Tag Archives: Civil resistance

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Evgeny Morozov

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 Evgeny Morozov‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • I’m increasingly concerned with both how well some of the societies  have themselves managed to adapt to the Internet threat and how poorly some of  the digital activists, journalists and even some policymakers understand the  risks of trying to promote democracy via the Internet.

Me: This is exactly the point I make in my blog posts on Digital Resistance, Human Rights and Technology and why I wrote this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. This is also why the work by groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy is so important.

  • [N]ew media will power all political forces, not just the forces we  like.  Many of the recent Western funding and media development efforts have  been aimed at creating what’s known as, new digital public spaces, on the  assumption that these new digital spaces would enable the nascent actors or  civil society to flourish on blogs, Twitter and social networks.
  • So in a  sense, promoting this new digital spaces entails similar risks to promoting  free elections.  It’s quite possible we may not like the guys who win.
  • We have to  realize that authoritarian governments themselves have developed extremely  sophisticated strategies to control cyberspace and often those go beyond  censorship.  It’s a mistake to believe that these governments wouldn’t be able  to manipulate these new public spaces with their own propaganda or use them to  their own advantage.
  • Many authoritarian governments are already paying  bloggers and Internet commentators to spin the political discussions that they  do not like.  It varies from the Russian approach, where the government is cooperating with  several commercial start-ups which are creating ideological, social networking  and blogging sites that support the pro-Kremlin ideology.
  • To the Chinese  approach, where the party has created a decentralized network of what’s come to  be known as 50 Cent Party, which is almost 300,000 people who are being paid to  leave comments on sites and blogs that the government doesn’t like and thus,  try to spin those discussions. Even the Iranian clerics have been running blogging workshops, particularly  aimed at controlling religious discourse targeting women.  And they’ve been  doing it, actually, since 2006, much before we began talking about the Twitter  revolution.
  • [A]uthoritarian governments are increasingly eager to build  short-term alliances with digital groups that sometimes their goals.  For  example, one of the reasons why Russia has emerged as the most feared player in the field of cyber warfare is because it always acts indirectly, usually by  relying on numerous, nimble, underground gangs of cyber criminals.
  • [W]e do not fully understand how new media affects civic engagement.  And we  don’t have to pretend that we do.  We still assume that established unfettered  access to information is going to push people to learn the truths about human rights abuses or the crimes of the governments and thus make them more likely  to become dissidents.

Me: Evgeny and I discussed this very point the last time we met to discuss my dissertation research (he is one of my informal dissertation committee members). Agreed, we do not fully understand the impact of media on civic engagement, but we do understand some! There has been considerable academic research in this area. I do agree, however, that organizations like USAID, for example, still assume that full access to information will spur civil disobedience. See my blog post on this very issue here.

  • Most likely, lifting the censorship lid, at least in the short term, would  result in people using this opportunity to fill in other gaps in their  information vacuum.  Those may have to do with religion, culture, socializing  and so forth but not necessarily with political dissent.  Political activism  and active citizenship would probably only come last in this pyramid of cyber  needs, if you will.
  • The creators of tools like Psyphon and Tor which do allow anonymized access  to the Web, often report that many users in authoritarian states actually use  those tools to download pornography and access sites which that government  doesn’t want them to access – not necessarily political ones.  In fact, there is a growing risk that hundreds and thousands of this digital  natives in these countries would actually be sucked into this endless cycle of  entertainment, rather than have their political commitment increase and full  political life.
  • Finally, what I should mention is that current U.S. government  restrictions on the export of technology to sanctioned countries often actually  thwart and impede the adoption of new media technologies. I would like to point out that the current sanctions against governments like  Cuba, Iran, North Korea and several others make it significantly difficult for  other ordinary citizens, as well as well established activists and NGOs, to  take full advantage of the opportunities that the Internet and social media  offers.

Me: Leave it to Evgeny to make that last point at a US Congressional Briefing. The point he makes, however, is really critical and spot on. US policy makers need to know that some embargoes are self-defeating vis-a-vis democratization.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Nathan Freitas

