Tag Archives: digital democracy

Project Cybersyn: Chile 2.0 in 1973

My colleague Lokman Tsui at the Berkman Center kindly added me to the Harvard-MIT-Yale Cyberscholars working group and I attended the second roundtable of the year yesterday. These roundtables typically comprise three sets of presentations followed by discussions.

Introducing Cybersyn

We were both stunned by what was possibly one of the coolest tech presentations we’ve been to at Berkman. Assistant Professor Eden Medina from Indiana University’s School of Informatics presented her absolutely fascinating research on Project Cybsersyn. This project ties together cybernetics, political transitions, organizational theory, complex systems and the history of technology.

cybersyn_control_room

I had never heard of this project but Eden’s talk made we want to cancel all my weekend plans and read her dissertation from MIT, which I’m literally downloading as I type this. If you’d like an abridged version, I’d recommend reading her peer-reviewed article which won the 2007 IEEE Life Member’s Prize in Electrical History: “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile” (PDF).

Project Cybersyn is an early computer network developed in Chile during the socialist presidency of Salvador Allende (1970–1973) to regulate the growing social property area and manage the transition of Chile’s economy from capitalism to socialism.

Under the guidance of British cybernetician Stafford Beer, often lauded as the ‘father of management cybernetics’, an interdisciplinary Chilean team designed cybernetic models of factories within the nationalized sector and created a network for the rapid transmission of economic data between the government and the factory floor. The article describes the construction of this unorthodox system, examines how its structure reflected the socialist ideology of the Allende government, and documents the contributions of this technology to the Allende administration.

The purpose of Cybersyn was to “network every firm in the expanding nationalized  sector of the economy to a central computer in Santiago, enabling the government to grasp the status of production quickly and respond to economic crises in real time.”

Heartbeat of Cybersyn

Stafford is considered the ‘Father of Management Cybernetics” and at the heart of Stafford’s genius is the “Viable System Model” (VSM). Eden explains that “Cybersyn’s design cannot be understood without a basic grasp of this model, which played a pivotal role in merging the politics of the Allende government with the design of this technological system.”

VSM is a model of the organizational structure of any viable or autonomous system. A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable.

vsm

Beer believed that this five-tier, recursive model existed in all stable organizations—biological, mechanical and social.

VSM recursive

Synergistic Cybersyn

Based on this model, Stafford’s team sought ways to enable communications among factories, state enterprises, sector committees, the management of the country’s development agency and the central mainframe housed at the agency’s headquarters.

Eventually, they settled on an existing telex network previously used to track satellites. Unlike the heterogeneous networked computer systems in use today, telex  networks mandate the use of specific terminals and can only transmit ASCII characters. However, like the Internet of today, this early network of telex machines was driven by the idea of creating a high-speed web of information exchange.

Eden writes that Project Cybersyn eventually consisted of four sub-projects: Cybernet, Cyberstride, Checo and Opsroom.

