Tag Archives: Digital Activism

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

Facebook Fosters Political Engagement

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.” Jessica Feezell, one of the lecturers on the panel, presented her co-authored research paper (PDF) on ”Facebook and Political Engagement.”

Abstract. Can online groups help to foster political engagement among citizens?  We employ a multi-method design incorporating content analysis of political group pages and original survey research of university undergraduates (n = 455) to assess the quality of online political group discussion and effects of online group membership on political engagement measured through political knowledge and political participation surrounding the 2008 election.

We find through OLS and 2SLS multivariate regression analyses that participation in online political groups strongly predicts offline political participation by engaging members online.  However, we fail to confirm through 2SLS that there is a corresponding positive effect on political knowledge, likely due to low quality online group discussion.  This work contributes to an active dialogue on political usage of the Internet and civic engagement by further specifying forms of Internet use and corresponding effects.  Overall, we conclude that online groups perform many of the same positive civic functions as offline groups, specifically in terms of mobilizing political participation.

This study is an important contribution to the study of digital democracy. We need more empirical studies of this kind. My only concern is selection bias apparent in the research. The undergraduates surveyed by the authors were “students in three large political science classes.” In other words, this is a self-selected group of already politically interested individuals.

So the question remains: does Facebook foster political engagement in individuals that are not politically inclined to begin with? And related to my research: would the findings also hold true in countries under authoritarian rule, like Egypt?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Connectedness Unnecessary for Successful Mobilization

The latest issue of the American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) includes an insightful study entitled “Don’t Forget to Vote: Text Message Reminders as a Mobilization Tool.”

Co-authored by Allison Dale and Aaron Strauss, the study (PDF) suggests that connectedness is not a necessary condition for a successful mobilization campaign. “For certain voters, a noticeable reminder is sufficient to drive them to the polls.” What’s particularly interesting is that “impersonal text messages are as effective as other, more personal,  forms of voter mobilization.”

Abstract. Current explanations of effective voter mobilization strategies maintain that turnout increases only when a potential voter is persuaded to participate through increased social connectedness. The connectedness explanation does not take into account, however, that registered voters, by registering, have already signaled their interest in voting.

The theory presented in this article predicts that impersonal, noticeable messages can succeed in increasing the likelihood that a registered voter will turn out by reminding the recipient that Election Day is approaching. Text messaging is examined as an example of an impersonal, noticeable communication to potential voters.

A nationwide field experiment (n = 8,053) in the 2006 election finds that text message reminders produce a statistically significant 3.0 percentage point increase in the likelihood of voting. While increasing social connectedness has been shown to positively affect voter turnout, the results of this study, in combination with empirical evidence from prior studies, suggest that connectedness is not a necessary condition for a successful mobilization campaign. For certain voters, a noticeable reminder is sufficient to drive them to the polls.

One question that remains is whether this finding would hold true in countries under authoritarian rule.

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

Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance

I’ve been advising a large scale digital activism and civil resistance project and am concerned by the lack of importance placed on content. The project’s donor (not implementer) literally thinks that flooding the country in question with mobile phones, for example, will catalyze an effective digital and civil resistance movement. Clearly, they know very little about civil resistance.

Content Matters

Here’s a personal story I often relate during conversations that tend toward technological determinism. I was in the Western Sahara in 2003 doing investigative research on the Polisario guerrilla movement. I made contact with a high ranking guerrilla fighter who had trained in Cuba and Libya and who just defected from the camp’s headquarters in Algeria. He was a wealth of information and we quickly became friends.

Click for credit/source

One of my most memorable moments was when he recounted what ultimately made him decide to leave the Polisario. “I got a Spanish copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell, and I couldn’t believe it, he described in detail the political nature of the Polisario movement. I did not want this life for my children and my wife. So I left.”

Click for credit/source

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely pro self-determination for the Western Sahara which, like many others, I consider to be the oldest colony in Africa. The point of my story, however, is that a simply but brilliant book was enough to make my friend take a huge risk in defecting. Content is key, technology is secondary. (I’m actually reading a neat book, Wasp by Eric Russell, that gets exactly at this disproportionate, asymmetric dynamic vis-a-vis civil resistance).

Identifying Content

This brings me to my next point. I have been surprised to find little material that specifically lists the kind of content one would want to smuggle into a country under authoritarian rule. This is not to say we should restrict certain types of information, absolutely not, the first step is to provide full and secure access to all content on the web, for example.

