Tag Archives: Democracy

Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations

The Chair of my dissertation committed, Professor Dan Drezner just published this piece in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that directly relates to my dissertation research. He presented an earlier version of this paper at a conference in 2005 which was instrumental in helping me frame and refine my dissertation question. I do disagree a bit with the paper’s approach, however.

Professor Drezner first reviews the usual evidence on whether the Internet empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa. Not surprisingly, this perusal doesn’t point to a clear winner. Indeed, as is repeatedly stated in the academic discourse, “parsing out how ICT affects the tug-of-war between states and civil society activists is exceedingly difficult.”

Drezner therefore turns to a transaction costs metaphor for insight. He argues that “metaphorically, the problem is akin to the one economists faced when predicting how the communications revolution would affect the optimal size of the firm.” I’m not convinced this is an appropriate metaphor but lets proceed and summarize his reasoning on firm size in any case.

Economists argue that the size of a firm is a function of transaction costs. “If these costs of market exchange exceed those of more hierarchical governance structures—i.e., firms—then hierarchy would be the optimal choice. With the fall in communication costs, economists therefore predicted an associated decline in firm size. “There were lots of predictions about how the communications revolution would lead to an explosion in independent entrepreneurship.”

But Drezner argues that decreasing communication costs (a transaction cost) has not affected aggregate firm size: “Empirically, there has been minimal change.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any literature to back this claim. Regardless, Drezner concludes that firm size has not significantly changed because “the information revolution has lowered the organizational costs of hierarchy as well” and even “increased the optimal size of the firm” in some sectors. “The implications of this [metaphor] for the internet’s effect on states and civil society should be apparent.”

The problem (even if the choice of metaphor were applicable) is that these implications provide minimal insight into the debate on liberation technologies: large organizations or institutions have the opportunity to scale thanks to the Internet; meaning that government monitoring becomes more efficient and sophisticated, making it “easier for the state to anticipate and regulate civic protests.” More specifically, “repressive regimes can monitor opposition websites, read Twitter feeds, and hack e-mails—and crack down on these services when necessary.” Yes, but this is already well known so I’m not sure what the transaction metaphor adds to the discourse.

That said, Drezner does recognize that the Internet could have a “pivotal effect” on state-society relations with respect to “authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information society.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really expand on this point beyond the repeating the “Dictator’s Dilemma” argument. But he does address the potential relevance of “information cascades” for the study of digital activism in non-permissive environments.

“An informational cascade takes place when individuals acting in an environment of uncertainty strongly condition their choices on     what others have done previously. More formally, an information cascade is a situation in which every actor, based on the observations of others, makes the same choice independent of his/her private information signal. Less formally, an information cascade demonstrates the power of peer pressure—many individuals will choose actions based on what they observe others doing.”

So if others are not protesting, you are unlikely to stick your neck out and start a protest yourself, particularly against a repressive state. But Drezner argues that information cascades can be reversed as a result of a shock to the system such as an election or natural disaster. These events can “trigger spontaneous acts of protest or a reverse in the cascade,” especially since “a little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence.” In sum,  “even if people may have previously chosen one action, seemingly little information can induce the same people to choose the exact opposite action in response to a slight increase in information.”

This line of argument seems to cast aside what has been learned about civil disobedience. Drezner suggests that reverse information cascades can catalyze spontaneous protests. Perhaps, but are these “improvised” protests actually effective in achieving their stated aims? The empirical evidence from the literature on civil resistance suggests otherwise: extensive planning and strategizing is more likely to result in success then unplanned spontaneous protests. If I find out that it’s cooler in the frying pan than the fire, will I automatically jump into said pan? A little bit of additional information without prior planning on how to leverage that information into action can be dangerous and counterproductive.

For example:

“The spread of information technology increases the fragility of information cascades that sustain the appearance of authoritarian control. This effect creates windows of opportunity for civil society groups.”

Yes, but this means little if these groups are not adequately prepared to deliberately exploit weaknesses in authoritarian control and cash in on this window of opportunity.