  • Cybernet: This component “expanded the existing telex network to include every firm in nationalized sector, thereby helping to create a national network of communication throughout Chile’s three-thousand-mile-long territory. Cybersyn team members occasionally used the promise of free telex installation to cajole factory managers into lending their support to the project. Stafford Beer’s early reports describe the system as a tool for real-time economic control, but in actuality each firm could only transmit data once per day.”
  • Cyberstride: This component “encompassed the suite of computer programmes written to collect, process, and distribute data to and from each of the state enterprises. Members of the Cyberstride team created ‘ quantitative flow charts of activities within each enterprise that would highlight all important activities ’, including a parameter for ‘ social unease ’[…]. The software used statistical methods to detect production trends based on historical data, theoretically allowing [headquarters] to prevent problems before they began. If a particular variable fell outside of the range specified by Cyberstride, the system emitted a warning […]. Only the interventor from the affected enterprise would receive the algedonic warning initially and would have the freedom, within a given time frame, to deal with the problem as he saw fit. However, if the enterprise failed to correct the irregularity within this timeframe, members of the Cyberstride team alerted the next level management […].”
  • CHECO: This stood for CHilean ECOnomy, a component of Cybersyn which “constituted an ambitious effort to model the Chilean economy and provide simulations of future economic behaviour. Appropriately, it was sometimes referred to as ‘Futuro’. The simulator would serve as the ‘government’s experimental laboratory ’ – an instrumental equivalent to Allende’s frequent likening of Chile to a ‘social laboratory’. […] The simulation programme used the DYNAMO compiler developed by MIT Professor Jay Forrester […]. The CHECO team initially used national statistics to test the accuracy of the simulation program. When these results failed, Beer and his fellow team members faulted the time differential in the generation of statistical inputs, an observation that re-emphasized the perceived necessity for real-time data.
  • Opsroom: The fourth component “created a new environment for decision making, one modeled after a British WWII war room. It consisted of seven chairs arranged in an inward facing circle flanked by a series of projection screens, each displaying the data collected from the nationalized enterprises. In the Opsroom, all industries were homogenized by a uniform system of iconic representation, meant to facilitate the maximum extraction of information by an individual with a minimal amount of scientific training. […] Although [the Opsroom] never became operational, it quickly captured the imagination of all who viewed it, including members of the military, and became the symbolic heart of the project.

Outcome

Cybersyn never really took off. Stafford had hoped to install “algedonic meters” or early warning public opinion meters in “a representative sample of Chilean homes that would allow Chilean citizens to transmit their pleasure or displeasure with televised political speeches to the government or television studio in real time.”

[Stafford] dubbed this undertaking ‘ The People’s Project ’ and ‘ Project Cyberfolk ’ because he believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.

As Cybersyn expanded beyond the initial goals of economic regulation to political-structural transformation, Stafford grew concerned that Cybersyn could prove dangerous if the system wasn’t fully completed and only individual components of the project adopted. He feared this could result in “result in ‘ an old system of government with some new tools … For if the invention is dismantled, and the tools used are not the tools we made, they could become instruments of oppression.” In fact, Stafford soon “received invitations from the repressive governments in Brazil and South Africa to build comparable systems.”

Back in Chile, the Cybernet component of Cybersyn “proved vital to the government during the opposition-led strike of October 1972 (Paro de Octubre).” The strike threatened the government’s survival so high-ranking government officials used Cybernet to monitor “the two thousand telexes sent per day that covered activities from the northern to the southern ends of the country.” In fact, “the rapid flow of messages over the telex lines enabled the government to react quickly to the strike activity  […].”

The project’s telex network was subsequently—albeit briefly—used for economic mapping:

[The] telex network permitted a new form of economic mapping that enabled the government to collapse the data sent from all over the country into a single report, written daily at [headquarters], and hand delivered to [the presidential palace]. The detailed charts and graphs filling its pages provided the government with an overview of national production, transportation, and points of crisis in an easily understood format, using data generated several days earlier. The introduction of this form of reporting represented a considerable advance over the previous six-month lag required to collect statistics on the Chilean economy […].

Ultimately, according to Stafford, Cybersyn did not succeed because it wasn’t accepted as a network of people as well as machines, a revolution in behavior as well as in instrumental capability. In 1973, Allende was overthrown by the military and the Cybersyn project all but vanished from Chilean memory.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy in Burma

My colleagues Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky from Digital Democracy gave an excellent guest lecture yesterday. They presented their findings from their Burma project to undergraduate students in my digital democracy course co-taught with Josh Goldstein. There excellent slides are available on Slideshare here.

Mark and Emily began their presentation with a reference George Orwell who served in Burma as a military officer. It is striking that every Burmese who has read Orwell claims the author wrote not one but three books on Burma: Burmese DaysAnimal Farm and 1984.

Here are just a few insights from the two-hour presentation that I found particularly interesting:

  • Based on 90+ surveys carried out, Mark and Emily found that young Burmese who had access to the Internet were more likely to identify themselves as activists.
  • The Bangladeshi cell phone network extends well into Burma so activists can use phones from Bangladesh to relay information.
  • Monks have access to the Internet and to mobile phones because the Junta provided them the technology as part of alms giving.

