Monthly Archives: November 2009

Applying Fluid Dynamics to Crisis Mapping

The Economist just published a fascinating article on fluid dynamics called “The Skeleton of Water” which may have important implications for Crisis Mapping Analytics. We often speak of conflict in terms of waves, e.g., “preventing the next wave of conflict,” but there may be more to the analogy than meets the eye.

Source: The Economist

One of the main challenges that Crisis Mapping Analytics faces is the complexity involved in modeling conflict dynamics over space and time. But we’re hardly the first to face this challenge. Take the field of fluid dynamics, which is the subject of the article in question. Breakthrough research now reveals that hidden structures within liquids and gasses guide the movement of everything from pollution to airplanes.

The atmosphere and the ocean are, it seems, dominated by invisible barriers that have come to be known as Lagrangian Coherent Structures.

To understand what a Lagrangian Coherent Structure [LCS] is, it helps to imagine a crowd at a railway terminus [...]. Some people will be arriving. Some will be leaving. And, whichever they are doing, they will be going to and from numerous different platforms.

The result is chaos, but structured chaos. What emerges is a shifting pattern of borders between groups of people with different goals. These borders are Lagrangian coherent structures. They are intangible, immaterial and would be undetectable if the passengers stopped moving. But they are also real enough to be treated mathematically.

And it turns out to be easier to study the behaviour of such fluids by looking at the barriers than at the bodies of fluid which those barriers separate.

Scientists across numerous fields are now jumping on the Lagrangian bandwagon to explore the applicability of LCS to their work.

For example, a professor at CalTech recently “used the technique to study the hunting behaviour of jellyfish. He has shown how parts of the ocean are temporarily protected from the depredations of these creatures because they cannot cross the invisible barriers imposed by Lagrange.” Meanwhile, another professor notes that “the coherent-structure approach might also be used to help predictions of the passage of hurricanes; they, too, are constrained by the invisible barriers that Lagrange’s theory describes.”

There is also reason to believe that conflict follows a power law (like earthquakes, forest fires, etc.). In other words, conflict may be scale invariant. This may imply that there is no “average size” of conflict regardless of scale, i.e., from interpersonal to international conflict. As it turns out,  “Lagrangian coherent structures can appear at all sorts of scales. What goes for an airport or a bay can be scaled up to an ocean, or the air above it, and down to the flow off an aircraft’s wingtip, or a ship’s hull.”

One of the exciting conclusions from this latest research in fluid dynamics is that “boundaries between things are often as important as the things themselves.” In other words, we need to think more about what artists call negative space, which is “ the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.”

Take the following picture, for example.

Source: Wikipedia

There is an intimate relationship between the object and the space around it. Negative spaces are important because they may reveal otherwise hidden patterns. In crisis mapping, like fluid dynamics, we need to delineate this negative space over time to identify patterns in three dimensional space. This is what the mathematics of Lagrangian Coherent Structures may allow us to do.

And so, it is very tempting to start thinking about conflict (and peace) in terms of fluid dynamics given the context of crisis mapping. Have we been too preoccupied with crisis data instead of modeling the boundaries and event trajectories? Perhaps conflict flows like a river, with turbulent eddies producing violent pathways while other areas are clear, still pools of peace. So why not collaborate with mathematicians to find out whether LCS’s can shed light on why “islands of peace” sometimes exist in a sea of conflict?

Patrick Philippe Meier with Guest Blogger Jen Ziemke

Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping

Lynda Gratton at the London Business School gave one of the best Keynote speeches that I’ve heard all year. Her talk was a tour de force on how to catalyze innovation and one of her core recommendations really hit home for me: “If you really want to be at the cutting edge of innovation, then you better make sure that 20% of your team is under the age of 27.” Lynda upholds this principle in all her business ventures.

I find this absolutely brilliant, which explains why I prefer teaching undergraduate seminars and why I always try to keep in touch with former students. Without fail, they continue to be an invaluable source of inspiration and innovative thinking.