“At moments when a critical mass of citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government, the ability of the state to repress can evaporate.”

Yes, but this rarely happens completely spontaneously. Undermining the pillars of power of a repressive state takes deliberate and calculated work with an appropriate mix of tactics and strategies to delegitimize the regime. There is a reason why civil resistance is often referred to as (nonviolent) guerrilla warfare. The latter is not random or haphazard. Guerilla campaigns are carefully thought through and successful actions are meticulously planned.

Drezner argues that, “Extremists, criminals, terrorists, and hyper-nationalists have embraced the information society just as eagerly as classical liberals.” Yes, this is already well known but the author doesn’t make the connection to training and planning on the part of extremists. As Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his book The Upside of Down: “Extremists are often organized in coherent and well-coordinated groups that have clear goals, distinct identities, and strong internal bonds that have grown around a shared radical ideology. As a result, they can mobilize resources and power effectively.” Successful terrorists do not spontaneously terrorize! Furthermore, they create information cascades as much as they react to them.

In conclusion, Drezner criticizes the State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 Initiative. State presumes that technologies will primarily help the “good guys” and  “assumes that the biggest impediment to the flowering of digital liberalism comes from the heavy hand of the state.” (He doesn’t say what the biggest impediment is, however). Drezner ends his piece with the following: “It is certainly possible that the initiative fails because of the coercive apparatus of a repressive government. It is equally likely, however, that the initiative succeeds—in empowering illiberal forces across the globe.” This is already well known. I’m not sure that one needs a transaction metaphor or to refer to the dictator’s dilemma, information cascades, spontaneous protests and extremist groups to reach this conclusion.

Democratic Effects of the Internet: Latest Findings

Jacob Groshek from Iowa State University just published his large-N quantitative study on the “Democratic Effects of the Internet” in the International Communication Gazette. I’m particularly interested in this study given it’s overlap with my own dissertation research and recent panel at ISA 2009. So thanks to Jacob for publishing and to my colleague Lokman Tsui at the Berkman Center for letting me know about the article as soon as it came out.

Using macro-level panel data on 152 countries from 1994 to 2003 and multi regression models, Jacob found that “increased Internet diffusion was a meaningful predictor of more democratic regimes.” This democratic effect was greater in countries that were at least partially democratic where the Internet was more prevalent. In addition, the association between Internet diffusion and democracy was statistically significant in “developing countries where the average level of sociopolitical instability was much higher.”

The author thus concludes that policy makers should consider the democratic potential of the Internet but be mindful of unintended consequences in countries under authoritarian rule. In other words, “the democratic potential of the Internet is great, but that actual effects might be limited because Internet diffusion appears conditional upon national-level democracy itself.”


While many like Al Gore have professed that information and communication technologies (ICTs) would “spread participatory democracy” and “forge a new Athenian age of democracy,” the lessons of history suggest otherwise. Media system dependence theory maintains that ICTs, “including the Internet, are unlikely to drastically alter asymmetric power and economic relations within and between countries specifically in the short term.”

Others counter that ICTs are “nonetheless vital to democracy and the process of democratization.”For example, both Jefferson and de Tocqueville remarked that a catalyst for American democracy was the free press. While most communication technologies over the last hundred years have failed to fulfill their predicted impact, the Internet is considered special and different. The Internet is “the most interactive and technologically sophisticated medium to date, which enhances user reflexitivity in terms of user participation and generated content and thus has a greater likelihood of affecting change.”

According to media system dependency theory, the framework used in this study, there are two scenarios in which media diffusion may demonstrate micro- and macro-level effects. First, the greater the centralization of specific information-delivery functions, the greater the societal dependency on that media. Second, “as media diffusion and dependency increase over time, the potential for mass media messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective and behavioral effects [is] further increased when there is a high degree of structural instability in the society due to conflict and change.”


The author selected 1994-2003 because “the public launch of the Internet is generally marked around 1994, following the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993 and at the time of writing, 2003 was the latest available year for much of the data.”