Mark and Emily shared some fascinating anecdotes on digital activism in Burma based on their field research. Some are somewhat sensitive and not blog-able but others are less so yet equally eye opening. For example, Mark recounts a visit to a Burmese refugee camp along the Bangladeshi-Burma border:

I had five minutes of idle time and so decided to check my Facebook page using my mobile phone. I was soon approached by one of the refugees who looked on curiously. Before I could explain, the person enquired, “Do you wiki?” I was stunned as he pulled out a much fancier phone and proceeded to show me his favorite Wikipedia pages which were on fancy sports cars.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Resistance and the Orange Revolution

My colleague Joshua Goldstein recently researched the role of digital networked technologies in the Ukranian Orange Revolution (PDF). There are few case studies out there that address both digital activism and civilian resistance, i.e., digital resistance, so what follows is a detailed summary of Josh’s report for the Berkman Center along with some of my own research.

Introduction

Compared to the other three panel presentations, this study takes a narrative case study approach and focuses on a single case study, the role of the Internet and mobile phones during the Orange Revolution.

For Josh, one of the most fascinating questions about the Orange Revolution is how the Internet became such an influential tool when only 4% of the population was online? Even though such a small percentage of the population had Internet access, “the Orange Revolution may have been the first in history to be organized largely online.”

Theory

To understand what contributed to this digital revolution, Josh draws on the Two-Step Flow Theory developed by sociologists Katz and Lazardsfeld (1955), which delineates a ‘two step’ information path. The first is the direct path between mass media and the general public. The second path is among elite opinion makers who strongly influence public opinion.

According to Josh,

This theory helps delineate how a relatively small group of activists and citizen journalists helped create a distinct information environment that challenged the narrative presented by state sanctioned media.

In the Ukraine, both the rise of citizen journalism and  influential opinion makers from the opposition were in large part consequences  of the widespread self-censorship that existed in the country.

‘Self censorship was not enshrined in law, but it was well known that oligarchs owned all of the major television stations. Station managers received temnyky, unsigned directives from the President’s office that urged them to cover the news in a particular way. Managers knew that if they did not please the ‘key viewer,’ the President and his regime, they would be in danger of losing their jobs.

As Josh notes, however, Channel 5 was the notable exception. The small television station had been bought by members of the opposition to promote an independent view on Ukranian politics. Although Channel 5 only available to 30% of the population, the station became well known for it’s alternative view on domestic affairs.

In addition, citizen opposition journalism posed a central challenge to the semi-autocratic regime. However, Josh writes that the Ukranian public already recognized the Internet as a legitimate news source. Online news sites including Pravda, Obozrevatel and ProUA, were well already well known. Moreover, they were a “hybrid between citizen and professional media [since] they were predominantly staffed by professional journalists but often received low pay or were motivated by changing the Ukranian landscape.”

To build on his theoretical framework, Josh also draws on Stephen Bandera’s empirical study on political participation during the Orange Revolution. The results of this study revealed that “Ukranians who use the Internet were more likely to be online political citizens than their American counterparts.”

Lastly, Josh recognizes that technologies alone do not explain the success of the Orange Revolution:

The ability to diffuse tension through humor and satire was crucial to the success of the Orange Revolution. […] Every joke and pun created by this community of activists and directed at [the regime] further drew attention to the vastly different information environments and political futures that the two candidates represented.

Case Studies

Josh draws on two case studies to test out his theoretical framework. The first is Maidan and the second Para.

Maidan was a group of tech-savvy pro-democracy activists who used the Internet as a tool to support their movement. Maidan in Ukranian means public square and Maidan’s website features the slogal “You CAN chnage the world you live in. And you can do it now. In Ukraine.”