At the same time, it behooves us to place some deliberate “sign posts” to specific content that can educate a closed society about digital activism and civil resistance. This means providing access to international and alternative news, such as mainstream media and GlobalVoices. Providing access to Wikipedia is also a good idea. But there’s a lot more content out there if the goal is to foster a peaceful transition to democracy.

As the Western Sahara story suggests, we would want to provide all of George Orwell’s books in print and/or electronic form. In addition, books on democracy and especially nonviolent revolutions and social movements. History books on civil resistance as well as video documentaries and even audio-books. I would also include multimedia material on nonviolent tactics and strategy.

afmp

Finally, I’m interested in computer games, like A Force More Powerful (AFMP); see screenshot above. I’ve also been toying around with the idea of multi-player games on mobile phones that replicate swarm or smartmob-like behavior. Like a treasure hunt of sorts via SMS or beeping.

How You Can Help

The identification of content should be one of the very first steps in this kind of digital activism and civil resistance project. Only after the content is identified, acquired and translated into the appropriate language(s) should one turn to technology as a vehicle for safe and secure transmission using encryption, steganography, etc.

In the meantime, here’s what I  have so far:

  • A Force More Powerful (book, DVD and game)
  • Nonviolent Conflict: 50 Crucial Points (>)
  • Waging Nonviolent Struggle in the 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (>)
  • Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the 20th Century (>)
  • Unarmed Insurrections: People Power in Non-Democracies (>)
  • On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (>)
  • Introduction to Nonviolent Conflict (>)
  • Bringing Down a Dictator (DVD)
  • Revolution in Orange (Book and DVD)
  • There Are Realistic Alternatives (>)
  • The Right to Rise Up: The Virtues of Civic Disruption (>)
  • Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power (>)
  • Civil Disobedience by Hannah Arendt (>)
  • War without Weapons (>)
  • Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographic Perspective (>)
  • Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent (>)
  • Power and Persuasion: Nonviolent Strategies to Influence State Security Forces (>)
  • Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Lessons from Past, Ideas for Future (>)
  • How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (>)

There is more great content listed on the Albert Einstein Institution website, PeaceMakers, Civil Resistance Info, Nonviolent Conflict, DigiActive and David Cortright’s website.

I’m looking for free or paid content. This content can be text, audio and/or video. I’d also be interested in putting a list together of entertaining movies with an underlying message of democracy and nonviolent resistance. The same goes for computer games and games on mobile phones. In sum, any material you think could educate and empower a society closed from the world would be welcome.

Feel free to forward this call for feedback as widely as you’d like. Thank you.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Media and Nonviolent Conflict

The twelfth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the role of the media in civil resistance. The media can be a powerful force in supporting the principles of a nonviolent struggle. At the same time, the media can also frame issues in a very unhelpful way.

I should say that the tactics and strategies below are core to the field of digital activism. DigiActive provides training on how to use new media to frame your message and how to connect with mainstream media. One needs to set an “agenda of resistance” in all media interventions.

irancartoon

News framing is like a picture frame; new influences what people think and feel about but also influences what people do not think about. Words activate particular frames of seeing. The challenge for activists is to “mediatize” your own conflict.This means framing the conflict at home and abroad. Getting your values and vision across can substantially change the strategic balance of your struggle

In order to interact with the media, nonviolent movements have to understand what journalists need:

  • Clear, molded messages: What are you trying to say?
  • For clearly targeted audiences: Whom are you trying to reach? Your first audience is us in the press.
  • With a local angle or news-peg: Why does it matter to me?
  • Promotion is key: Storytelling is story selling double meaning.

Journalists in essence perform two functions: verification and justification. The challenge for the activists’ organization is to be able to feed both these appetites:

  • Capacity to deliver the event/development journalists can themselves witness;
  • Capacity to provide the “justifiable” sources and commentators.

Being able to provide both enables the nonviolent activist to trade in the media market at some competitive advantage.

What makes a good story?

  • Information: what do people need to know? Why does a story matter to me?
  • Human appeal: News is people, who they are, what they want, and how they get it. Issues need a human face.
  • Buzz factor: what are people talking about? News is deviation from norm. Mode of delivery matches message. Nonviolence is often a deviation from the norm.

One participant asked whether the story of Neda in Iran helps or hurts the civil resistance? On the one hand, Neda has come to frame the current struggle. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that the regime is cracking down and may help spread fear. CNN turned the story of Neda into a story on “how CNN covers the Neda story” as opposed to the story behind Neda.