A former student of mine, Adam White, recently introduced me to another undergraduate student at Tufts University, Rachel Brown. Rachel is a perfect example of why I value interacting with bright young minds. She wants to return to Kenya next year to identify and connect local peace initiatives in Nairobi in preparation for the 2012 elections.

Rachel was inspired by the story of Solo 7, a Kenyan graffiti artist in Kibera who drew messages of peace throughout the slum as a way to prevent violence from escalating shortly after the elections. “Imagine,” she said, “if we could identify all the Solo 7’s of Nairobi, all the individuals and local communities engaged in promoting peace.”

I understood at once why Adam recommended I meet with Rachel: Ushahidi.

I immediately told Rachel about Ushahidi, a free and open source platform that uses crowdsourcing to map crisis information. I suggested she consider using the platform to crowdsource and map local peace initiatives across Kenya, not just Nairobi. I’ve been so focused on crisis mapping that I’ve completely ignored my previous work in the field of conflict early warning. An integral part of this field is to monitor indicators of conflict and cooperation.

There are always pockets of cooperation no matter how dire a conflict is. Even in Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide we find numerous stories of people risking their lives to save others. The fact is that most people, most of the time in most places choose cooperation over conflict. If that weren’t the case, we’d be living in state of total war as described by Clausewitz.

If we only monitor indicators of war and violence, then that’s all we’ll see. Our crisis maps only depict a small part of reality. It is incredibly important that we also map indicators of peace and cooperation. By identifying the positive initiatives that exist before and during a crisis, we automatically identify multiple entry points for intervention and a host of options for conflict prevention. If we only map conflict, then we may well identify where most of the conflict is taking place, but we won’t necessarily know who in the area might be best placed to intervene.

Documenting peace and cooperation also has positive psychological effects. How often do we lament the fact that the only kind of news available in the media is bad news? We turn on CNN or BBC and there’s bad news—sometimes breaking news of bad news. It’s easy to get depressed and to assume that only bad things happen. But violence is actually very rare statistically speaking. The problem is that we don’t systematically document peace, which means that our perceptions are completely skewed.

Take the following anecdote, which occurred to me several years ago when I taught my first undergraduate course on conflict early warning systems. I was trying to describe the important psychological effects of documenting peace and cooperation by using the example of the London underground (subway).

If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably experienced the frequent problems and delays with the underground system. And like most other subway systems, announcements are made to inform passengers of annoying delays and whatnot. But unlike other subway systems I’ve used, the London underground also makes announcements to let passengers know that all lines are currently running on time.

Now lets take this principle and apply it to Rachel’s project proposal combined with Ushahidi. Imagine if she were to promote the crowdsourcing of local peace initiatives all across Kenya. She could work with national and local media to get the word out. Individuals could send text messages to report what kinds of peace activities they are involved in.

This would allow Rachel and others to follow up on select text messages to learn more about each activity. In fact, she could use Ushahidi’s customizable reporting forms to ask individuals texting in information to elaborate on their initiatives. Rachel wants to commit no less than a year to this project, which should give her and colleagues plenty of time to map hundreds of local peace initiatives across Kenya.

Just imagine a map covered with hundreds of doves or peace dots representing local peace initiatives? What a powerful image. The Peace Map would be public, so that anyone with Internet access could learn about the hundreds of different peace initiatives in Kenya. Kenyan peace activists themselves could make use of this map to learn about creative approaches to conflict prevention and conflict management. They could use Ushashidi’s subscription feature to receive automatic updates when a new peace project is reported in their neighborhood, town or province.

When peace activists (and anyone else, for that matter) find peace projects they like on Ushahidi’s Peace Map, they can “befriend” that project, much like the friend feature in Facebook. That way they can receive updates from a particular project via email, SMS or even Twitter. These updates could include information on how to get involved. When two projects (or two individuals) are connected this way, Ushahidi could depict the link on the map with a line connecting the two nodes.

Imagine if this Peace Map were then shown on national television in the lead up to the elections. Not only would there be hundreds of peace dots representing individual peace efforts, but many of these would be linked, depicting a densely connected peace network.

