Tag Archives: Repression

Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations

The Chair of my dissertation committed, Professor Dan Drezner just published this piece in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that directly relates to my dissertation research. He presented an earlier version of this paper at a conference in 2005 which was instrumental in helping me frame and refine my dissertation question. I do disagree a bit with the paper’s approach, however.

Professor Drezner first reviews the usual evidence on whether the Internet empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa. Not surprisingly, this perusal doesn’t point to a clear winner. Indeed, as is repeatedly stated in the academic discourse, “parsing out how ICT affects the tug-of-war between states and civil society activists is exceedingly difficult.”

Drezner therefore turns to a transaction costs metaphor for insight. He argues that “metaphorically, the problem is akin to the one economists faced when predicting how the communications revolution would affect the optimal size of the firm.” I’m not convinced this is an appropriate metaphor but lets proceed and summarize his reasoning on firm size in any case.

Economists argue that the size of a firm is a function of transaction costs. “If these costs of market exchange exceed those of more hierarchical governance structures—i.e., firms—then hierarchy would be the optimal choice. With the fall in communication costs, economists therefore predicted an associated decline in firm size. “There were lots of predictions about how the communications revolution would lead to an explosion in independent entrepreneurship.”

But Drezner argues that decreasing communication costs (a transaction cost) has not affected aggregate firm size: “Empirically, there has been minimal change.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any literature to back this claim. Regardless, Drezner concludes that firm size has not significantly changed because “the information revolution has lowered the organizational costs of hierarchy as well” and even “increased the optimal size of the firm” in some sectors. “The implications of this [metaphor] for the internet’s effect on states and civil society should be apparent.”

The problem (even if the choice of metaphor were applicable) is that these implications provide minimal insight into the debate on liberation technologies: large organizations or institutions have the opportunity to scale thanks to the Internet; meaning that government monitoring becomes more efficient and sophisticated, making it “easier for the state to anticipate and regulate civic protests.” More specifically, “repressive regimes can monitor opposition websites, read Twitter feeds, and hack e-mails—and crack down on these services when necessary.” Yes, but this is already well known so I’m not sure what the transaction metaphor adds to the discourse.

That said, Drezner does recognize that the Internet could have a “pivotal effect” on state-society relations with respect to “authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information society.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really expand on this point beyond the repeating the “Dictator’s Dilemma” argument. But he does address the potential relevance of “information cascades” for the study of digital activism in non-permissive environments.

“An informational cascade takes place when individuals acting in an environment of uncertainty strongly condition their choices on     what others have done previously. More formally, an information cascade is a situation in which every actor, based on the observations of others, makes the same choice independent of his/her private information signal. Less formally, an information cascade demonstrates the power of peer pressure—many individuals will choose actions based on what they observe others doing.”

So if others are not protesting, you are unlikely to stick your neck out and start a protest yourself, particularly against a repressive state. But Drezner argues that information cascades can be reversed as a result of a shock to the system such as an election or natural disaster. These events can “trigger spontaneous acts of protest or a reverse in the cascade,” especially since “a little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence.” In sum,  “even if people may have previously chosen one action, seemingly little information can induce the same people to choose the exact opposite action in response to a slight increase in information.”

This line of argument seems to cast aside what has been learned about civil disobedience. Drezner suggests that reverse information cascades can catalyze spontaneous protests. Perhaps, but are these “improvised” protests actually effective in achieving their stated aims? The empirical evidence from the literature on civil resistance suggests otherwise: extensive planning and strategizing is more likely to result in success then unplanned spontaneous protests. If I find out that it’s cooler in the frying pan than the fire, will I automatically jump into said pan? A little bit of additional information without prior planning on how to leverage that information into action can be dangerous and counterproductive.

For example:

“The spread of information technology increases the fragility of information cascades that sustain the appearance of authoritarian control. This effect creates windows of opportunity for civil society groups.”

Yes, but this means little if these groups are not adequately prepared to deliberately exploit weaknesses in authoritarian control and cash in on this window of opportunity.

“At moments when a critical mass of citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government, the ability of the state to repress can evaporate.”

Yes, but this rarely happens completely spontaneously. Undermining the pillars of power of a repressive state takes deliberate and calculated work with an appropriate mix of tactics and strategies to delegitimize the regime. There is a reason why civil resistance is often referred to as (nonviolent) guerrilla warfare. The latter is not random or haphazard. Guerilla campaigns are carefully thought through and successful actions are meticulously planned.

