Monthly Archives: September 2009

Communication and Human Development

The Berkman Center at Harvard University hosted a fascinating panel discussion figuring Amartya Sen, Michael Spence, Yochai Benkler and Clotilde Fonseca. The panelists addressed the role of communication and ICTs in human development, growth and poverty reduction.  They discussed what has changed, been learned, not been learned, needs to be learned, needs to be done most urgently.

Source: Berkman Center
Source: Berkman Center

Some brief notes and take-away’s:

  • Amatya Sen compared access to information via mobile phone to nutrition. Just like better nutrition may have adverse effects such as domestic violence, so does the mobile phone vis-a-vis the expansion of freedom. But this doesn’t mean we should abandon nutrition projects. Sen cautions against setting dichotomous priorities, e.g., development first or democracy first.
  • Michael Spence explained that the mobile phone as an important input in the production function of an economy. One principal concern resulting from the incredible growth in the mobile phone network is that regulators may react strongly to regulate this growth. Spencer adds that there is no silver bullet in development.
  • Clotilde Fonseca noted that the mobile phone is not yet a powerful device in the developing world; the distinction between voice and data is key. Most mobile phones in the developing world do not carry a high through-put of data. Clotilde cautions against applying a linear view of development to the ICT4D field. She adds that the digital divide is also a cognitive divide. There is also a capacity divide, i.e., the ability to absorb information.
  • Yochai Benkler remarked that the mobile phone tends towards more decentralized communication. That said, the question is more decentralized relative to what? Benkler also notes that not all solutions here have to be mobile. He also foresees many new opportunities for entrepreneurship in decentralized technology ecosystem ripe with tools, training and services.

For a very good, more detailed summary, please see my colleague Kate Brodock’s blog post here.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Facebook Fosters Political Engagement

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Jessica Feezell, one of the lecturers on the panel, presented her co-authored research paper (PDF) on ”Facebook and Political Engagement.”

Abstract. Can online groups help to foster political engagement among citizens?  We employ a multi-method design incorporating content analysis of political group pages and original survey research of university undergraduates (n = 455) to assess the quality of online political group discussion and effects of online group membership on political engagement measured through political knowledge and political participation surrounding the 2008 election.

We find through OLS and 2SLS multivariate regression analyses that participation in online political groups strongly predicts offline political participation by engaging members online.  However, we fail to confirm through 2SLS that there is a corresponding positive effect on political knowledge, likely due to low quality online group discussion.  This work contributes to an active dialogue on political usage of the Internet and civic engagement by further specifying forms of Internet use and corresponding effects.  Overall, we conclude that online groups perform many of the same positive civic functions as offline groups, specifically in terms of mobilizing political participation.

This study is an important contribution to the study of digital democracy. We need more empirical studies of this kind. My only concern is selection bias apparent in the research. The undergraduates surveyed by the authors were “students in three large political science classes.” In other words, this is a self-selected group of already politically interested individuals.

So the question remains: does Facebook foster political engagement in individuals that are not politically inclined to begin with? And related to my research: would the findings also hold true in countries under authoritarian rule, like Egypt?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Connectedness Unnecessary for Successful Mobilization

The latest issue of the American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) includes an insightful study entitled “Don’t Forget to Vote: Text Message Reminders as a Mobilization Tool.”

Co-authored by Allison Dale and Aaron Strauss, the study (PDF) suggests that connectedness is not a necessary condition for a successful mobilization campaign. “For certain voters, a noticeable reminder is sufficient to drive them to the polls.” What’s particularly interesting is that “impersonal text messages are as effective as other, more personal,  forms of voter mobilization.”

Abstract. Current explanations of effective voter mobilization strategies maintain that turnout increases only when a potential voter is persuaded to participate through increased social connectedness. The connectedness explanation does not take into account, however, that registered voters, by registering, have already signaled their interest in voting.

The theory presented in this article predicts that impersonal, noticeable messages can succeed in increasing the likelihood that a registered voter will turn out by reminding the recipient that Election Day is approaching. Text messaging is examined as an example of an impersonal, noticeable communication to potential voters.

A nationwide field experiment (n = 8,053) in the 2006 election finds that text message reminders produce a statistically significant 3.0 percentage point increase in the likelihood of voting. While increasing social connectedness has been shown to positively affect voter turnout, the results of this study, in combination with empirical evidence from prior studies, suggest that connectedness is not a necessary condition for a successful mobilization campaign. For certain voters, a noticeable reminder is sufficient to drive them to the polls.

One question that remains is whether this finding would hold true in countries under authoritarian rule.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Cymatic Insights for Crisis Mapping

I just came across Evan Grant’s fascinating TED 2009 talk on “Making Sound Visible through Cymatics.” Cymatics describes the process of visualizing sound. Sound waves create vibrations—patterns—that can be visualized on the surface of a plate covered with sand as depicted below.

cymatics

In his talk, Evan demonstrates how different sound frequencies create distinctly different geometric sand patterns. As the sound frequencies increase, so does the complexity of the sand patterns themselves. He describes cymatics as a “looking glass into a hidden world” that can “unveil the substance of things not seen.”

For example, a lexicon of dolphin language is actually being created using cymatics by visualizing the sonar beams that dolphins emit. Cymatics can also be used to create natural art forms. The picture below is a visualization of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony created using a cymatic device. Cymatics can also recreate archetypal forms of nature such as snowflakes or starfish.

cymatics3

It’s not entirely clear what all this means. As Evan notes, cymatics is still a very young field and not many people are working in this line of research. Cymatics shows that sound has form and can effect form in matter. So Evan asks us to think about the universe forming, “about the immense sound of the universe forming, and to ponder on that … perhaps cymatics had an influence on the formation of the universe itself.” Watch Evan’s 5-minute TED Talk below.