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 Nathan Freitas‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • A bit of history on Twitter – the roots of this new media technology wave and  specifically, Twitter, began in 2004 with an open source Web service called  TXTmob. […] So Twitter was born out of an activist movement,  so it’s no surprise that it’s come full circle and is being used that way again.
  • During the Second World War and the Cold War, inventors, mathematicians used  the first digital computers to play a critical role in the Allies’ efforts to  stay in front of the Axis.  During the Civil Rights movement the use of telephones, telegraphs and  traditional social networks in churches and universities created a foundation  to mobilize supporters throughout the South.  And in recent years, hackers,  nerds and geeks like myself have gravitated towards the social justice,  environmental and human rights movements.
  • So the idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into teams  of activists around the world using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to innovate and  develop new systems to use the same grassroots organizing and non-violence  techniques that have come from Gandhi, but in a new era.
  • The fascinating  thing about what happened in Burma in 2007 was the emergence of the video  journalist.  Someone with a very cheap digital camera broadcasting their  message using the Internet:  instant messaging, FTP file transfer – and ending  up on the BBC.  […]  The idea that they could do that to cover  their movement and even though the Saffron Revolution wasn’t  successful, the impact they left in the world of activism about the possibility was very successful.
  • The power  of the moving image is unavoidable.
  • In many cases, authoritarian states’ powers prove too formidable for new media  technology.  We saw this with Tibet in the uprisings last March.  The only view  that the world had of the uprising was from the Chinese state media.  Internet  was cut off, phone was cut off, reporters from around the world were blocked  from accessing an area the size of Texas.
  • However, the use of these tools brings  serious risk to the user, their friends, family and broader movement. […] So we need to spend more time focusing on protecting activists, protecting  these generations that take 20 years to rebuild if they’re decimated.

Me: Just one comment on this last point, the issue of risk and protection is why I wrote up this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Freedom House

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 Daniel Calingaert’s opening remarks on behalf of Freedom House along with my critiques:

  • New media has created significant  opportunities for advancing freedom in countries ruled by authoritarian  regimes.  It has expanded the space for free expression and facilitated civic activism.  But authoritarian regimes have pushed back.
  • While new media plays an important role in expanding free expression and  facilitating citizen engagement, it does not drive political change.  New media  alone cannot undermine authoritarian regimes.  Authoritarian regimes in the  former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and  this repression extends to digital media.

Me: Absolutely, which is why I keep repeating the following point: we need to cross-fertilize the fields of digital activism and civil resistance. Lessons learned and best practices need to be exchanged. See my post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance, which I wrote back in December 2008.

  • In Belarus, authorities conduct surveillance on Internet users, and they  require cyber cafés to register each user’s browsing history.
  • Authoritarian regimes use a variety of methods  to limit online freedom of expression.  The United States therefore has to  respond in multiple ways.
  • The Internet is a medium for communication.  Its impact in authoritarian regimes ultimately depends less on the medium itself than on the messages it  conveys and on the messengers who use it to drive progress towards democracy.

Me: I really wouldn’t frame the issue in such a dichotomous way. The Internet is a new and different type of medium for communication. One that is radically different from previous communication typologies of one-to-many broadcasting. The medium, message and actors are all important.

  • We should not only invest in anti-censorship technology, but also  support the creation and distribution of pro-democracy content and back the  courageous and creative activists in repressive environments who are struggling  to bring about political change.

Me: This last point is especially important and the reason why I wrote this blog post on Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance three months ago. I had been advising a large scale digital activism project and was increasingly concerned by the lack of importance placed on content.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Summary of Congressional Briefing

My colleague Chris Doten sent me the following email on September 25th:

Hey Patrick-

I’m currently working for the US Helsinki Commission, which as you probably know is a semi-congressional human rights watchdog. They’ve asked me to put a briefing together on the role of new media technology in democratization – very exciting opportunity for me, and I hope to do it justice. I thought you might have thoughts on experts to whom I could talk in the field, or potential panelists we should call.

Thoughts? Hope you’re doing well!

Thanks,
Chris

Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more excited to learn that the topic of my dissertation research and consulting work would be the subject of a Congressional Briefing. I emailed Chris right back for more details. He put it simply:

“If you were in the driver’s seat for such a panel,
where would you go?”

What a treat. I’ve been studying the role of new media and digital technology in authoritarian regimes for a while now, and I’m on the Board of Advisors of DigiActive and Digital Democracy. I’ve also served as New Media Advisor on a major USAID project that seeks to foster peaceful transition to democratic rule in a certain authoritarian state.

So I suggested to Chris that he contact my colleagues Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown), Nathan Freitas (NYU), Rob Farris (Berkman Center), Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky (Digital Democracy), and Mary Joyce (DigiActive). While Rob’s schedule didn’t allow him to be a the Congressional Briefing last Thursday, my other colleagues were indeed there. Chris Spence (NDI), Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House) Chiy Zhou (GIF) were also present.

Both DigiActive and Digital Democracy also submitted written remarks for the record here and here. Here is a copy of the full 30 page transcript of the Congressional Briefing. Since reading through 30 pages can be quite time consuming, I have summarized the briefing using annotated excerpts of the most important points made by panelists. You’ll note that while I agree with some of the comments made by the panelists, I clearly disagree with others.

Opening Remarks & My Critique

Q/A Session & My Critique

Patrick Philippe Meier

Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Eric McGlinchey, one of the professors on the panel, presented his research paper (PDF) on “Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia.”