Don’t fight the media, figure them out:

  • Understand who covers what
  • Target your media audience: TV? Radio? Print? Internet?
  • Make relationships, maintain them (not just when news breaks)
  • Understand news cycles
  • Pitch the right reporter at the right time
  • Mold the message say it simply
  • Personify your story: we cover people, not issues
  • Keep deadlines in mind
  • Know how journalists see their competition

Get your story out on the Internet: Why? How?

  • Reach a new audience
  • Free distribution
  • Increase your numbers
  • Get feedback
  • Meet allies
  • Signal adversaries
  • Raise money
  • Pitch to journalists
  • Great blogs have new posts several times a day

In conclusion, understand what makes a story; remember who you’re trying to reach and how; treat the press like an ally, not an enemy; technology is your friend (but use it safely/securely); develop flexibility in your ability to get your message to people.

Patrick Philippe Meier

An Analytical Framework to Understand Twitter’s use in Iran?

The digital activism and resistance witnessed in Iran go to the heart of my dissertation research, which asks whether the information revolution empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa? Iran is one of my case studies for my upcoming field research in addition to Burma, Tunisia and Ukraine.

Introduction

There have been a number of excellent blog posts on the intersection between technology and resistance in Iran, and especially on the use of Twitter. The mainstream press is also awash with references to Twitter’s role. For example, Agence France Presse (AFP) recently cited my research in this piece entitled “Twitter Streams Break Iran News Dam.”

However, what I haven’t seen in the blogosphere and mainstream press is the application of an analytical and theoretical framework to place Twitter’s use in Iran into context.

For example, just how important is/was Twitter’s role vis-a-vis the mobilization and organization of anti-government protests in Iran? We can draw on anecdotes here and there but this process is devoid of any applied social science methodology.

This post seeks to shed light on how, when and why information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used by resistance movements in repressive environments. The framework I draw on (summarized below) is informed by Kelly Garrett’s excellent publication on “Protest in an Information Society: A Review of the Literature on Social Movements and New ICTs” (2006).

Framework

The framework seeks to “explain the emergence, development and outcomes of social movements by addressing three interrelated factors: mobilizing structures, opportunity structures and framing processes”  within the context of ICTs. (The figure below is excerpted from my dissertation, hence the figure 4 reference).

PhDFramework

  • Mobilizing Structures are the mechanisms that facilitate organization and collective action. These include social structures and tactical repertoires.
  • Opportunity Structures are conditions that favor social movement activity. For example, these include factors such as the state’s capacity and propensity for repression.
  • Framing Processes are “strategic attempts to craft, disseminate, and contest the language and narratives used to describe a movement.”

These three factors should be further disaggregated to facilitate analysis. For example, mobilizing structures can be divided into categories susceptible to the impact of ICTs:

  • Participation levels (recruitment);
  • Contentious activity;
  • Organizational issues.

These sub-indicators are still to broad, however. Take, for example, participation levels; what is participation a function of? What underlying mechanisms are facilitated or constrained by the wider availability and use of ICTs? Participation levels may change as a function of three factors:

  • Reduction of participation costs;
  • Promotion of collective identity;
  • Creation of community.

These activities are of course not mutually exclusive but often interdependent. In any case, taking the analysis of ICTs in repressive environments to the tactical level facilitates the social science methodology of process tracing.

Application

We can apply the above framework to test a number of hypotheses regarding Twitter’s use in Iran. Take Mobilizing Structures, for example. The following hypothesis could be formulated.

  • Hypothesis 1: The availability of Twitter in Iran increased participation levels, contentious activity and organizational activity.

Using process tracing and the above framework, one could test hypothesis 1 as follows:

hypo1

These causal chains, or “micro theories,” are posited with the “⎥” marker to signify that the causal relationship is contended. The direction of the arrows above reflects the theoretical narratives extracted from the theoretical framework presented above. Note that the above “micro” theories are general and not necessarily reflective of Twitter’s use in Iran.

Iran Case Study

When the arrows are tallied, the results suggest the following general theory: there is a direct and positive relationship between the impact of Twitter and the incidents of protests and riots. The next step is to test these “micro theories” in the context of Iran by actually “weighting” the arrows. And of course, to do so comparatively by testing the use of Twitter relative to the use of mobile phones and the Internet. Furthermore, the results of this hypothesis testing should be compared to those for Opportunity Structures and Framing Processes.

I plan to carry out field research to qualitatively test these hypotheses once the first phase of my dissertation is completed. The first phase is a large-N quantitative study to determine whether increasing access to ICTs in repressive regimes is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests.

Patrick Philippe Meier