I defended my dissertation proposal in early 2008 but the majority of the literature most relevant and helpful to my doctoral research surfaced in 2009 and 2010. So I’m rather grateful to the PhD program at The Fletcher School for letting me run with my chosen dissertation topic given the limited empirical literature to draw on back then.
The best new book I’ve come across since my proposal is Philip Howard’s “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” which was published just a few months ago. Howard seeks to answer the following question: “What is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?” More specifically, “The goal of this book is to analyze the ways in which new information technologies have contributed to democratic entrenchment or transition in countries with large Muslim communities.”
Howard demonstrates that “technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions” and “that technology diffusion has become, in combination with other factors, both a necessary and sufficient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment.” Howard concludes: “Clearly the Internet and cell phones have not on their own caused a single democratic transition, but it is safe to conclude that today, no democratic transition is possible without information technologies.”
The book is getting superb reviews, and that is absolutely no surprise. This is truly the best book I’ve read on the topic of my dissertation thus far. Why? Howard’s research design and mixed-methods approach is by far the most rigorous one in the literature to date. I therefore plan to dedicate a few blog posts to summarize Howard’s approach and findings, starting here with the book’s prologue: “The Revolution in the Middle East will be Digitized,” which focuses on the Green Revolution in Iran. Below are some excerpts and commentary that reflect some of the key arguments from this first section of the book.
One of the main roles that information and communication technologies (ICTs) played in Iran was dissemination, which had a second-order effect on increasing levels of participation both in the streets and online.
“Opposition campaign managers in Iran consistently say that such Internet applications allow them to get messages out as never before and thereby organize bigger and bigger campaign rallies. Without access to broadcast media, savvy opposition campaigners turned social media applications like Facebook from minor pop culture fads into a major tool of political communication.”
“During the protests, even the most apolitical bloggers covered the demonstrations, and traffic at the dominant blogs swelled [and] social networking applications […] allowed even small enclaves to create content and reconnect with friends and family in Iran.”
“It does not matter that the number of bloggers, twitterers, or internet users may seem small, because in a networked social moment only a few ‘brokers’ need to be using these tools to keep everyone up to date.”
“These are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule. Indeed, it is probably more useful to evaluate applications such as Twitter through the communities they support, rather than through tool features. […] Social movement scholars write that elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime.”
“In some ways the regime’s response was decidedly old media: expelling foreign correspondents, blocking phone lines, preventing the publication of daily newspapers, and accusing enemy governments of spreading misinformation.”
“They did not count on the large number of Iranians eager to submit their own content to international news agencies, and, perhaps more important, they did not realize that large numbers of Iranians would use social media to share their own personal stories of beatings, tear gas inhalation, and protest euphoria with each other.”
“Cyberactivism is no longer the unique provenance of isolated, politically motivated hackers. It is instead deeply integrated with contemporary social movement strategy and accessible to computer and mobile phone users with only basic skills: it is a distinguishing feature of modern political communication and a means of creating the élan that marks social change.”
Like Malcom Gladwell, Howard also addresses the role of strong and weak-ties in digital activism. To learn more about Gladwell’s point of view (and mine) regarding the question of social ties, please see my previous blog post here.
“Millions of people took to the streets in the week after the election results were announced and certainly not all were using Twitter. The majority of them, however, were responding to both strong and weak network ties and to the digital technologies designed to maintain those ties.”
“The unprecedented activation of weak social ties brought the concerns of disaffected youth, cheated voters, and beaten protesters to the attention of the mullahs. The result was a split within the ruling establishment on how to deal with the insurgency, how to proceed with counting ballots, and how to credibly authorize Ahmadinejad to take power.”
Howard’s balanced approach to the impact of ICTs on democracy is one of the main strengths of his book.
“So the country has one of the world’s most vibrant social media communities and the most concentrated broadcast media system in the Muslim world. Why, then, has the digital revolution in Iran not had the type of clear political outcomes or institutional consequences seen in other authoritarian regimes?”
“The answer, in part, is that while such information technologies have become a fundamental infrastructure for journalists and civil society groups, they are a necessary but not sufficient causal condition for contemporary regime change. So based on real-world experience, what is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?”
