Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States

The latest edition of the SAIS Review of International Affairs is focused on cyber threats and opportunities. My Stanford colleague Rob Munro and I contributed a piece on crowdsourcing SMS for crisis response. Colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center wrote this piece on political change in the digital age—specifically with respect to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. Their research overlaps considerably with my dissertation so what follows is a short summary of their article.

Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey basically argue that policymakers and scholars have been focusing too narrowly on the role of digital technology in providing unfiltered access to the Internet and independent sources of information. They argue that “more attention should be paid to the means of overcoming the difficulties of online organization in the face of authoritarian governments in an increasingly digital geopolitical environment.” The authors thus seek to distinguish between flow of information and social organization facilitated by digital tools.

“While information and organizing are inextricably linked—photographs and videos play an important and growing role in empowering and motivating social activists—it is helpful to consider them separately as the use of technology entails different opportunities and challenges for each.”

They therefore develop a simple analytical framework to describe the interaction between civil society, media and governments in different types of regimes.

They argue that to understand the role of digital tools on democratic processes, “we must better understand the impact of the use of these tools on the composition and role of civil society.” Etling, Faris and Palfrey therefore assess the influence of digital technologies on the formation and activities of civil society groups—and in particular mobs, movements and civil society organizations. See Figure 2 below.

The authors claim that “hierarchical organizations with strong networks—the mainstay of civil society in consolidated democracies—are not a viable option in authoritarian states.” No news there. They write that civil society organizations (CSOs) are therefore easy targets since their “offline activities are already highly regimented and watched by the state.”

The protests in Burma and Iran are characterized by a “grey area between a flash mob and social movement” and efforts at digital organizing in these cases have been largely ineffective, according to the authors. They do have hope for smart mobs, however, given their ability to emerge organically and take governments by surprise: “In a few cases, the ability of a mob to quickly overwhelming unprepared governments has been successful.” They cite the case of Estrada in the Philippines, also the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. The authors don’t elaborate on any of these anecdotes (see my rant on the use of anecdotes in the study of digital activism here).

As iRevolution readers will know, I’m not an advocate of spontaneous protests in the context of authoritarian states. I have argued time and time again that digital activists need more dedicated training in civil resistance and nonviolent action, which emphasizes planning and preparation. The Berkman authors write that success is “likely determined not by the given technology tool, but by the human skill and facility in using the networks that are being mobilized.” Likely? More like “definitely not determined by the technology.”

The authors also write that successful movements:

“… appear to combine the best of ‘classic’ organizing tactics with the improvisation, or “jazz” that is enabled by new Internet tools; for example, constantly updated mobile mapping tools […]. It is less clear how far online organizing and digital communities will be allowed to push states toward drastic political change and greater democratization, especially in states where offline restrictions to civic and political organization are severe. As scholars, we ought to focus our attention on the people involved and their competencies in using digitally-mediated tools to organize themselves and their fellow citizens, whether as flash mobs or through sustained social movements or organizations, rather than the flow of information as such.”

The Berkman scholars are mistaken in their reference to improvisation and jazz. As anyone interested in music will know, playing jazz—and acquiring the skills for jazz improv—takes years of training and hard work. It is therefore foolhardy to advocate for spontaneous mob action in repressive environments or to romanticize their power. The authors only dedicate one sentence to this concern: “Poorly organized mass actions are highly unpredictable and easily manipulated.”

In closing, I’d like to link this Berkman paper to the ongoing conversations around WikiLeaks. As the authors note, the best illustration of the threat that new information flows pose to authoritarian governments is their reaction to it.

4 responses to “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States

  1. Pingback: Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States | iRevolution « Yahyasheikho786's Blog

  2. Interesting. I was in the Philippines when EDSA II / People Power II (i.e. Estrada’s ousting – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EDSA_Revolution_of_2001) occurred. It may have seemed spontaneous to an outsider, but one has to realize that things had been ‘brewing’ in the Philippines because of major corruption charges and that the same kind of thing had happened before (original EDSA People Power in 1986 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Power_Revolution). So, the concept was not new. In the days that lead up to EDSA II, there were many smaller rallies around Manila (and the country).

    What should really be noted though is the role that the digital realm played in getting people together. People largely knew that it was happening because of SMS (the networks could not really handle phone calls). Filipinos were already SMS power-users in 2000. So, it took just a few influential people to raise the idea of EDSA II and the concept spread quickly through SMS. I cannot imagine that the government did not hear about it early on as things were developing (if I, as an expat, was hearing things, I would suspect that their intelligence, military, or police would have heard something…..). I suspect that it would be hard to say that the government was taken completely by surprise.

    You could almost say that it was a social movement that organically created (relatively) smart mobs when the time was right…….aided by technology…..


  3. Pingback: New Publications on Haiti, Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping | iRevolution

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