In closing, Evan encourage us to apply our passions, knowledge and skills to areas like cymatics. I find this field very interesting because of the analogies with crisis mapping. As often mentioned on iRevolution, crisis mapping is about rendering otherwise hidden patterns visible to improve situational awareness and decision-making.

One can think of conflict processes as sound waves or vibrations and the “plates” as crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi. We need to “vibrate” conflict data at different frequencies and to develop visual analytics—different templates for data visualization—in order to visualize patterns in a compelling fashion. One might call this the “String Theory” of Crisis Mapping.

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A colleague and I tried analyzing conflict data as music back in 2006 when I was at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). I had been inspired by the work of an Italian geophysicist who had taken seismic data (tremblings of the earth) and analyzed the data as music in order to look for “melodic” patterns. We used conflict event-data from Afghanistan but the result was not particularly music to my ears—but then again, neither is war.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Eric McGlinchey, one of the professors on the panel, presented his research paper (PDF) on “Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia.”

Eric notes that the theories and prescriptions of the transitions literature have not borne fruit in Central Asia. Indeed, “the region today is more autocratic than it was eighteen years ago at the time of the Soviet collapse.”

Eric thus seeks to understand why “Transitions 1.0″ failed and to “investigate the potential for a Transitions 2.0” by exploring three autocracies Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As Eric notes, “new information communication technologies (ICTs) are emerging in Central Asia and, as survey research demonstrates, these new ICTs hold the potential to transform the region’s political culture from one that abides authoritarian rule to a culture that embraces political reform.”

I very much appreciate Eric’s balanced approach to technology and demographic change. As he writes,

[T]he current class of political elites is graying while the youth population of Central Asian society is growing larger.  And whereas the hierarchical Communist Party carefully controlled the political milieu in which the current political elite was acculturated, today new ICTs have broken the government’s information monopoly, laid bare the inequities of patronage politics and are in the process of changing the mental maps with which this growing younger generation views national governance.

Institutional path dependency, as Paul Pierson explains, is sustained by—learning effects‖ and—adaptive expectations. New ICTs have simultaneously transformed what youth in Central Asia learn and what they expect—and it is this transformation [...] that may ultimately undermine the cost calculations that have thus far sustained autocratic patronage in the region.

Whether access to ICTs can be shown to have a successful track record in promoting liberalization and democratization is still an open debate which requires more empirical research to shed compelling insights on the question.

Eric cites the work by David Hill and Khrishna Sen (2000) who “illustrate how the Internet enabled Indonesian oppositionists not only to break Suharto’s media monopoly, but to break this monopoly using conversational, dialogic, (and) non-hierarchical” forms of communication.”

That said, Hill, Krishna and several other scholars emphasize that the “political environment within which oppositionists marshal technologies like the Internet, can dampen the transformative effects of new ICTs.” To be sure,

Just as autocracies can control printing presses, radio and television, so too can savvy authoritarian governments monitor and exert control over new telecoms and Internet service providers.  Moreover, even absent such control, new ICTs need not be liberalizing.

Peter Chroust, for example, demonstrates how illiberal groups—neo-Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan—can equally use new ICTs to facilitate communication and mobilization.

Benjamin Barber suggests that fears that new ICTs force people—into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology motivate actors to fight for the opposite, for the construction of even more differentiated local identities. As such, Barber predicts, new ICTs will result in more, not less ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious violence.

Eric’s research is informative because there is still very little research on the impact of ICTs on populations in Central Asia. The results of his empirical survey suggests that “although the causal effects of new ICTs are mixed and highly dependent on structural context, the use of new ICTs nevertheless does appear to have a liberalizing effect on political culture.”

More specifically, where state filtering of the Internet is less pronounced—in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—survey results suggest that Internet users do exhibit greater inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement.  Conversely, where state filtering of the Internet is extensive, as it is in Uzbekistan, inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement differ little between Internet users non-users.

Eric concludes as follows:

Will Transitions 2.0 succeed where Transitions 1.0 failed?  To a large degree the answer to this question rests in the ability of Central Asian governments to continue effective filtering of the Internet and of global communications broadly, something that may get progressively more difficult as Internet access shifts from what now are readily controlled public areas (work, Internet cafes and libraries) to the comparative privacy of smart phones and home computers.

No less consequential is whether ICT-induced changes in political culture translate to societal changes in political engagement.  This study suggests that the retreat of Soviet institutions of political acculturation and the arrival of new ICTs will likely produce a political culture that is less trusting of autocratic rule and more open to outsiders and civic engagement.

Whether Central Asians will assume the daunting risks that undoubtedly are required to transform their governments so as to more closely reflect these changed political values, however, remains an open question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Nonviolent Resistance in Post-Communist Countries

Introduction

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.

Methodology

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.

Findings

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

Literature Review: GIS for Conflict Analysis

This interesting peer-reviewed study (PDF) was authored by researchers at the Joint Research Center (JRC) and published in the International Studies Review in September 2009.

Political and social scientists have quantitatively analyzed the drivers of conflicts in a large number of studies. Geographic components and territorial concepts have emerged as important drivers in interstate disputes. However, geographic components are rarely defined or measured with the same technique.

This study reviews geographic and territorial concepts, associated data sets and analysis methods. The study objective is to represent geographic and territorial concepts with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The paper describes the challenges and potential opportunities for creating an integrated GIS model of security.

The literature review is a good introduction for anyone interested in the application of GIS to the spatial analysis of conflict. As a colleague mentioned, however, the authors of the study do not cite more recent work in this area, which is rather surprising and unfortunate. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the academic peer-review process can seemingly take forever.

Patrick Philippe Meier