“In the language of fuzzy sets ways, Iran’s postelection insurgency was almost an example of a digital revolution. In is unlikely that protests would have lasted as long, raised so much international support, and had such an impact on domestic politics had it not been for mobile phones and the internet. The internet did not cause the insurgency, and it is probably a truism to say that no contemporary democratic revolution in the Middle East will happen without the internet. In times of political crisis, banal tools for wasting time, like Twitter and YouTube, become the supporting infrastructure of social movements. As one ethnic Azeri blogger told me, the regime has learned that the Internet makes collective action possible.”
“Technology alone does not cause political change—it did not in Iran’s case. But it does provide new capacities and impose new constraints on political actors. New information technologies do not topple dictators; they are used to catch dictators off-guard.”
That last paragraph resonates with me and relates to this idea of information cascades that Dan Drezner has written about here. The momentary window of opportunity that reversals information cascades offer can be used to catch dictators off-guard. This explains why preparedness and training is important.
So what ultimately was the actual impact of the 2009 protests? According to Howard,
“Digital media sustained protests well beyond what pundits expected. Indeed, this new information infrastructure gave social movement leaders the capacity not only to reach out to sympathetic audiences overseas but also to reach two important domestic constituencies: rural, conservative voters who had few connections to the urban chaos; and the clerical establishment.”
“Most important, the Internet gave the social movement access to the clerical establishment through weak ties of social networks that connected mullahs to Iranians on the street.”
“Iran’s street protests failed to topple their government. But just as important, the world’s most technologically advanced censors failed to manage the government’s election crisis. And the region’s dictators have a new concern: their own tech-savvy, disaffected youth.”
“The world has seen interest in change expressed from within Iran, and this may prove to be the most destabilizing outcome of the protests. The regime’s brutalities streamed around the globe. The world saw the dissent; the regime knows the world saw the dissent.”
This idea of shared awareness appeals to me a lot, not least because of my work on the Ushahidi platform since the tool—when used correctly—can generate shared awareness. But why is shared awareness even important in this context?
As Shirky recently noted here, “social media tools provides participants with ’shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too.” Dan Drezner takes it one step further, arguing here that, “the ability of the state to repress can evaporate […] at moments when a critical mass off citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government.”
For me, one of the most salient points that Howard makes in the prologue to this book is this: “The initial conditions for social movement organizing are very different from those of the pre-internet era.” Here are some other key take-aways:
“In contemporary systems of political communication, citizens turn to the Internet as a source of news and information in times of political crisis. It is not only that online social networking services are influential as a communications media; rather, they are now also a fundamental infrastructure for social movements. And the Internet globalizes local struggles.”
“Information and communication technologies are the infrastructure for transposing democratic ideals from community to community. They support the process of learning new approaches to political representation, of testing new organizational strategies, and of cognitively extending the possibilities and prospects for political transformation from one context to another.”
“But it would be a mistake to tie any theory of social change to a particular piece of software. In the summer of 2009 the Iranian insurgency was very much shaped by several digital communication tools, which allowed social movements within the country to organize protests and exchange information and made it possible for those groups to maintain contact with the rest of the world.”
“Traditional radio and televised appeals did not figure in the mobilization, and they are not very important to understanding what happened in Iran last summer.”
“If new information technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet provided the communications infrastructure for mobiliza- tion, was the lack of democratic transition a technological or social failing?”
This last question is spot on and for me the correct way to phrase the debate on digital activism in repressive environments. The question can also be applied to deployments of the Ushahidi platform, i.e., is the lack of impact of an Ushahidi deployment a technological or social failing?
Howard makes a number of points in his prologue that made me think about the Ushahidi and SwiftRiver platforms. For example,
“Authoritarian regimes always conduct propaganda battles over broadcast media. But what is the regime countermeasure for the chilling effects of a plea from someone in your social network who has been a victim of police brutality?”
“Rafsanjani developed a plan for ad hoc exit polling by mobile phones. Deliberative democracy theorists argue that independent exit polling is a key logistical feature of healthy election practices. This probably explains why disabling mobile phone services is so important for discouraging any organized measurement of how rigged a contemporary election may be.”
“Specialty Persian news channels in Los Angeles received hundreds of digital videos daily, and YouTube became the repository for the digitally captured, lived experiences of the chaotic streets of Tehran. On June 20, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead at a demonstration, and her death was caught on several mobile phone cameras.”