  • Socio-political variables included population, urbanism, education, resources, media development, sociopolitical instability, accountability of governors (democracy), gross national income (GNI) and the Human Development Index (HDI), which was included to place countries in developmental categories. While other studies use gross national product (GNP) per capita, Jacob employs GIN per capita, “which is a similar but updated version of GNP that has become the standard for measuring countries’ wealth.”
  • For social instability measures, Jacob used the weighted conflict index found in the Bank’s Cross-Polity Time-Series Database, which represents “an index of domestic stress” used to “approximate domestric stress as a function of sociopolitical instaiblity. “In terms of this study, increased domestic stress was identified as one of the key sociopolitical conditions, namely instability, that might engender a greater democratic effect as a result of the increased diffusion of […] media technologies.” This variable includes codings of assassinations, general strikes, guerrilla warfare, government crises, riots, revolutions, and anti-government desmonstrations.
  • The ICT variables included in the study were Internet diffusion per 100 and a combined figure of televisions and radios divided by popluation figures available from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The author did not include newspaper figures because “recent trends in declining newspaper readership suggest newspaper circulation figures may no longer accurately represent mass media development.”
  • The democracy data was drawn from the Polivy IV database, specifically the ‘Polity 2’ democracy score, which is “often recognized for its validity, sophistication and comprehensiveness.” Jacob also notes that factor analyses of the data showed that the Polity 2 scores “load highly (over .90 for all years in this study) with Freedom House (2005) government accountability figures, which have been used previously […].” Note that Jacob used the Polity 2 score with a one-year time lag.
  • The 152 countries were chosen on the basis of their inclusion in many existing databases. The author omitted countries if 15% or more of the data was missing for any category or year. For countries included with missing figures, “mean substitution at the country level was used for each missing case per variable.” It would be helpful if Jacob had noted the number of countries for which mean substitutions was used.

Binary regional and time operators were also added as part of specifying fixed effects regression models.” Like several previous studies, the author did not include government control of the press because an important collinearity problem with democracy measures. “


Jacob used multiple regression models to test his hypothesis that Internet diffusion has democratic effects.  a number of potential causal arguments. He also used fixed effects panel regression to control for time and region-specific effects, omitted variables bias and heteroskedasticity problems. “Specifically, the fixed effects models controlled for unobserved variables that differed across time but did not vary across state.”


The figure below fits a fractional polynomial (linear-log) regression line to a scatterplot of all countries for all years. Of the most non-democratic countries in 2003 (Belarus, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates), only Bahrain showed an increase in the Polity 2 democracy measure. In Belarus, the democracy measure fell dramatically during the 10-year time period despite the fact that the important increase in Internet users by 2003.

While Jacob doesn’t draw on the Open Net Initiative (ONI) research on censorship, the group’s 2008 empirical study “Access Denied” does demonstrate an important global rise in Internet filtering. In other words, repressive regimes are becoming increasingly savvier in their ability to regulate the impact Internet diffusion within their borders.


When taken together, Jacob’s findings suggest that “the democratizing effect of the Internet is severely limited among non-democratic countries.” In addition, Jacob’s results suggest that higher levels of sociopolitical instability in “developing countries proved to be just as important in cultivating a democratic effect as the increased diffusion of Internet.” Another interpretation might be that, “sociopolitical instability may contribute to more apparent levels of Internet effects, even when presented with seemingly inconsequential levels of diffusion” that characterize developing countries.”

This is a surprising finding regardless of the interpretation. At the same time, however, Jacob should have noted that empirical studies in the political science literature have debated the destabilization effects of democratization. See Mansfield and Snyder (2001) for example. In addition, the political transitions literature does note the importance of mass social protests and nonviolent civil resistance in sustainable transitions to democracy. See Stephan and Cherdowith (2008) and my recent findings on the impact of ICTs on the frequency of protests in repressive regimes.


Jacob’s empirical research is an important contribution to the study of ICTs and impact on society, both from a development context—developing versus developed countries—and regime type—democratic versus nondemocratic.

Patrick Philippe Meier