Tag Archives: Social Movements

Nonviolent Resistance in Post-Communist Countries


I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and had the good fortune of sharing the panel with Olena Nikolayenko from Stanford University. Nikolayenko presented an excellent paper (PDF) entitled: “Youth Movements in Post-Communist Societies: A Model for Nonviolent Resistance.”

Olena seeks to explain the variation in social movement outcomes in non-democracies by “investigating the dynamics of tactical interaction between challenger organizations and the ruling elite.” She argues that “both civic activists and autocratic incumbents engaged in processes of political learning. Hence, tactical innovation was vital to the success of youth movements, especially late risers in the protest cycle.”

I think she’s spot on with the tactical learning argument. In fact, I use the same hypothesis for my dissertation as well, referring to the cyber game of cat-and-mouse between resistance movements and repressive regimes.  By tactical innovation, Olena means “experimentation with the choice of frames, protest strategies and interaction styles with allies.”

This dynamic approach to the study of social movements to post-communist countries is particularly interesting since the notion of tactical innovation has only been applied to mature democracies.  As Olena notes, however, tactical innovation may very well be of “greater importance to the challenger organizations in the repressive political regimes.”

This is because “the stakes of the political struggle—regime change or the survival of the autocratic incumbent—have wide-ranging implications for the ruling elite and the society at large.”

Olena’s decision to focus on post-communist countries is also important because of the focus on unsuccessful cases. As she rightly notes, there is a notable bias in social movement literature on cases of success. And yet, there is much to gain from analyzing movements that are defeated by repressive regimes.

Explaining Social Movements

What is particularly neat about Olena’s dynamic approach is that she draws on Doug McAdam’s work (1983) and thus distinguishes between “tactical innovation of movement participants and tactical adaptation of the ruling elite.” McAdam’s piece is entitled: “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.”

Tactical innovation involves a shift from conventional forms of collective action and the application of novel confrontational tactics. Tactical adaptation refers to tactics of the incumbent government to neutralize unorthodox mobilization efforts of challenger organizations and introduce new barriers for contentious collective action.

In terms of tactical innovation, Olena explains that to gain leverage in the political arena, “a social movement needs to articulate persuasive messages, employ effective protest strategies, and forge ties with influential allies. Each of these choices can involve tactical innovation.”

I’m especially interested in the protest strategies piece given the focus of my dissertation. Olena draws on some of Charles Tilly‘s research that I had actually not come across before but which is incredibly relevant to my own doctoral research. Tilly’s relevant piece published in 1978 is entitled: “From Mobilization to Institutionalization.”

Though a range of protest tactics seems to be limitless, protesters tend to resort to a recurrent toolkit of contentious collective action. Tilly conceptualizes a repertoire of contention as “a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice.” In his influential work, Tilly (1978) demonstrates how it takes such macrohistorical factors as the rise of the nation-state and the emergence of new communication technologies to engender novel forms of protest. A central advantage of novel protest strategies is that they can catch the authorities off guard and produce a stronger political impact than familiar protest tactics.

As for tactical adaptation, Olena examines how repressive incumbent governments respond to the “rise of reform-oriented and technologically savvy youth movements by setting up state-sponsored youth organizations and intensifying the use of modern technology to subvert youth mobilization.” This an important part of the cyber game of cat-and-mouse that is all too often drowned by the media hype around new technologies.

Social movement literature has documented a toolkit of strategies that the ruling elite deploys to suppress mass mobilization. Repression is a common policy instrument used in non-democracies. In the so-called hybrid regimes, the ruling elite systematically manipulate democratic procedures to the extent the turnover of power is hardly possible, but refrain from the conspicuous use of violence.

It is critical to understand the underlying tactics employed by repressive regimes to suppress and/or manipulate political change.


Olena focuses on nonviolent youth resistance movements in the following five countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine. These movements share several important characteristics:

  1. The formation of youth movements during the election year, with the exception of Serbia’s Otpor;
  2. Anticipation of electoral fraud;
  3. Demand for free and fair elections;
  4. Mass mobilization in the repressive political regime,
  5. Use of nonviolent methods of resistance.

Despite these similarities, however, some of the movements were “more successful than others in expanding the base of popular support for political change in non-democracies.”

Olena carried out 46 semi-structured interviews with key informants to get an in-depth description of social movements. To estimate the the level of youth movements, Olena relied on three indicators: (1) size of movement; (2) size of post-election protests; and (3) duration of post-election protests.


While the Otpor movement in Serbia was responsible for demonstrating a series of important tactical innovations, subsequent youth resistance movements in post-communist countries were unsuccessful. This is largely due to the fact that these movements simply “copied” these tactics without adding much in terms of innovative thinking. Otpor also trained these movements and perhaps should have emphasized the importance on endogenous innovation a lot more.

In terms of political learning by elites in repressive regimes, Olena’s findings show that:

[I]n light of electoral revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have significantly raised costs of political participation. Specifically, the coercive apparatus applied violence to prevent the permanent occupation of the public space in the wake of fraudulent elections.

Moreover, the authorities deployed coercive measures against youth movements before they could develop into powerful agents of political change. In addition, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have invested considerable resources into the creation of state-sponsored youth organizations.

The analysis demonstrates that both civic activists and the ruling elite are able to draw lessons from prior episodes of nonviolent resistance during a protest cycle. As a result, late risers in the protest cycle need to apply a series of innovative strategies to overcome increasing constraints on political participation and introduce an element of surprise.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Repression 2.0 vs Resistance 2.0

I just presented my dissertation research at the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) conference in Toronto and thought I’d make the short presentation available online via a video-powerpoint with narration. Feedback is always welcomed!

Patrick Philippe Meier

What Does a Wasp Have To Do With Civil Resistance? Everything.

Google’s Vint Cerf recommended Eric Russell’s science fiction novel, Wasp, to a colleague of mine in the field of civil resistance. I’m very glad he did, I just read it and the novel is brilliant. It was published in 1957 and weaves civil resistance theory with creative tactics that remain fully applicable half-a-century later. Plus, it’s an action-packed page-turner. I highly recommend it.


What I want to do here is share some excerpts that elegantly highlight the theory behind civil resistance (my next posts expose creative tactics using stickers and paper-based wars).

The setting is an intergalactic war between Earth and the Sirian Empire. The latter has an advantage in personnel and equipment. Earth needs an edge and this is where James Mowry comes in. He is covertly dropped on the Sirian home planet to destabilize the entire empire. The aim is to divert the Empire’s resources and focus away from the war against Earth by creating a fictitious resistance movement at home. Wasp is the story of the strategies, creative tactics and real-world technologies that Mowry employs to accomplish his mission.

But first he has to be convinced to take on a mission that would have him single-handedly destabilize the entire empire from within. Naturally, he seriously questions the sanity of Agent Wolf, the unpleasant operator assigned to recruit him. Growing impatient with Mowry’s stubbornness, Wolf hands him some press reports.

Mowry glanced at them and perused them slowly.

The first told of a prankster in Roumania. This fellow had done nothing more than stand in the road and gaze fascinatedly at the sky, occasionally crying, ‘Blue flames!’ Curious people had joined him and gaped likewise. The group became a crowd; the crowd became a mob.

Soon the audience blocked the street and overflowed into the side streets. Police tried to break it up, making matters worse. Some fool summoned the fire squads. Hysterics on the fringes swore they could see, or had seen, something weird above the clouds. Reporters and cameramen rushed to scene; rumours raced around. The government sent up the air force for a closer look and panic spread over an area of two hundred square, from which the original cause had judiciously disappeared.

‘Amusing if nothing else,’ Mowry remarked. ‘Read on,’ commanded Wolf.

The second report concerned a daring escape from jail. Two notorious killers had stolen a car; they made six hundred miles before recapture, fourteen hours later. The third report detailed an automobile accident: three killed, one seriously injured, the car a complete wreck. The sole survivor died nine hours later.

Mowry handed back the papers. ‘What’s all this to me?’

Wolf: We’ll take those reports in order as read. They prove something of which we’ve been long aware but which you may not have realized. Now, let’s take the first one. That Roumanian did nothing, positively nothing, except stare at the sky and mumble. Yet he forced a government to start jumping around like fleas on a hot griddle. It shows that in given conditions, actions and reaction can be ridiculously out of proportion. By doing insignificant things in suitable circumstances, one can obtain results monstrously in excel of the effort.

Now consider the two convicts. They didn’t do much, either. They climbed a wall, seized a car, drove like made until they gas ran out, then got caught. But for the better part of fourteen hours, they monopolized the attention of six planes, ten helicopters, one hundred and twenty patrol-cars. They tied up eighteen telephone exchanges, uncountable phone lines and radio link-ups, not to mention police, deputies, posses of volunteers, hunters, trackers, forest rangers and National Guardsmen. The total was twenty-thousand, scattered over three states.

Finally, lets consider this auto smash-up. The survivor was able to tell us the cause before he died. He said the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face. The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the waps’s size is minute, it’s strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. In this instance, the wasp didn’t even use it. Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a larger, powerful car into a heap of scarp.

‘I see the point,” Mowry said, “but where do I come in?’

“Right here,” said Wolf. “We want you to become a wasp.”


After several months of training, Mowry is dropped on Pertane, the home planet of the Sirian Empire. He spends the first evening exploring Jaimec, the capital.

He wandered around, memorizing all geographical features that might prove useful to recall later on. But primarily he was seeking to estimate the climate of public opinion with particular reference to minority opinions.

In every war, he knew, no matter how great a government’s power, it’s rule is never absolute. In every war, no matter how righteous the cause, the effort is never total. No campaign has ever been fought with the leadership united in favour of it and with the rank and file one hundred per cent behind them.

There is always the minority that opposes a war for such reasons as reluctance to make necessary sacrifices, fear of personal loss or suffering, or philosophical and ethical objection to warfare as a method of settling disputes. Then there is a lack of confidence in the ability of the leadership; resentment at being called upon to play a subordinate role; pessimistic belief that victory is far from certain and defeat very possible; egoistic satisfaction of refusing to run with the herd; psychological opposition to being yelled at on any and every pretext, and a thousand and one other reasons.

No political or military dictatorship ever has been one hundred per cent successful in identifying and suppressing the malcontents, who bid their time. Mowry could be sure that, by the law of averages, Jaimec must have its share of these.

For a description of the creative tactics used by Mowry, stay tuned for my following post.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: The Future of Civil Resistance

The final presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the future of nonviolent conflict. This future depends largely on the quality of our thinking.

There is a surprising development of civil resistance. To be sure, the frequency of occurrences is accelerating. At the same time, a consensus on concepts and dynamics is also surfacing. The definition of civil resistance which is gaining traction is as follows:

Civil resistance is a type of political action that relies on the use of non-violent methods. It is largely synonymous with certain other terms, including ‘non-violent action’, ‘non-violent resistance’, and ‘people power’. It involves a range of widespread and sustained activities that challenge a particular power, force, policy or regime—hence the term ‘resistance’. The adjective ‘civil’ in this context denotes that which pertains to a citizen or society, implying that a movement’s goals are ‘civil’ in the senes of being widley shared in a society; and it generally denotes that the action concerned is non-military or non-violent in charachter.

This definition is taken from the forthcoming book “Civil Resistance & Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Ghandhi to the Present” edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash.


Civil resistance will increasingly be the preferred strategy for countering repression. This is due to the better success/failure ratio of civil resistance and the fact that nonviolent transitions have a more democratic outcome.

Skill of civil resistance will become increasingly ascendant over restrictive conditions. They will be less limited by the brutality of the regime. In addition, they will be less constrained by low civil society development. Hence the need for training in civil resistance.

Foreign policy elites will increasingly recognize civil resistance as a contest without a predetermined outcome. To this end, we need to do the following:

  • End the sterile debate on whether to engage or not to engage rather than who to engage with;
  • End the distinction between hard and soft power;
  • Better understanding of the varieties of assistance to opposition movements;
  • Create norms for requests for assistance rather than right to protect.

In conclusion, we are neither at “the end of history” nor “the return of history.” The advancement of civil resistance puts us at “the end of the return of history.” So how do we accelerate this process?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mobile Tech 4 Social Change Barcamp: Roundup

Skypenote Address

Ethan Zuckerman kicked off m4change with a Skypenote address on social changes generated by mobile technology.


Here are the main conclusions I drew from his presentation:

  • Ownership versus access to technology: While not everyone in Tanzania owns a mobile phone, 97% have access to one.
  • Endogenous versus exogenous protests: Protesters in Jordan turned up in front of the US Embassy not because they intentionally sought to join a centralized political movement but because five of their friends were going. Friend-to-Friend (F2F) communication?
  • Impact of ICTs on nondemocratic regimes: Those who doubt that modern ICTs pose a threat to authoritarian rule should explain why repressive regimes often switch SMS networks and restrict Internet access.
  • Communication technology ecosystems: Convergence of ICTs is far more powerful than the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. When mobile phones and SMS are paired with radio talk show programs, the combination replicates much of the functionalities that characterize the Internet. Once information is broadcase over radio, it becomes public knowledge.

Mobile Tech in Repressive Contexts

I offered to guide a session on Mobile Tech 4 Social Change in Repressive Regimes. The proposal was to identify challenges and opportunities. I stressed the need to look at both tech and tactics since a one-track approach is not full-proof.


Here are the main points I took away from the session:

  • Ensuring data security in Peer-to-Peer (P2P) meshed mobile communication (see Terranet for example) is very difficult but a 1-hop approach like Comm.unity (screenshot above) is doable and far more secure. The idea is to leverage knowledge, awareness and learning of the user’s social relationships and integrates this information into the communication protocols and network services.” Furthermore, the platform “runs on mobile phones, PDAs, and regular old laptops and PCs, allowing them to easily communicate with each other and build networks of interactions for their users without the need for any centralized servers, coordination, or administration.”
  • Steganography is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no-one apart from the sender and intended recipient even realizes there is a hidden message, a form of security through obscurity. This tactic is one that we should apply more often. Steganography can be applied to images, audio recordings and texts. For example, poems mocking the Burmese junta have appeared in the state-run newspaper using the first word of every sentence in an article.
  • Pseudonymity describes a state of disguised identity resulting from the use of a pseudonym. The pseudonym identifies a holder, that is, one or more human beings who possess but do not disclose their true names. Pseudonymity should be more actively used in digital resistance.

Mobile Tech and Communication Security

The second session I participated in was led by Nathanial Freitas. This was an excellent review of the latest tech developments with regards to ensuring that your mobile communications are secure, encrypted, nontraceable, etc. Nathanial used the Android phone as the basis for his presentation. Here are some of the highlights I took away from this informative session:

  • Zfone is a new secure VoIP phone software product which lets you make encrypted phone calls over the Internet. Zfone uses a new protocol called ZRTP, which has a better architecture than the other approaches to secure VoIP.
  • GetPeek is a new mobile tech that offers unlimited email texting for just $20 a month without the need for a contract. GetPeek will be available in India next week.
  • Icognito is an anonymous web browser for the iPhone and iPod.
  • Mobile phones that can immediately encrypt, transmit and delete pictures are necessary.
  • Browser history on mobile phones should not be deleted as this would be calling attention to oneself. Instead, an alternative browser history should be settable.
  • Mobile phones need an actuall off button. Activists always take out the batteries of their phones in order not to have their location traced. Other phones like iPhones do not have a real off button.
  • President Obama’s Blackberry has been modified to require fingerprint authenitication.
  • The competition between authoritarian control and circumvention by activists is like an arms race, a point I make in my own dissertation research. Andrew Lewman from the Tor Project made a very interesting comment in that regard: “It is very important that this arms race be as slow as possible.” According to Andrew, whatever new technology emerges next is unlikley to be a complete game-changer. Instead of investing considerable time and resources into trying to develop the ultimate tool, he suggests that we take small iterative steps that contribute to momentary advantages in this cyber game of cat-and-mouse.

Mobile Tech, Art and Activism

The final self-organized session I attended addressed the intersection between mobile technology and art for political activism. I’m particulary interested in the subservive art within the context of nonviolent civil resistance.


Here are some of the ideas I took away from this session:

  • Stencil art for political activism. “Political stencil art has been significant for centuries as a device for communication and opression. Propoganda was a hallmark of political art in the 20th century in both democratic and communist regimes, at time of war and peace.” See ArtFlux for example.
  • Newmindspace is interactive public art, creative cultural interventions and urban bliss dissemination.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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?


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.


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.


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