The main activity of Maidan was election monitoring and networking with other pro-democracy organizations around Eastern Europe. Maidan hosted around 27 election monitoring trainings, in nearly every Ukranian region, with support from Serbia’s Otpor movement. […] In the year leading up to the election, Maidan trained 500 Ukranians to observe the election. This evidence collected […] was central to proving the existence of massive election fraud.

However, the founder of Maidan argues that “websites cannot produce an activist organization.” As Josh explains, it was crucial for Maidan to frequently host real world meetings as their membership base increased. The human element was particularly important. This explains why Maidan encouraged users to disclose their identity whenever possible.

Maidan was not a completely decentralized organization. The community benefited from centralized leadership that developed the organization’s culture, controlled its assets and provided the strategy to achieve desired goals. The Maidan experience thus demonstrates a hybrid organization.

In sum, the Internet was clearly a vital, multi-faceted tool for Maidan. The Internet facilitated outreach, training, awareness raising, fundraising and marketing. At the same time, centralized, top-down leadership was necessary to accomplish the organization’s goals.

Pora, meaning “It’s Time” in Ukranian, was a well-organized group of  pro-democracy volunteers that “emerged as an information sharing campaign and during the elections morphed into coordinators of mass protest centered around tent cities in towns throughout Ukraine. The grassroots movement took its inspiration from Serbia’s Otpor movements as well as “older civic movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.”

The organization described it’s raison d’être as follows:

Under conditions of far-reaching censorship and absence of independent media, the main idea of Pora is the creation of alternative ‘mass media,’ in which volunteers deliver election-related information ‘from hand to hand’ directly to people throughout the Ukraine.

Pora promoted “the active use of modern communication systems in the campaign’s management,” and “mobile phones played an important role for mobile fleet of activists.” According to Pora’s post-election report, “a ssytem of immedate dissemination of information by SMS was put in place and proved important.” In addition, “some groups provided the phones themselves, while others provided SIM cards, and most provided airtime.”

The Internet also played a role in Pora’s campaign by providing rapid reporting in a way that no other medium could. As tent cities across the Ukraine became the sign of the revolution,

The news feed from the regions [became] vitally important. Every 10 to 15 minutes another tent city appeared in some town or other, and the fact was soon reported on the air. News from the region was read by opposition leaders on Maidan to millions of listeners in the streets of Ukraine.

While the government certainly saw the Internet as a threat, the government had not come to consensus regarding the “legal and political frameworks it would use to silence journalists that published openly on this new medium.” Ukrainian law considered the Internet to be a “peer-to-peer communication tool and not a mass media platform,” which explains why “online sites were able to blossom” and why many online journalists unlike mainstream journalists were free from the threat of defamation charges.

In addition to new technologies, the grassroots movement also “successfully leveraged traditional methods of spreading information [such as] print products (leaflets, brochures, stickers, and small souvenirs), public activities and demonstration, visual representations (posters and graffiti), media presentations (clips and interviews), and periodicals.”

Josh argues that these activities make the Orange Revolution one of the earliest examples of what Steven Mann calls “sousveillance,” meaning, “the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance.” In short, Pora’s campaign represents the clearest link between the small percentage of Ukranian elite who were online and the general public.

Findings

Josh concludes that the Internet and mobile phones proved to to be effective tools for pro-democracy activists.

First, the Internet allowed for the creation of a space for dissenting opinions of ‘citizen journalists’ in an otherwise self-cencosred media environment.

Second, pro-democracy activists used the convergence of mobile phones and the Internet to coordinate a wide range of activities including election monitoring and large-scale protests.

In sum, Josh observes that “pro-democracy forces used the Internet and mobile phones more effectively than the pro-government forces, such that in this specific time and place these technologies weighed on the side of democracy.” Nevertheless, as Ned Rossiter cogently points out,

Technology certainly does not make possible a direct democracy, where everyone can participate in a decision, nor representative democracy where decision makers are elected; nor is it really a one-person-one-vote referendum style democracy. Instead it is a consultative process known as ‘rough consensus and running code.’

