assistance to political parties, especially in autocratic states where the regime often has access to considerable state resources and controls the organs of state communication.
- [W]e believe our partners have made contributions that have prevented post-election violence or identified and raised important concerns about the electoral process that have led to more democratic and peaceful outcomes.
- The field of domestic election monitoring has improved significantly in the last several years, partly due to improved methods and strategies and certainly enabled by these new technologies and replicated by the role of international organizations.
- Citizen reporting is another method by which citizens have been able to communicate various aspects of their Election Day experiences using new media tools, usually text messages and Tweets. The information reported by citizens is typically collected and made accessible to the public on a Web site or online map in raw form. The value of this approach is to increase citizen participation in the election process. But to date, the challenge has been putting the information to good use.
Me: Ushahidi is probably the most well known example of citizen-based election monitoring. Full disclosure: I am Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi. The value of this approach is more than to increase citizen participation. The approach can also increase pressure for transparency and accountability in a way that has not been possible previously.
In terms of putting the information to good use, the challenge is simply due to the fact that Ushahidi is still new to many activists. As Chris himself noted above, “The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.” First comes communication and sharing. Second comes strategizing and action.
Another important point that often gets overlooked is that the various groups that have deployed Ushahidi for the election monitoring have usually done so “at the last minute”, i.e., with just weeks prior to election day. This is starting to change now, with groups taking an advanced-planning approach to deploying Ushahidi. Indeed, I am in touch with several partners who are already planning for elections taking place more than half-a-year from now.
- Tools are being developed to evaluate the authenticity and filter this incoming information so that organizations can then be prepared to put this powerful crowd-sourcing methodology to work during election periods. However, even as the tools and methods improve, citizen reporting promises to be a useful tool towards some electoral goals but won’t be a substitute for election monitoring in situations where assessing the overall legitimacy of an election is required.
Me: One example of a tool being developed to validate crowdsourced information is Swift River. Again, full disclosure: Swift River is one of my priority projects at Ushahidi. In terms of the promises of citizen reporting, I find Chris’s comment surprising. I have never heard anyone suggest that citizen-based election monitoring is a substitute for election monitoring.
- The challenges faced by activists in autocratic nations are immense. And these challenges are not only technical in nature but also legal and political.
- [W]indows of opportunities for political reform can be created by the use of new media in authoritarian states with a combination of good technology tools, effective strategies and methodologies – put into use by organizations or institutions that can channel the energy of the public and the information they produce toward construct and peaceful political activities.