I just attended a panel at Harvard University on “The Impact of Social Media in the Middle East” which is part of a 3-day conference on the Middle East and North Africa. My colleagues Rob Faris from the Berkman Center and Evgeny Morozov now at Georgetown were both on the panel in addition to Iranian-American activist Lily Mazahery and Kuwaiti blogger Ziad Al-Duaij.
The panelists engaged in rapid-fire debate on the role of Twitter in Iran after their presentations. The typical laundry list of anecdotes were thrown around to win the hearts and minds of the audience. The summary: Yes, Twitter had a significant impact; No Twitter had no significant impact.
Maybe it’s because I hadn’t eaten all day, but I found this all quite annoying. This is precisely the kind of anecdotal acrobatics that prompted me—two years ago—to pursue a dissertation on The Role of New Media and Technology in Popular Resistance Against Repressive Rule.
If you look close enough, you’ll find that many of the debates in the “field” of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes. The preponderance of these would have us believe that new media and digital technology spell certain democracy. Yet an increasing number of anecdotes reveal (surprise, surprise) that repressive regimes are making use of new media and technology to forward their own agendas.
So where exactly does this leave us?
In anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell, depending on your own agenda. I chose to pursue a dissertation in this area because I want to get beyond anecdotal ping pong. Yes, we have more and more anecdotes. And that’s great. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Are we starting to see a trend emerge? Who is winning this digital—albeit dangerous—game of cat-and-mouse?
I don’t mind being in anecdotal heaven since I realize that hard data is rather hard to come by. But I wish the panelists had been upfront and just said: “Right, given the general lack of quantitative data and rigorous qualitative case study analysis, we have to resort anecdotes, so bear with us as we warm up for our anecdotal ping pong tournament.”
Don’t get me wrong, all the panelists have a wealth of experience and insights to draw on that I simply don’t have. So all I can do is emphasize the need for more data collection and a mixed methods approach to answer the question on everyone’s mind:
Does access to new media and digital technology
change the balance of power
between repressive regimes and resistance movements?
This is what I’m trying to get at with my dissertation. Of course, the answer will be: “It depends”. But at least I’ll be able to draw on data and comparative case study analysis to make an informed judgment on what “it” depends on. How do I plan to get there? See this blog post for the quantitative model and this blog post where I propose an analytical qualitative framework to understand the impact of new media and technology on repressive rule and civil resistance.
But I do not claim that my research design is perfect, which is why I’d be grateful for any feedback iRevolution readers may have.