The map could also be printed in Kenya’s national and local newspapers. I think a Peace Map of Kenya would send a powerful message that Kenyans want peace and won’t stand for a repeat of the 2007 post-election violence. When the elections do happen, this Peace Map could be used operationally to quickly respond to any signs of escalating tensions.

Rachel could use the Peace Map to crowdsource reports of any election violence that might take place. Local peace activists could use Ushahidi’s subscription feature to receive alerts of violent events taking place in their immediate vicinity. They would receive these via email and/or SMS in near real-time.

This could allow peace activists to mobilize and quickly respond to escalating signs of violence, especially if preparedness measures and contingency plans already in place. This is what I call fourth generation conflict early warning and early response (4G). See this blog post for more on 4G systems. This is where The Third Side framework for conflict resolution meets the power of new technology platforms like Ushahidi.

It is when I meet inspiring students like Rachel that I wish I were rich so I could just write checks to turn innovative ideas into reality. The next best thing I can do is to work with Rachel and her undergraduate friends to write up a strong proposal. So if you want to get involved or you know a donor, foundation or a philanthropist who might be interested in funding Rachel’s project, please do email me so I can put you directly in touch with her: Patrick@iRevolution.net.

In the meantime, if you’re about to start a project, remember Lynda’s rule of thumb: make sure 20% of your team is under 27. You won’t regret it.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven

Evgeny replied in style to my way-too-long response to his piece in Prospect on: “Why Dictators Love the Web.” At least someone read my entire post, thanks Evgeny! As I wrote in my first response, the great thing about Evgeny is that “he’ll test your logic and poke (nay, drill) as many trenches as he can into your argument.” So if you want to see this in action, do read his concise reply.

First things first, though: his piece is accessible by subscription only. I happened to be in London and picked up a copy of Prospect at Heathrow last night, which made for pleasant reading on the flight back. But our back-and-forth won’t make much sense until you read his original piece and judge it for yourself.

Second, the following comment by Evgeny is probably the most stupefying: “For someone so obsessed with data, Patrick has produced no data at all to counter any of my arguments. I am all for data, but as long as academics like Patrick don’t produce any, we won’t be talking data any time soon.”

  • Uno: Evgeny knows full well that I’m collecting data for my dissertation research to test whether access to new media and technology challenges the balance of power between repressive regimes and resistance movements. As it happens, I’m currently writing from Stanford University where I’ll be presenting the results of my new large-N quantitative study based on a new dataset put together over the past 6 months. This new dataset includes 18 years worth of time series data for 38 repressive regimes based on 10 different variables. Uhhhhhhhhh, so if producing 684 data points is not producing any data, then  perhaps I do belong in anecdote heaven with Evgeny.
  • Due: My formal dissertation committee is in the process of reviewing my data and analysis. I also expect to get some solid feedback from professors and PhD students at Stanford this afternoon. When I’m assured that my analysis of the data is correct, I’ll blog about it and ask for feedback from iRevolution readers. I’m not about to start countering Evgeny’s anecdotes until I’m sure my data-driven analysis is sound. There’s enough hype in this field as it is, and an “anecdote for an anecdote leaves everyone confused.”
  • Tre: Evgeny also knows full well that my previous quantitative study, which included data on 22 authoritarian states, was presented at the International Studies Association (ISA) Conference in February of this year since my blog post on that presentation is why he got in touch with me in the first place. In fact, I shared a copy of my paper with him at the time along with an early copy of a quantitative study I co-authored for the Berkman Center that tested the impact of technology on indicators of governance for 180 countries and separately for autocratic states.

So, let me just say goodness gracious: how can Evgeny possibly say I have produced no data or analysis? I’m analyzing my latest dataset, and I’m doing so carefully. When I have some preliminary conclusions, then of course I’ll put all of them forward to support and/or counter some of Evgeny’s anecdotes.