Eric notes that the theories and prescriptions of the transitions literature have not borne fruit in Central Asia. Indeed, “the region today is more autocratic than it was eighteen years ago at the time of the Soviet collapse.”

Eric thus seeks to understand why “Transitions 1.0” failed and to “investigate the potential for a Transitions 2.0” by exploring three autocracies Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As Eric notes, “new information communication technologies (ICTs) are emerging in Central Asia and, as survey research demonstrates, these new ICTs hold the potential to transform the region’s political culture from one that abides authoritarian rule to a culture that embraces political reform.”

I very much appreciate Eric’s balanced approach to technology and demographic change. As he writes,

[T]he current class of political elites is graying while the youth population of Central Asian society is growing larger.  And whereas the hierarchical Communist Party carefully controlled the political milieu in which the current political elite was acculturated, today new ICTs have broken the government’s information monopoly, laid bare the inequities of patronage politics and are in the process of changing the mental maps with which this growing younger generation views national governance.

Institutional path dependency, as Paul Pierson explains, is sustained by—learning effects‖ and—adaptive expectations. New ICTs have simultaneously transformed what youth in Central Asia learn and what they expect—and it is this transformation […] that may ultimately undermine the cost calculations that have thus far sustained autocratic patronage in the region.

Whether access to ICTs can be shown to have a successful track record in promoting liberalization and democratization is still an open debate which requires more empirical research to shed compelling insights on the question.

Eric cites the work by David Hill and Khrishna Sen (2000) who “illustrate how the Internet enabled Indonesian oppositionists not only to break Suharto’s media monopoly, but to break this monopoly using conversational, dialogic, (and) non-hierarchical” forms of communication.”

That said, Hill, Krishna and several other scholars emphasize that the “political environment within which oppositionists marshal technologies like the Internet, can dampen the transformative effects of new ICTs.” To be sure,

Just as autocracies can control printing presses, radio and television, so too can savvy authoritarian governments monitor and exert control over new telecoms and Internet service providers.  Moreover, even absent such control, new ICTs need not be liberalizing.

Peter Chroust, for example, demonstrates how illiberal groups—neo-Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan—can equally use new ICTs to facilitate communication and mobilization.

Benjamin Barber suggests that fears that new ICTs force people—into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology motivate actors to fight for the opposite, for the construction of even more differentiated local identities. As such, Barber predicts, new ICTs will result in more, not less ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious violence.

Eric’s research is informative because there is still very little research on the impact of ICTs on populations in Central Asia. The results of his empirical survey suggests that “although the causal effects of new ICTs are mixed and highly dependent on structural context, the use of new ICTs nevertheless does appear to have a liberalizing effect on political culture.”

More specifically, where state filtering of the Internet is less pronounced—in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—survey results suggest that Internet users do exhibit greater inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement.  Conversely, where state filtering of the Internet is extensive, as it is in Uzbekistan, inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement differ little between Internet users non-users.

Eric concludes as follows:

Will Transitions 2.0 succeed where Transitions 1.0 failed?  To a large degree the answer to this question rests in the ability of Central Asian governments to continue effective filtering of the Internet and of global communications broadly, something that may get progressively more difficult as Internet access shifts from what now are readily controlled public areas (work, Internet cafes and libraries) to the comparative privacy of smart phones and home computers.

No less consequential is whether ICT-induced changes in political culture translate to societal changes in political engagement.  This study suggests that the retreat of Soviet institutions of political acculturation and the arrival of new ICTs will likely produce a political culture that is less trusting of autocratic rule and more open to outsiders and civic engagement.

Whether Central Asians will assume the daunting risks that undoubtedly are required to transform their governments so as to more closely reflect these changed political values, however, remains an open question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Nonviolent Resistance in Post-Communist Countries

Introduction

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and had the good fortune of sharing the panel with Olena Nikolayenko from Stanford University. Nikolayenko presented an excellent paper (PDF) entitled: “Youth Movements in Post-Communist Societies: A Model for Nonviolent Resistance.”

Olena seeks to explain the variation in social movement outcomes in non-democracies by “investigating the dynamics of tactical interaction between challenger organizations and the ruling elite.” She argues that “both civic activists and autocratic incumbents engaged in processes of political learning. Hence, tactical innovation was vital to the success of youth movements, especially late risers in the protest cycle.”

I think she’s spot on with the tactical learning argument. In fact, I use the same hypothesis for my dissertation as well, referring to the cyber game of cat-and-mouse between resistance movements and repressive regimes.  By tactical innovation, Olena means “experimentation with the choice of frames, protest strategies and interaction styles with allies.”