This points to a larger question for further research, which forms the basis for my dissertation:

Are these tools inherently conducive to the expansion of civic engagement and democratization or will authoritarian governments adapt the technology to their own advantage?

My Own Conclusion

One very interesting anecdote not reported in Josh’s report demonstrates the real power of traditional media. Natalia Dmytruk worked for the Ukraine’s state-run television news program as an interpreter of sign language for the hearing-impaired. As the revolution picked up momentum, she decided she couldn’t lie anymore and broke from the script with the following message:

I am addressing everybody who is deaf in the Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies. . . . And I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you. Maybe you will see me again…

According to a Washington Post article at the time, “Dmytruk’s live silent signal helped spread the news, and more people began spilling into the streets to contest the vote.”

Overall, what really strikes me about Josh’s peace is the very real convergence between civil resistance and digital activism, or digital resistance. Citizen journalists and digital activists participated in civil resistance trainings across the country, courtesy of Otpor. The use of humor and puns directed at the regime is a classic civil resistance tactic.

I spoke with Josh just yesterday about his research on the Orange Revolution and he was adamant that one of key reasons that explains the success of the revolution has to do with the fact that “the protesters were very well trained and very good at protesting… very, very good.”

This highlights just how critical training in civil resistance is. Digital activists need to acquire the tactical and strategic know-how developed over decades of civil resistance movements. Otherwise, tactical victories by digital activists may never translate into overall strategic victory for a civil resistance movement.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Panel on ICTs, Human Rights, Activism and Resistance

I just chaired a very productive panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) on the impact of ICTs on human rights, political activism and resistance.

ISApanel

The panel featured the following presentations:

  • Lucía Liste Muñoz and Indra de Soysa onThe Blog vs Big Brother: Information and Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.
  • Fabien Miard on “Call for Power? Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Patrick Meier on “iRevolutions: The Impact of ICTs on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” [slideshare]

Presentations

I’ve already blogged about each of the papers individually (see links above) so what follows are points from some of the presentations that I found particularly interesting. I also include the superb feedback that our discussant Professor Dan Drezner from The Fletcher School provided along with a summary of the productive Q&A session we had.

  • Muñoz and de Soysa: Their results show that Internet access leads to increasing respect of human rights by governments. This is true of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.
  • Joshua Goldstein: The role that Safaricom (a private telecommunications company) had in seeking to prevent and/or mitigate the election violence is unprecedented. Not only did the company refuse switch of the SMS network as per the government’s request, the company also sent out broadcast SMS to call on restraint and civic behavior.

Feedback to Panelists

Dan Drezner provided the following feedback:

  • The papers were definitely panel material as they all address important issues related to ICTs that overlap in very interesting ways. So overall, this was great set of papers and presentations, and panelists ought to make sure they read and learn from each others’ papers.
  • Most of the large-N papers blatantly seek to identify a positive correlation between ICT and human rights, political activism, digital resistance, etc. A less biased way to approach the research would be to formulate the question as follows: “How do ICTs benefit the State?”
  • Patrick should expand his set of countries beyond the 22 countries.
  • The dynamic between states and society vis-a-vis repression and circumvention may be an evolutionary one based on learning behavior.
  • The papers should treat ICTs not as independent variables but as an interactive variable with factors such as unemployment. In other words, the question should be: to what extent does ICT interact with other variables that we know ought to trigger protests?
  • The studies should separate anti-foreign protests from anti-government protests.
  • The large-N analyses should include more control variables such as dummy varibales for elections and wars.
  • The studies should also seek to assess the relationship between ICTs and the magnitude of protests and not only the frequency of protests.
  • The papers do not take into account the role of the Diaspora in helping to mobilize, organize and coordinate protests.