Will these be conclusive or definitive? Of course not, but at least they’ll be based on some empirical data and quantitative analysis. Is the data perfect? No, no dataset is. Will the regression analysis be sufficient? Of course not, which is why this analysis only constitutes the first part of my dissertation research. The second part will draw on applied social science methodologies to carry out qualitative comparative case study analysis based on the results from the quantitative study. Oh, and by the way, I’d rather be obsessed with data than anecdotes.

Anecdotes Inside...

I hope this sets the record straight. Now, lets go back to Anecdote Heaven. Evgeny hasn’t replied to most of my criticisms because, well, my response was really long (some 3,000 words) and he probably has better things to do, like write a book on all this (can’t wait to respond to that!). So please keep this in mind since I can only reply to the points he has chosen to reply to—something called selection bias, which actually sums up the biggest problem I have with the “field” of digital activism.

1. On Analogue Activism and Torture vs. Hacking: Evgeny misses the point. What I’m countering is his selection bias of certain anecdotes to make sweeping statements like “analogue activism was pretty safe.” It’s these kind of sweeping statements based on select anecdotes that I have a problem with. Torture is nothing new. Governments have tortured individuals for centuries to get information. So now they get phone numbers. Great. Before they got lists of street addresses. Great. So what? White hat hackers and some professional activists do the same against repressive governments (more anecdote acrobatics, anyone?).  I do concede that there is a network effect, but the effect can be in both directions. I completely agree that digital activists are facing a steep learning curve; hence the need to focus on tactics, strategies and technologies in equal measure.

2. Professional Activists and Regular Internet Users: I’m glad that Evgeny makes the distinction between professional activists and amateur (?) activists. But he doubts that regular users of the Internet in places like Russia, China or Iran have ever heard of Nathan Freitias’s Guardian project or are going to use those services anytime soon. That’s because the Guardian is not available yet. Evgeny notes the power of networks from the dictator’s perspective but doesn’t seem to award the same potential to transnational activist networks vis-à-vis the spread of new technologies and tactics. I wonder whether the analogy with professional journalists and citizen journalists is appropriate here. As tools for digital activism become cheaper, easier and safer to use, amateur activists may stand to gain in important ways (note this is simply a hypothesis, not a claim!).

3. Lohmann’s 1994 paper on Information Cascades: Yes indeed, the political science paper triggered an important body of scholarship. And yes, even the great Clay drew on the paper for his popular book. So my reply here is aimed at both Evgeny and Clay: why draw on a 15-year old paper that focuses on a 20-year old case study to make a point about new media, digital technologies, and networked communications? Lohmann’s paper is an important piece (which I highly recommend reading), but it would have been more appropriate to dig into more recent papers that cite Lohmann to determine whether her arguments are indeed applicable to today’s world. As Clay notes in Here Comes Everybody, “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.” Was this true of 1989, or even 1994?

4. The Muslim Brotherhood and Other Groups: The fact that extremist (civil society) groups are using technology to fill the vacuum left by the state is a well-known fact. These groups are going to benefit from and use technology regardless of whether or not Western governments promote “Civil Society 2.0”. The Muslim Brotherhood and such groups are typically way more advanced in their use of technology than what a “Civil Society 2.0 Marshall Plan” might offer. Goodness, basic media literacy in civil society would already be an important step forward. What I’m getting at is that we’re hardly going to teach extremists anything new by implementing digital activism programs in developing countries.

5. Russia, Estonia and Georgia: Oh good, Evgeny agrees that the state is losing control to decentralized networks.

6. The Number of Internet Users is Meaningless: Oh this is good, I’m going to keep this quote for later use. Let me just quote Clay Shirky instead:  “If you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” Evgeny argues that the regular folk won’t be using censorship circumvention tactics and technologies “and it’s the regular folk which [sic] matters most when you need to build a mass movement.” Like I said in my reply, the number of Internet users in China (and, by the way, Tor users as well) is increasing, not decreasing. Access to technology, even in places like Burma, is increasing, not decreasing (apologies for the anecdote droppings). Technology is becoming simpler, not more difficult to use; cheaper, not more expensive. Perhaps states are losing control to decentralized networks in part because these networks are expanding and including more regular folk?