This dynamic approach to the study of social movements to post-communist countries is particularly interesting since the notion of tactical innovation has only been applied to mature democracies.  As Olena notes, however, tactical innovation may very well be of “greater importance to the challenger organizations in the repressive political regimes.”

This is because “the stakes of the political struggle—regime change or the survival of the autocratic incumbent—have wide-ranging implications for the ruling elite and the society at large.”

Olena’s decision to focus on post-communist countries is also important because of the focus on unsuccessful cases. As she rightly notes, there is a notable bias in social movement literature on cases of success. And yet, there is much to gain from analyzing movements that are defeated by repressive regimes.

Explaining Social Movements

What is particularly neat about Olena’s dynamic approach is that she draws on Doug McAdam’s work (1983) and thus distinguishes between “tactical innovation of movement participants and tactical adaptation of the ruling elite.” McAdam’s piece is entitled: “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.”

Tactical innovation involves a shift from conventional forms of collective action and the application of novel confrontational tactics. Tactical adaptation refers to tactics of the incumbent government to neutralize unorthodox mobilization efforts of challenger organizations and introduce new barriers for contentious collective action.

In terms of tactical innovation, Olena explains that to gain leverage in the political arena, “a social movement needs to articulate persuasive messages, employ effective protest strategies, and forge ties with influential allies. Each of these choices can involve tactical innovation.”

I’m especially interested in the protest strategies piece given the focus of my dissertation. Olena draws on some of Charles Tilly‘s research that I had actually not come across before but which is incredibly relevant to my own doctoral research. Tilly’s relevant piece published in 1978 is entitled: “From Mobilization to Institutionalization.”

Though a range of protest tactics seems to be limitless, protesters tend to resort to a recurrent toolkit of contentious collective action. Tilly conceptualizes a repertoire of contention as “a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice.” In his influential work, Tilly (1978) demonstrates how it takes such macrohistorical factors as the rise of the nation-state and the emergence of new communication technologies to engender novel forms of protest. A central advantage of novel protest strategies is that they can catch the authorities off guard and produce a stronger political impact than familiar protest tactics.

As for tactical adaptation, Olena examines how repressive incumbent governments respond to the “rise of reform-oriented and technologically savvy youth movements by setting up state-sponsored youth organizations and intensifying the use of modern technology to subvert youth mobilization.” This an important part of the cyber game of cat-and-mouse that is all too often drowned by the media hype around new technologies.

Social movement literature has documented a toolkit of strategies that the ruling elite deploys to suppress mass mobilization. Repression is a common policy instrument used in non-democracies. In the so-called hybrid regimes, the ruling elite systematically manipulate democratic procedures to the extent the turnover of power is hardly possible, but refrain from the conspicuous use of violence.

It is critical to understand the underlying tactics employed by repressive regimes to suppress and/or manipulate political change.

Methodology

Olena focuses on nonviolent youth resistance movements in the following five countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine. These movements share several important characteristics:

  1. The formation of youth movements during the election year, with the exception of Serbia’s Otpor;
  2. Anticipation of electoral fraud;
  3. Demand for free and fair elections;
  4. Mass mobilization in the repressive political regime,
  5. Use of nonviolent methods of resistance.

Despite these similarities, however, some of the movements were “more successful than others in expanding the base of popular support for political change in non-democracies.”

Olena carried out 46 semi-structured interviews with key informants to get an in-depth description of social movements. To estimate the the level of youth movements, Olena relied on three indicators: (1) size of movement; (2) size of post-election protests; and (3) duration of post-election protests.

Findings

While the Otpor movement in Serbia was responsible for demonstrating a series of important tactical innovations, subsequent youth resistance movements in post-communist countries were unsuccessful. This is largely due to the fact that these movements simply “copied” these tactics without adding much in terms of innovative thinking. Otpor also trained these movements and perhaps should have emphasized the importance on endogenous innovation a lot more.

In terms of political learning by elites in repressive regimes, Olena’s findings show that:

[I]n light of electoral revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have significantly raised costs of political participation. Specifically, the coercive apparatus applied violence to prevent the permanent occupation of the public space in the wake of fraudulent elections.

Moreover, the authorities deployed coercive measures against youth movements before they could develop into powerful agents of political change. In addition, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have invested considerable resources into the creation of state-sponsored youth organizations.

The analysis demonstrates that both civic activists and the ruling elite are able to draw lessons from prior episodes of nonviolent resistance during a protest cycle. As a result, late risers in the protest cycle need to apply a series of innovative strategies to overcome increasing constraints on political participation and introduce an element of surprise.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Repression 2.0 vs Resistance 2.0

I just presented my dissertation research at the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) conference in Toronto and thought I’d make the short presentation available online via a video-powerpoint with narration. Feedback is always welcomed!

Patrick Philippe Meier