Drezner argues that, “Extremists, criminals, terrorists, and hyper-nationalists have embraced the information society just as eagerly as classical liberals.” Yes, this is already well known but the author doesn’t make the connection to training and planning on the part of extremists. As Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his book The Upside of Down: “Extremists are often organized in coherent and well-coordinated groups that have clear goals, distinct identities, and strong internal bonds that have grown around a shared radical ideology. As a result, they can mobilize resources and power effectively.” Successful terrorists do not spontaneously terrorize! Furthermore, they create information cascades as much as they react to them.

In conclusion, Drezner criticizes the State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 Initiative. State presumes that technologies will primarily help the “good guys” and  “assumes that the biggest impediment to the flowering of digital liberalism comes from the heavy hand of the state.” (He doesn’t say what the biggest impediment is, however). Drezner ends his piece with the following: “It is certainly possible that the initiative fails because of the coercive apparatus of a repressive government. It is equally likely, however, that the initiative succeeds—in empowering illiberal forces across the globe.” This is already well known. I’m not sure that one needs a transaction metaphor or to refer to the dictator’s dilemma, information cascades, spontaneous protests and extremist groups to reach this conclusion.

Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?

Professor Larry Diamond, one of my dissertation advisers, recently published a piece on “Liberation Technology” (PDF) in the Journal of Democracy in which he cites Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS amongst other tools. Is Ushahidi really a liberation technology?

Larry recently set up the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University together with colleagues Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd to catalyze more rigorous, applied research on the role of technology in repressive environments—both in terms of liberation and repression. This explains why I’ll be joining the group as a Visiting Fellow this year. The program focuses on the core questions I’m exploring in my dissertation research and ties in technologies like Ushahidi which I’m directly working on.

What is Liberation Technology? Larry defines this technology as,

“… any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom. In the contemporary era, it means essentially the modern, interrelated forms of digital ICT—the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and countless innovative applications for them, including “new social media” such as Facebook and Twitter.”

As is perfectly well known, however, technology can also be used to repress. This should not be breaking news. Liberation Technology vs Digital Repression. My dissertation describes this competition as an arms-race, a cyber game of cat-and-mouse. But the technology variable is not the most critical piece, as I argue in this recent Newsweek article:

“The technology variable doesn’t matter the most,” says Patrick Meier […] “It is the organizational structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.”

As Larry writes,

“Democrats and autocrats now compete to master these technologies. Ultimately, however, not just technology but political organization and strategy and deep-rooted normative, social, and economic forces will determine who ‘wins’ the race.”

That is precisely the hypothesis I am testing in my dissertation research. As the Newsweek article put it,

“The only way to stay ahead in this cyberwar, though, is to play offense, not defense. ‘If it is a cat-and-mouse game,’ says Meier of Ushahidi, ‘by definition, the cat will adopt the mouse’s technology, and vice versa.’ His view is that activists will have to get better at adopting some of the same tactics states use. Just as authoritarian governments try to block Voice of America broadcasts, so protest movements could use newer technology to jam state propaganda on radio or TV.”

Larry rightly notes that,

“In the end, technology is merely a tool, open to both noble and nefarious purposes. Just as radio and TV could be vehicles of information pluralism and rational debate, so they could also be commandeered by totalitarian regimes for fanatical mobilization and total state control. Authoritarian states could commandeer digital ICT to a similar effect. Yet to the extent that innovative citizens can improve and better use these tools, they can bring authoritarianism down—as in several cases they have.”

A bold statement for sure. But as Larry recognizes, it is particularly challenging to disentangle political, social and technology factors. This is why more empirical research is needed in this space which is largely limited to qualitative case-studies. We need to bring mixed-methods research to the study of digital activism in repressive environments. This is why I’m part of the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) and why I’m particularly excited to be collaborating on the development of a Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS).

Larry writes that Liberation Technology is also “Accountability Technology” in that “it provides efficient and powerful tools for transparency and monitoring.” This is where he describes the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms. In some respects, these tools have already served as liberation technologies. The question is, will innovative citizens improve these tools and use them more effectively to be able to bring down dictators? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Breaking News: Repressive States Use Technologies to Repress!

I kid you not: repressive regimes actually have the nerve to use technologies to repress! Who would’ve guessed?! Nobody could possibly have seen this one coming. I mean, this shocking development is completely unprecedented in the history of state repression. Goodness, how did these repressive regimes even come up with the idea?!

Yes, that was sarcasm. But I never cease to be amazed by the incredible hullabaloo generated by the media every time a new anecdote pops up on a repressive regime caught red handed with digital technology. Just stunning. It’s as if world history started yesterday.

I hate to state what should be obvious but repressive states also used technology to repress in 2009, and in 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001 … You get the point. Hint: tech-based repression doesn’t start in 1984 either, try a little earlier. As Brafman and Beckstrom point out,

All phone calls were routed through Moscow [during the time of the Soviet Union]. Why? The Kremlin wanted to keep tabs on what you were talking about–whether plotting to overthrow the government or locating spare parts for your tractor. The Soviets weren’t the first, or the last, to keep central control of communication lines. Even the Roman empire, though spread around the world, maintained a highly centralized transportation system, giving rise to the expression ‘All roads lead to Rome’ (52).

Why the media continues to treat digital repression as a surprise is beyond me. Repressive states have used technologies for hundreds of years. So someone please tell me why repressive regimes wouldn’t use new technologies as well? Because they’re new? No, that’s probably not it. Wait, because they’re cheap? Or effective? Darn, I don’t know, what’s the answer? Is this a trick question?

As Evgeny Morozov notes,

There is, of course, nothing surprising about it: why wouldn’t governments be doing this? After all, there are many smart techies working for the governments as well – and sometimes they even believe in and like what they are doing.

But you still come across the typical comment “I told you so!” on Twitter, blogs, etc., “I told you that repressive states would use technology to repress!” And so the anecdotes keep flying and the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” keep coming. The media freaks out, everyone gets excited. And the next day is exactly the same since the media thrives on repetitive soundbites, especially very catchy (preferably one-word) soundbites, which explains why I increasingly feel like I’m stuck in digital groundhog day.

If I had more time, I’d write a blog post entitled “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Best Anecdote on Digital Repression Ever” along the lines of Evgeny’s fun post on “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Scariest Cyberwarfare Article Ever.” But my post would be a lot shorter:

1) Find an anecdote in the mainstream media;
2) Formulate a blockbuster title ending with an exclamation mark;
3) Preface your post with a note that no one but you anticipated this to happen;
4) Quote at least one full paragraph on the anecdote from another source;
5) For extra credit, create your own new one-word soundbite;
6) Conclude with a few snarky lines about how this clearly refutes all the dumb hype on digital technologies.

Some applaud the media’s focus on digital repression. They are grateful to the media for countering the Utopian hype. Fair enough, but this refrain is quickly becoming an excuse to spew out more anecdotes instead of contributing solid analysis. Moreover, the media is largely responsible for promoting the techno-Utopian hype to begin with. This inevitably triggers an arms race of anecdotes, which only leads to mutually assured confusion. But don’t panic, we’ve always got our catchy one-word soundbites to clear things up!

So here’s a practical thought: why doesn’t someone aggregate and code all these anecdotes to analyze them and look for trends? I realize that’s a little harder than writing up daily blog posts on the latest anecdotes so why not do this together? Lets set up an open spreadsheet to keep track of digital repression event-data. Then, when we have 6 months or more of event-data for a particular country, lets analyze this data so we can actually say something more informative about the dynamics of digital repression.

Come to think of it, Global Voices Advocacy, Herdict and the OpenNet Initiative are already doing a lot of this information collection, and very well. Still, it would be great if they could turn this information into event-data and expand beyond the Internet to include mobile phones and other digital technologies. Something along these lines, perhaps.

This won’t answer all our questions, but it would give us the underlying event-data to study digital repression at the tactical level over time. (Would asking daily data updates be too much?).

The next step would be to do the same for “digital liberation”, i.e., capturing event-data on how/when/where civil society groups evade digital repression. Analyzing both datasets would allow us to get a grasp on the cat-and-mouse dynamics that may characterize the race between digital activists and repressive states. I think the analysis would show that states are more often than not reactive. But who knows. Such is life in data hell.

Patrick Philippe Meier