Tag Archives: Social Web

Social Web: An Empirical Analysis of Networked Political Protests

I kicked off the first panel presentation of the conference on the social web and networked political protests by introducing the preliminary quantitative findings of my dissertation research. The question I ask in the first part of my dissertation is whether the rapid diffusion of information communication technology has had any statistically significant impact on anti-government protests in countries under repressive rule? Or do authoritarian regimes maintain the upper hand? My  research was funded by Harvard University’s Berkman Center’s and my presentation is available on Slideshare.

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While there are many qualitative case studies out there and numerous anecdotes, the question that motivates my interest in this research is whether all these instances of digital activism actually add up to anything.  For example, DigiActive systematically documents instances of digital activism around the world, sharing best practices and lessons learned. But few studies (if any) seek to quantify the impact of the information revolution on state-society relations in repressive contexts.

Berkman Center fellow Victoria Stodden and I recently carried out a large-N quantitative study on the impact of ICT diffusion on World Bank measures of democracy and governance. While we drew on data from 180 countries, we also took a subset of these countries, namely autocracies, and tested whether an increase in Interent access and mobile phones had any impact on one indicator in particularly, political stability. We found that both variables, Internet and mobile phones, were statistically significant, and negative, with the mobile phones coefficent being larger the Internet coefficient. This would suggest that mobile phones have more of a disruptive impact on repressive regimes.

One question that naturally follows is what form that immediate instability takes? Does the rapid diffusion of communication tools facilitate the organization, mobilization and coordination of anti-government protests, which then contributes to political instability? I decided to find out whether new communication technologies do lead to more frequent protests. Please see the Slideshare presentation for specifics on the regression analysis (thanks to Dr. Stodden and Dr. Woodard for their assistance on the quantitative analysis). As my research is still ongoing and my findings preliminary, I hesitate to make any definite conclusions. With this caveate in mind, here are the tentative results.

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Somewhat surprisingly, the results suggest that an increase in the number of Internet users in countries under repressive rule leads to a decrease in the number of protests. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that mobile phones turned out to have no statistically significant impact on the frequency of protests. The reason I find these findings surprising is that Internet access in repressive environments is extremely limited compared to mobile phones.

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The above results are equally surprising. The blue curve is a time series of observed political protests. The green curve is my complete model which includes ICT independent variables as well as my political and economic control variables. The red curve represents the model without the ICT variables. The large difference between the two adjusted R squared figures is rather striking, not to mention that an R squared of 0.613 seems rather high.

In sum, I’m rather skeptical about these results and specifically asked my fellow participants for their feedback. One colleague rightly mentioned that frequency of protests does not provide information on the magnitude of protests—an issue I noted in my dissertation proposal. The same colleague recommended that I include literacy rates as a control variable while Professor Dieter Rucht expressed his concern about the quality of the protest dataset I am drawing on.

The dataset was developed using automated natural language parsing of Reuters news wires. Although Professor Rucht mistakenly assumed that I am using the KEDS dataset, his remarks on the nature of media reporting still hold. There is a considerable amount of literature out there on media bias, which I have reviewed for my dissertation research, and which Professor Rucht echoed. In particular, he is concerned that as Reuters opens new offices in a particular country, this might lead to “over reporting” of protest events compared to other countries. Interestingly enough, however, the frequency of protests in the 22 countries I analyzed goes down with time.

In any case, these kinds of concerns are precisely why my dissertation takes a nested analysis approach, or a mixed method approach. The first part of my research seeks to carry out a large-N quantitative study while the second part entails field based research to carry out qualitative comparative case studies on the impact of ICTs in repressive environments. Whether qualitative findings support my quantitative ones remains to be seen. In the meantime, I plan on running additional regressions and models to double-check my findings.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Social Web: Towards Networked Political Protests – Keynote

I’m in Frankfurt, Germany for two days to participate in a conference on networked political protests hosted by the University of Siegen (agenda in PDF). The conference is taking place in the new Artur-Woll-Haus, one of Germany’s most energy efficient buildings which also draws on a unique architectural style from the 1920s that shies away from straightlines. In fact, Artur-Woll-Haus from the inside looks distinctly like three sea-farring ships turned upside down.

Really neat!

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Professor Dieter Rucht gave the Keynote address on “Protest Mobilization in the Age of Social Web” which was an excellent, sceptical overview of the current state of the debate between proponents of Web 2.0 and skeptics. Professor Rucht is Germany’s leading scholar on the topic and his current research seeks to assess the web’s relevance with respect to progressive social movements, particularly in terms of increasing political education, empowering citizens and furthering the process of democratization.

He criticized our field’s tendency to focus only on “stunning success stories” which create high (and arguably at times) unfounded expectations. These success stories are the exception, not the rule. Professor Ruch reminds us that the Internet serves progressive groups as well as their opponents, with the latter becoming increasingly sophisticated in their technical abilities.

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While I largely agreed with most of what Professor Rucht had to say, some of his comments did surprise me. For example, he argued that the Internet hardly serves to mobilize new constituents. I find that hard to believe. Even more surprising was his comment on the Obama campaign, which he argued was not a social movement. Professor Rucht maintains that the campaign strategy was centrally controlled and orchestrated by a small group of individuals who simply happened to be awash with vast sums of money. What Professor Rucht fails to recognize, however, is that the only way the Obama campaign was able to tap into so much money was precisely because it created an effective social movement!

Another comment that through me off has to do with his take on mass mobilization in the past compared to present day. “Mass mobilization was also effecient before the era of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is not a necessary condition for mass protests, it is simply a facilitator.” I basically agree with the second part of his statement but take issue with the first, particularly because Professor Rucht does not even define what he means by efficient. Does he mean efficient in terms of cost and time? Efficient relative to the tools of the time? Making sweeping statements is fine to provoke discussion, but at least we should take care to cleary define our terms!

In any case, I do agree with the general gist of Professor Rucht’s keynote address and while I don’t share the extent of his skepticism, I find it healthy. It is true that the Internet cannot replace physical protests in the streets. What is less evident to me, however, is whether Professor Rucht is correct in claiming that the rise of the social web and networked political protests is not changing the existing constellation of political power between large and small groups.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Web 2.0 in Arab World

Mohammed Ibahrine from Al Akhawayn University presented a paper on “Social Media and Political Activism in the Arab World” at the Politics 2.0 conference. Mohammed drew on the following 4-point conceptual framework to assess the role of social media in political activism: information management; conversation management; identity management and network management. The presenter stressed that conversation is more important than information.

In his presentation, Mohammed referred to the comment by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: “Broadcast media brought us broadcast politics. Participatory media will bring us participatory politics.” He drew on the Arab world’s version of YouTube called Ikbis to support his argument. Mohammed also noted that the Egyptian government, unlike others, is less bent on using physical force and detentions as a means to deter the use of the Internet for the purposes of advocacy but rather works hard on discrediting the Social Media, by referring to it spying journalism.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Call for Papers: Social Web and iProtests

Towards Networked Protest Politics?

7-8 November 2008
University of Siegen, Germany

Theorists drawing on different concepts of democracy such as associative, deliberative or participatory democracy perceive the internet as providing new opportunities to revitalize classical notions of democracy through widening the scope for active public debates. Civil society actors are attributed a crucial role in new notions of web based public spheres. Social movements, it is argued, benefit more than established political actors from online media since their social network structure corresponds well with the technological structure of the internet. The internet provides new opportunities to intensify as well as territorially expand social networks and enables the formation of public sphere(s) beyond the borders of the nation states. Connected to the communicative dimension of democracy some authors even see the possibility of a global “community of communication” (Delanty).

The conference addresses issues of online communication of political protest actors by particularly focussing on the so-called social web, “Web 2.0” as it is called after Tim O-Reilly, and its impact on political campaigning, community formation, transnationalizing politics, and overall on the contribution of virtualised protest politics on the formation of a transnational “public of publics” (Bohman).

The analysis of the interrelation between campaigning and networking deals with new forms of political mobilization and highlights options and problems of online-offline-connectivities by giving particular relevance to mass media resonance. Apart from that questions of internal organization and communication among protest actors and groups come into foreground. As protest networks and campaigns play important functions within new governance structures questions of democratic legitimacy of political protest actors in general as well as aspects of internal democratic decision making in particular have to be discussed.

Looking inside virtualized networks of social movements also raises questions of community building and collective identity. While some studies question the potential of internet technologies to provide a platform for the emergence of (online) collective identities and put emphasis on common experiences in physical social space, the proliferation of social techniques and their use on the net raises questions of an appropriation of these techniques by civil society actors for identity-building practices.

In early stages of internet research many scholars assumed that the new network technology would be able to decrease social inequalities but current studies of network research show that well-established social structures continue to exist on the net. For instance, the center-periphery paradigm seems to persist within transnational online networks with regard to the gap between North and South. Furthermore, transnational protest actors tend to use the net rather for framing processes than for public interaction and exchange between individual protest actors and other relevant groups.

Theoretical and empirical works focusing on political and sociological aspects of online communication of political protest networks actors such as participation, mobilization, organization, identity, transnationalism, public sphere(s), global governance, and democracy are welcome. The deadline for receipt of the abstracts is 14 April 2008. Abstracts, between 500-1000 words, together with an author biography, must be sent electronically to Johanna Niesyto.

Patrick Philippe Meier