Tag Archives: Digital Activism

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by NDI

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 Chris Spence’s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • [T]he introduction of new media and other technologies should not be seen as a  panacea for democratic development nor goal in and of itself. These technologies, paired with effective methodologies, can help organizations make significant contributions toward advancing democratic process in authoritarian states.
  • Activists and civic groups have demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with traditional organizing principles, can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian states.
  • The key is not only to employ effective technologies but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment in which the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative gains and even game-changing democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use.

Me: I’ve been advocating for this two-pronged approach, nonviolent action and digital activism, for a while now. Indeed, my dissertation research is founded on the premise that a combined strategy is imperative if activists are to gain the upper hand in authoritarian states. See also this blog post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.

  • While regimes make quickly catch up or clamp down by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap between early adoption and governmental response can have long-term, positive consequences for democratic activists. The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.

Me: This hypothesis is identical to one that I have advanced in my dissertation research. One needs to accelerate activists’ learning curve and early adoption of new technologies and tactics. Hence the importance of DigiActive’s mission and my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Regimes.

  • However, […] the tools have been less effectively utilized for the organizing required that can lead to constructive political outcomes.  In some situations, information has been produced by citizens using innovative new media tools that initiate the process of change, but the process is stalled due to a lack of the organizations or institutions in the country required to capture the interests and channel the process toward purposeful, strategic and peaceful direct action.  Assisting organizations in these countries to build this capacity is an important component in leveraging new media tools toward political reform.

Me: This is precisely why nonviolent tactics and strategies need to inform digital activism. More about this here.

  • One set of institutions that are particularly well-suited to this role but are often overlooked in international circles are political parties. Relatively little attention is paid to the important role that parties play in aggregating citizen interests and channeling them into constructive and peaceful means toward democratic reform.
  • One area of opportunity, with tremendous potential in countries where NDI works, is to provide more new media technology assistance to political parties, especially in autocratic states where the regime often has access to considerable state resources and controls the organs of state communication.
  • [W]e believe our partners have made contributions that have prevented post-election violence or identified and raised important concerns about the electoral process that have led to more democratic and peaceful outcomes.
  • The field of domestic election monitoring has improved significantly in the last several years, partly due to improved methods and strategies and certainly enabled by these new technologies and replicated by the role of international organizations.
  • Citizen reporting is another method by which citizens have been able to communicate various aspects of their Election Day experiences using new media tools, usually text messages and Tweets. The information reported by citizens is typically collected and made accessible to the public on a Web site or online map in raw form. The value of this approach is to increase citizen participation in the election process. But to date, the challenge has been putting the information to good use.

Me: Ushahidi is probably the most well known example of citizen-based election monitoring. Full disclosure: I am Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi. The value of this approach is more than to increase citizen participation. The approach can also increase pressure for transparency and accountability in a way that has not been possible previously.

In terms of putting the information to good use, the challenge is simply due to the fact that Ushahidi is still new to many activists. As Chris himself noted above, “The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.” First comes communication and sharing. Second comes strategizing and action.

Another important point that often gets overlooked is that the various groups that have deployed Ushahidi for the election monitoring have usually done so “at the last minute”, i.e., with just weeks prior to election day. This is  starting to change now, with groups taking an advanced-planning approach to deploying Ushahidi. Indeed, I am in touch with several partners who are already planning for elections taking place more than half-a-year from now.

  • Tools are being developed to evaluate the authenticity and filter this incoming information so that organizations can then be prepared to put this powerful crowd-sourcing methodology to work during election periods. However, even as the tools and methods improve, citizen reporting promises to be a useful tool towards some electoral goals but won’t be a substitute for election monitoring in situations where assessing the overall legitimacy of an election is required.

Me: One example of a tool being developed to validate crowdsourced information is Swift River. Again, full disclosure: Swift River is one of my priority projects at Ushahidi. In terms of the promises of citizen reporting, I find Chris’s comment surprising. I have never heard anyone suggest that citizen-based election monitoring is a substitute for election monitoring.

  • The challenges faced by activists in autocratic nations are immense.  And these challenges are not only technical in nature but also legal and political.
  • [W]indows of opportunities for political reform can be created by the use of new media in authoritarian states with a combination of good technology tools, effective strategies and methodologies – put into use  by organizations or institutions that can channel the energy of the public and  the information they produce toward construct and peaceful political activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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

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