7. Guess we won’t be continuing that conversation then.

8. FOSS and Ushahidi: Seems like I did misunderstand Evgeny’s point here, which actually is “that donors have no good ways of identifying/supporting talented new media entrepreneurs without ruining their incentives to innovate.” This is a new field, we’re learning as we go along, so of course we don’t have all the answers, nor do we claim to. But I’d love to get Evgeny’s thoughts on how donors can improve on this front. On a related note, Evgeny challenges me to go visit the offices of NGOs working in New Media in Eastern Europe to see how much they benefit from the “culture of innovation” unleashed by FOSS. I’d love to, Evgeny, any chance you could hook me up with some funding? And, for the purposes of countering selection bias, could I also visit other places like Kenya, India, etc.?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?!

Prospect Magazine‘s latest issue figures an excellent piece by my witty colleague Evgeny Morozov. Entitled “Why Dictators Love the Web,” the article is as an important contribution to the study of digital activism.

As many in this field know, Evgeny is one of the lone analog voices countering the digital “Internet = Democracy” hype that pervades the mainstream media and much of digital activism. To this end, Evgeny’s latest tour de force is also invaluable for my dissertation research, in which I study the role of new media and technology in popular resistance against authoritarian regimes.

I had lunch with Evgeny last week and I must say he is without doubt one of my favorite colleagues to discuss these issues with. Why? Because he simply won’t let you get away with anything less than a very carefully crafted argument. And even then, he’ll still test your logic and poke (nay, drill) as many trenches as he can into your argument. He doesn’t hold back and I love it. Plus, he doesn’t make it personal. You can tell he truly enjoys the intellectual debate. So do I, which is why I already look forward to our next lunch.

In the meantime, I thought I’d dig a few digital trenches of my own around his really enjoyable piece in *Prospect which, just to be cheeky, might well have been titled “Why Evgeny Loves It that Dictators Love the Web.” Jokes aside, here’s the main point I want to elaborate on below: We need to move beyond the repetitive statements that dictators also use the Web. This is old news! The question that really needs answering is: “So what?”

Nobody I know in the field of digital activism is kidding herself or himself here. This cyber game of cat-and-mouse is a dangerous one. But this is hardly breaking news either though. Scholars like Dan Drezner, the Chair of my Dissertation Committee and a blogger on Foreign Policy, have long warned that repressive states are becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to use the Internet to further their own ends. In a 2005 conference paper, Drezner cites Garry Rodan’s conclusion from his 1998 study on Internet and Political Control,

“When the political will to obstruct certain information and views is coupled with such variables as an efficient and technically competent bureaucracy, an established regime of political intimidation and surveillance, and embedded corporatist structures facilitating cooperation between state officials and administrators across the public and private sectors, you have a formidable mix.”

Rodan’s argument is well put, but again, the real question is, “So what?” Is this formidable mix enough to smoke out digital activist networks in authoritarian states? “The result,” opines Evgeny, “is a cat-and-mouse game in which protestors try to hide from the authorities by caring out unconventional niches.” So is Tom-the-cyber-cat going to finally do away with cyber-mouse-Jerry? Perhaps we should go back and watch a bit more Tom & Jerry: being small and agile has distinct, asymmetric advantages.

And so it is that I take issue with Evgeny’s use of counter-anecdotes and his general line of argument. Let me be more specific and relate my concerns directly to some of his comments in Prospect. Take, for example, his notion that “Analogue activism was pretty safe: if one node in a protest network got busted, the rest of the group was probably OK.”

What happened to Evgeny’s earlier comment in this recent Congressional Briefing that torture is much cheaper than hacking?” Is “traditional activism” necessarily safer? Can we make such a sweeping statement from one or two anecdotes?

It is also misleading to focus exclusively on technology. Tactics and strategies on how to apply these technologies are crucial, as I have repeatedly argued on this blog. There are several ways to make it more difficult for repressive regimes to compromise your network. Deleting your address book on your mobile phone is just one example.