Response to Feedback

Here I only respond the feedback relevant to my paper and presentation:

  • On the bias towards finding a statistical relationship and expanding the number of countries in my study, I disagreed with Professor Drezner. I specifically chose the 22 countries in my dataset because the regimes in these countries are actively using ICTs to censor, repress, monitor and block information. So if anything, the cards are stacked against resistance movements when it comes to these countries. Hence my not planning to expand the dataset to include additional countries. Professor Drezner agreed on both points.
  • I completely agree on the evolutionary dynamic, which I described in my dissertation proposal and which explains why I often refer to the dynamic as a cyber game of cat-and-mouse.
  • I’m not entirely sold on treating ICTs as an interactive variable but will explore this nonetheless.
  • Agreed on the suggestion that anti-foreign protests be treated seperately since these protests are often organized by repressive regimes.
  • I fully agree on adding more control variables including elections, wars and population.
  • I concur with the point made about the magnitude of protests but this information is hard to come by. More importantly, however, the dataset I’m using is based on Reuters newswires and the reason I’m using this data is because Reuters is highly unlikely to report on low-level protests but rather on protests that have a national impact. So the dataset serves as a filter for large-scale protests and hence magnitude.
  • Very good point about the diaspora.

Q&A Session

We had an excellent set of questions from the audience which prompted a rich conversation around the following topics:

  • Repressive regimes learning from one another about how to use ICTs for censorship, repression, monitoring, etc. and resistance movement learning from each other.
  • The side to first acquire and apply new technology generally gets a head start, but this prompts the other side, e.g., the State to catch up and regain the upper hand.
  • Who are the users of these technologies? Demographics, gender, age, etc, should be important factors in the study of ICTs, State and society.
  • One member of the audience was a policy maker with the British government and  wanted to know what role Western governments should  play vis-a-vis digital activism.
  • The issue of civil resistance and the intersection with digital activism came up repeatedly in the discussion. Understanding one without the other is increasingly meaningless.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Mobile Phones and Political Activism

The second presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Fabien Miard on mobile phones as facilitators of political activism (see previous post for first presentation). Fabien will be sharing the findings from his recent MA thesis (PDF), which I have read with great interest.

Introduction

Fabien’s research examines whether the number mobile phones affect political activity by drawing on a large-N quantitative study. This is an area in much need of empirical analysis since “little systematic research beyond loose collections of case studies has been done so far.” Furthermore, as I have noted in my own dissertation research, the vast majority of social science research on information and communication technologies (ICTs) is focused on the impact of the Internet exclusively.

Data

The large-N study draws on the proprietary Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive (CNTS) for data on three forms of political activism: anti-government demonstrations, riots and major government crises. This dataset is derived from articles published in the New York Times (NYT). The data on the number of mobile phone subscribers is provided by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Control variables include: GDP per capita and population. The data he used spanned 191 countries between 1991-2006 but “a third of these dropped out due to missing values.”

Analysis

Fabien uses negative binomial regression (with one year time lag) to test whether the number of mobile phone subscribers is a statistically significant predictor of political activism.

The results indicate that mobile density has no significant effect on anti-government demonstrations when the control variables are included. The same is true when using riots or major government crises as dependent variables. GDP per capita is small and insignificant except for riots, where it has a significant negative effect. Population has an effect on all three variants of political activism variables.

Conclusion

Fabien therefore concludes that mobile connectivity is neither negatively nor positively associated with political activism. This implies that existing case studies “are overrated and that generalization by means of a global comparative case study is not possible.” He suggests that future quantitative research  take into account the following two recommendations:

  • Compare the impact of mobile phones on democratic versus oppressive regimes;
  • Analyze the combined impact of mobile phones and the Internet in addition to traditional technology variables;

These suggestions are spot on. One large-N quantitative study that I recently co-authored at the Berkman Center takes the first recommendation into account by comparing the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on measures of governance and democracy in both democratic and autocratic regimes (stay tuned for a blog post on this).

In my own dissertation research, I plan to compare the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on protests frequency in highly repressive versus midly repressive regimes. I also take into account Fabien’s second recommendation by adding Internet users and landlines. Furthermore, I include unemployment rate as a control variable which Fabien omits in his analysis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier