Tag Archives: Dissertation

Do “Liberation Technologies” Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive Regimes and Civil Society?

My dissertation is now available for download. Many thanks to my dissertation committee for their support and feedback throughout: Professor Dan Drezner, Professor Larry Diamond, Professor Carolyn Gideon and Clay Shirky. This dissertation is dedicated to Khaled Mohamed Saeed and Mohamed Bouazizi.


Do new information and communication technologies (ICTs) empower repressive regimes at the expense of civil society, or vice versa? For example, does access to the Internet and mobile phones alter the balance of power between repressive regimes and civil society? These questions are especially pertinent today given the role that ICTs played during this year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. Indeed, as one Egyptian activist stated, “We use Facebook to schedule our protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world.” But do these new ICTs—so called “liberation technologies”—really threaten repressive rule? The purpose of this dissertation is to use mixed-methods research to answer these questions.

The first half of my doctoral study comprised a large-N econometric analysis to test whether “liberation technologies” are a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests in countries with repressive regimes. If using the Internet and mobile phones facilitates organization, mobilization and coordina-tion, then one should expect a discernible link between an increase in access to ICTs and the frequency of protests—particularly in repressive states. The results of the quantitative analysis were combined with other selection criteria to identify two country case studies for further qualitative comparative analysis: Egypt and the Sudan.

The second half of the dissertation assesses the impact of “liberation technologies” during the Egyptian Parliamentary Elections and Sudanese Presidential Elections of 2010. The analysis focused specifically on the use of Ushahidi—a platform often referred to as a “liberation technology.” Descriptive analysis, process tracing and semi-structured interviews were carried out for each case study. The results of the quantitative and qualitative analyses were mixed. An increase in mobile phone access was associated with a decrease in protests for four of the five regression models. Only in one model was an increase in Internet access associated with an increase in anti-government protests. As for Ushahidi, the Egyptian and Sudanese dictatorships were indeed threatened by the technology because it challenged the status quo. Evidence suggests that this challenge tipped the balance of power marginally in favor of civil society in Egypt, but not in the Sudan, and overall not significantly.

The main contributions and highlights of my dissertation include:

New dataset on protests, ICTs, political and economic variables over 18 years.
New econometric analysis and contribution to quantitative political science.
New conceptual framework to assess impact of ICTs on social, political change.
* New operational application of conceptual framework to assess impact of ICTs.
New datasets on independent citizen election observation in repressive states.
* New insights into role of ICTs in civil resistance against authoritarian regimes.
New comprehensive literature on impact of ICTs on protests, activism, politics.
New targeted policy recommendations based on data driven empirical analysis.
New lessons learned and best practices in using the Ushahidi platform.

A PDF copy of my dissertation is available here.

Theorizing Ushahidi: An Academic Treatise

[This is an excerpt taken from Chapter 1 of my dissertation]

Activists are not only turning to social media to document unfolding events, they are increasingly mapping these events for the world to bear witness. We’ve seen this happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond. My colleague Alexey Sidorenko describes this new phenomenon as a “mapping reflex.” When student activists from Khartoum got in touch earlier this year, they specifically asked for a map, one that would display their pro-democracy protests and the government crackdown. Why? They wanted the world to see that the Arab Spring extended to the Sudan.

The Ushahidi platform is increasingly used to map information generated by crowds in near-real time like the picture depicted above. Why is this important? Because live public maps can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Jürgen Habermas. Recall Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.”

Sophisticated political maps have been around for hundreds of years. But the maps of yesteryear, like the books of old, were created and controlled by the few. While history used to be written by the victors, today, journalists like my colleague Anand Giridharadas from the New York Times are asking whether the triangulated crisis map will become the new first draft of history. In the field of geography and cartography, some refer to this new wave of democratized map-making as “neo-geography.” But this new type of geography is not only radically different from traditional approaches because it is user-generated and more par-ticipatory; the fact that today’s dynamic maps can also be updated and shared in near real-time opens up an entire new world of possibilities and responses.

Having a real time map is almost as good as having your own helicopter. A live map provides immediate situational awareness, a third dimension and additional perspective on events unfolding in time and space. Moreover, creating a map catalyzes conversations between activists, raises questions about geographic patterns or new incidents, and leads to more questions regarding the status quo in a repressive environment. To be sure, mass media alone does not change people’s minds.  Recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In addition, the collaboration that takes place when creating a live map can also reinforce weak and strong ties, both of which are important for civil resistance.

The Ushahidi platform enables a form of live-mapped “sousveillance,” which refers to the recording of an activity using portable personal technologies. In many respects, however, the use of Ushahidi goes beyond sousveillance in that it generates the possibility of “dataveillance” and a possible reversal of Bentham’s panopticon. “With postmodernity, the panopticon has been informationalized; what once was organized around hierarchical observation is now organized through decoding and recoding of information” (Lyon 2006). In Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues eloquently that this process of decoding and recoding was for centuries the sole privilege of the State. In contrast, the Ushahidi platform provides a participatory digital canvas for the public decoding, recoding of information and synchronization of said information. In other words, the platform serves to democratize dataveillance by crowdsourcing what was once the exclusive realm of the “security-informational complex.”

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts published in 1990, James Scott distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between domina-tors and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step, social conversations, that Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) argue ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. In many ways, the Ushahidi platform is a vehicle by which the hidden transcript is collectively published and used to create shared awareness—thereby threatening to alter the balance of power between the oppressors and oppressed.

The new dynamics that are enabled by “liberation technologies” like Ushahidi may enable a different form of democracy, one which arising from “the inability of electoral/representative politics to keep it promises [has thus] led to the development of indirect forms of democracy” (Rosanvallon 2008). More specifically, Rosanvallon indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable not just during elections but also between elections and independent of their results. “The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics  [cf. dataveillance] when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment” (Schmitter 2008, PDF).

These three phases correspond surprisingly well with the three waves of Ushahidi uses witnessed over the past three years. The first wave was reactive and documentary focused. The second was more pro-active and focused on action beyond documentation while the third seeks to capitalize on the first two to complete the rebalancing of power. Perhaps this final wave is the teleological purpose of the Ushahidi platform or What Technology Wants as per Kevin Kelly’s treatise. However, this third wave, the trend toward the “juridificaiton” of democracy bolstered by crowdsourced evidence that is live-mapped on a public Ushahidi platform, is today more a timid ripple than a tsunami of change reversing the all-seeing “panopticon”. A considerable amount of learning-by-doing remains to be done by those who wish to use the Ushahidi platform for impact beyond the first two phases of Rosanvallon’s democracy.

Access to Mobile Phones Increases Protests Against Repressive Regimes

I recently shared a draft of my first dissertation chapter which consists of a comprehensive literature review on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. Thanks very much to everyone who provided feedback, I really appreciate it. I will try to incorporate as much of the feedback as possible in the final version and will also update that chapter in the coming months given the developments in Tunisia and Egypt.

The second chapter of my dissertation comprises a large-N econometric study on the impact of ICT access on anti-government protests in countries under repressive rule between 1990 and 2007. A 32-page draft of this chapter is available here as a PDF. I use negative binomial regression analysis to test whether the diffusion of ICTs is a statistically significant predictor of protest events and if so, whether that relationship is positive or negative. The dependent variable, protests, is the number of protests per country-year. The ICT variables used in the model are: Internet users, mobile phone subscribers and number of telephone landlines per country-year. The control variables, identified in the literature review are percentage change in GDP, unemployment rate, the degree of autocracy per country-year, internal war and elections.

A total of 38 countries were included in the study: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Burma, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, DRC, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. I clustered these countries into 4 groups, those with relatively (1) high and (2) low levels of ICT access; and those with (3) high and (4) low levels of protests per country-year. The purpose of stratifying the data is to capture underlying effects that may be lost by aggregating all the data. So I ran a total of 5 regressions, one on each of those four country groups and one on all the countries combined.

All five negative binomial regression models on the entire 18-year time panel for the study data were significant. Of note, however, is the non-significance of the Internet variable in all models analyzed. Mobile phones were only significant in the regression models for the “Low Protest” and “High Mobile Phone Use” clusters. However, the relationship was negative in the former case and positive in the latter. In other words, an increase in mobile phone users in countries with relatively high ICTs access, is associated with an increase in the number of protests against repressive regimes. This may imply that social unrest is facilitated by the use of mobile communication in countries with widespread access to mobile phones, keeping other factors constant.

These findings require some important qualifications. First, as discussed in the data section, the protest data may suffer from media bias. Second, the protest data does not provide any information on the actual magnitude of the protests. Third, economic data on countries under repressive rule need to be treated with suspicion since some of this data is self-reported. For example, authoritarian regimes are unlikely to report the true magnitude of unemployment in their country. ICT data is also self-reported. Fourth, the data is aggregated to the country-year level, which means potentially important sub-national and sub-annual variations are lost. Fifth and finally, the regression results may be capturing other dynamics that are not immediately apparent given the limits of quantitative analysis.

Qualitative comparative analysis is therefore needed to test and potentially validate the results derived from this quantitative study. Indeed, “perhaps the best reason to proceed in a qualitative and comparative way is that the categories of ‘democracy’ and ‘technology diffusion’ are themselves aggregates and proxies for other measurable phenomena” (Howard 2011). Unpacking and then tracing the underlying causal connections between ICT use and protests requires qualitative methodologies such process-tracing and semi-structured interviews. The conceptual framework developed in Chapter 2 serves as an ideal framework to inform both the process-tracing and interviews. The next chapter of my dissertation will thus introduce two qualitative case studies to critically assess the impact of ICTs on state-society relations in countries under repressive rule. In the meantime, I very much welcome feedback on this second chapter from iRevolution readers.

ICTs, Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship: Comprehensive Literature Review

Building on my previous post with respect to Howard Philip’s “Origin of Dictatorship and Democracy,” I’ve completed a draft of my dissertation chapter which comprises a comprehensive literature on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. This is a 54-page document (17,000+ words)  which I believe represents the most up-to-date and in-depth review of the literature currently available. The chapter reviews both the quantitative and qualitative literature in this space.

You can download the chapter here (PDF).

I’m actively looking for feedback to make the chapter even stronger and more useful to scholars and practitioners interested in this space. So please do add any recommendations you may have in the comments section below. Thank you very much!

Impact of Technology on Democracy and Activism: Findings from Multiple Statistical Studies

Chapter 2 of my dissertation consists of a literature review on the impact of the Internet and mobile phones on democracy and activism. The first part of this literature view focuses specifically on analyzing the results from all the peer-reviewed quantitative studies that currently exist on the topic. The second part reviews more micro-level qualitative research. Part 1 is available here as a 7-page PDF. Part 2 will be available shortly.

Here is the list of studies reviewed in Part 1:

Eyck, Toby. 2001. “Does Information Matter? A research note on information technologies and political protest,” Social Science Journal, 38(2001): 147-160.

Howard, Philip. 2010. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England).

Groshek, Jacob. 2010. “A Time-Series, Multinational Analysis of Democratic Forecasts and Internet Diffusion,” International Journal of Communication, 4(2010): 142-174.

Groshek, Jacob. 2009. “The Democratic effects of the Internet, 1994-2003: A Cross-National Inquiry of 152 countries,” The International Communication Gazette, 71(3): 115-136.

Meier, Patrick. 2011. “The Impact of the Information Revolution on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts,” doctoral dissertation, The Fletcher School, Tufts University.

Miard, Fabien. 2009. “Call for Power: Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism,” paper presented at the 50th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), February 2009, New York.

I’m particularly keen on getting feedback on my draft, especially if you think I’ve missed a statistical study or find any errors in my analysis. Thank you.

A Survey on Repression vs Liberation: Does Technology Make a Difference?

I’m getting started on the second half of my dissertation research. This will comprise a series of semi-structured interviews with individuals who are knowledgeable about the impact of information and communication technologies in four countries under authoritarian rule. These countries include: Burma, Iran, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

I’ll be looking to interview at least 10 individuals per country case study. That means a total of 40 interviews between now and December. I also want to interview an additional 10 individuals who are not necessarily experts in one country per se but are particularly well informed about the overall subject matter. These 50 individuals will represent a mix of political activists, digital activists, technologists and academics who are either from the countries in question or experts on these countries.

I’d be most grateful for suggestions on which 50 individuals you might recommend touching base with. I already have a list about of about 30 but would like to compare this with reader suggestions. Please email me at patrick @ irevolution dot net. Obviously, I’m aware of the sensitivities around interviewing those colleagues who may be based in the countries in question. I will of course take appropriate precautions based on guidance from digital security professionals. Interviewees will remain anonymous in my own notes and these notes will be destroyed following my write-up which will be devoid of specific details and personal identifiers. Obviously, anyone I approach (directly or indirectly) can turn down the interview request.

I’d also be very interested in getting feedback on the survey questions I propose to ask. The ultimate question I want to answer is whether access to new ICTs empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice-versa? The associated set of questions  below are based on a conceptual framework grounded on a comprehensive literature review. While these have already been approved by my dissertation chair, I’m keen to get a crowdsourced opinion. Feel free to add your thoughts on the comments section below or email them to me if you prefer.  Note that I will use more conversational language when posing the questions below. Thank you very much.

Mobilizing Structures
1. Are more individuals participating in social resistance? Why/why not? If so, how and is this changing?
2. Is the resistance becoming more contentious? Why/why not?
3. Are resistance movements better organized? Why/why not?

Opportunity Structures
Do social resistance groups have more or less access to the political system? Why/why not?
5. Is state control of information communication increasing opportunity costs? Why/why not?

Digital Activism
6. How have resistance groups used ICTs to organize and mobilize? If so, how?
7. Have ICTs been critical to the success of social resistance activities? Why/why not?
8. How have state officials used ICTs to control resistance groups?
9. Have ICTs been critical to the success of controlling resistance activities? Why/why not? And if so, how?
10. Would you characterize the competition between coercive states and social movements as a game of cat-and-mouse? Why/why not? If so, who do you think is winning and why?

Empirical Study on Impact of Global ICT Use on Democratic Tendency

Important: The econometric analysis of this paper has received serious criticisms. My contribution to the paper was threefold: (1) the literature review, (2) the recommendation that autocratic regimes be included separately in the analysis, and (3) the interpretation of the results. Hence my being second-author. I had no involvement in the econometric analysis and do not have access to the data in order to improve the analysis. I am therefore removing my name and affiliation from this study.

I recently co-authored a study on the impact of new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on Democratic Tendency. The study was presented at the 3rd International Conference on ICT for Development (ICTD2009) in Doha, Qatar, earlier this year.

The study asks whether the rapid increase in global Internet access has any democratizing effect? Unlike (the few) earlier studies that sought to explore this question, this study draws on multiple perception-based measures of governance from the World Bank to assess the Internet’s effect on the process of democratization.

ICT Impact on All Countries

The results of the large-N regression analysis suggest that the level of “Voice & Accountability” in a country increases with Internet use, while the level of “Political Stability” decreases with increasing Internet use. Additionally, Internet use was found to increase significantly for countries with increasing levels of “Voice & Accountability.”

In contrast, “Rule of Law” was not significantly affected by a country’s level of Internet use. Increasing cell phone use did not seem to affect either “Voice & Accountability,” “Political Stability” or “Rule of Law.” In turn, cell phone use was not affected by any of these three measures of democratic tendency.

ICT Impact on Autocracies

Given the focus of my dissertation research, we also assessed the impact of new ICTs on autocratic regimes and  noted a significant negative effect of Internet and cell phone use on “Political Stability.” We didn’t include this in our final conference paper (PDF) due to space constraints, so I’d like to share the results publicly here.

We selected autocratic regimes from our dataset using the Polity IV dataset—any country that did not score a “0” on the measure of autocratic tendency was included. This measure produced a total of 68 countries in this section of the study. Table VIII below displays the results from estimating the model that predicts levels of “Voice & Accountability” (VA), “Political Stability” (PS) and “Rule of Law” (RL) from Internet use and the control variables.

Picture 2As the results above show, a statistically significant negative relationship exists between the diffusion of Internet and access and “Political Stability”. The coefficient, -0.0085, is larger than the statistically significant coefficient of -0.0025 found when all countries are included in the analysis. This suggests that the Internet has a greater destabilizing effect in autocracies rather than globally.

Picture 3

The findings in Table IX above reveal that the increase in cell phone use also has a destabilizing effect on autocracies, although the effect, -0.0026, is not as large as the one found for increasing Internet use. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that there was no statistically significant relationship between cell phone use and “Political Stability” in the previous model which included all 181 countries. This would suggest that cell phones do play a more important role in contributing to “Political Instability” in autocracies.


In sum, the empirical analysis of autocracies also yielded interesting findings. Increasing Internet use in countries under autocratic rule appears to lead a statistically significant increase in “Political Instability.” So does an increase in cell phone use.

Furthermore, when testing for reverse causality, the analysis revealed that an increase in “Political Stability” within in autocratic regimes leads to a notable decrease in both Internet and cell phone use. This may reflect the fact that increased political stability in autocracies means stronger coercive rule.

Patrick Philippe Meier