In terms of technology, Nathan Freitas is developing the Guardian to make it even safer for activists to communicate. For more tactics and strategies on the application of technologies for digital activism, please see my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. Evgeny might well retort that the Guardian makes it safer for regimes to communicate as well but governments for the most part already have secure communication channels. The point is to level the playing field.

Evgeny drops numerous anecdotes or digital mousetraps in his piece. Take the one about China (and other authoritarian states) hiring a data mining company to help them identify digital activists. So what? Chinese activists spent $0 countering that technology overnight by using a simple tactic that would make Leonardo da Vinci proud: they wrote backwards. See my previous blog post on this. In the field of security studies, we call this an asymmetric, tactical advantage.

Later in the article, Evgeny acknowledges that the Internet can serve pro-democracy groups. He cites three popular reasons: (1) the internet can give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication; (2) new technology makes bloody crackdowns against activists riskier as repressive action can be caught on camera; (3) technology reduces the marginal cost of protest. Interestingly, he doesn’t expand on the first two (or how they might influence number 3), but he takes issue instead with the third point.

According to proponents of popular reason number 3, technology will act as a compelling recruitment mechanism. Evgeny summarizes the point below.

“[C]itizens will turn to the Internet to see how unpopular the regime has become. Discovering others of like mind, they will see protests and, if the regime hasn’t responded with violence, join to create a ‘snowball’ capable of crushing the most rigid authoritarian states. Social scientists have named these snowballs “information cascades.”

Evgeny cites a political science paper published in 1994 (yes, that’s 15 years ago) to counter the snowball argument. Not only that, this 1994 piece by Susanne Lohmann draws on the 1989 “Monday demonstrations” in East Germany as a case study. So Evgeny draws on a 15-year old article that cites a case study from 20-years ago to argue that “information cascades” driven by new media and technologies are a myth. Hmmm. In any case, Evgeny argues that in Belarus, “most fence-sitters watched the state’s response and, acting rationally, went searching for higher fences.” Again, “So what?”

Let me expand on this notion of “information cascades” by drawing on Drezner’s 2005 piece entitled “Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations.” Here is Drezner’s take on:

“An information cascade takes place when individuals acting in conditions 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.

In repressive societies, information cascades often lead citizens to acquiesce to government coercion, even if a broad swath of the public would prefer coordinated action. Citizen coordination and mobilization is highly unlikely among risk-averse actors unless there is some assurance that others will behave similarly. At the same time, however, an exogenous shock that triggers spontaneous acts of protest can also trigger a reverse in the cascade.

This explains why repressive societies often appear stable and yet without warning can face a massive scaling up of protests and civic action. A little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence. 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.

The spread 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. While governments may be able to censor Internet content and repress activists during normal times, that ability may not remain constant over time.”

So there is more to “information cascades” than Evgeny perhaps realizes. At the same time, however, whether the spread of technology increases the fragility of “information cascades” remains needs to be studied more closely (hence my dissertation). This is an important area of research because we need to understand what factors influence information- and reverse-information cascades for policy purposes.

While Evgeny is correct when he notes that, “information cascades often fail to translate into crowds, even without state fear-mongering,” we know that already. What we don’t know is why some don’t fail and whether/how success can be replicated. Hence the raison d’être of DigiActive and the modest Research@Digitactive initiative I started with Mary Joyce and colleagues. In sum, we need more analysis (and not just anecdotes) in the field of digital activism.

But it’s far more pleasant to be in anecdote heaven. Evgeny writes that extremist groups use the Web, which means that “the seemingly benign infrastructure [of the Internet] can backfire on Western governments.” Again, I wouldn’t call this breaking news. There have been plenty of previous studies by RAND and others that have documented the effective use of communication technology by groups like Al Qaeda.

This leads me to my next question vis-à-vis Evgeny’s stroll through anecdote heaven. Yes, the Internet is being used by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah, criminal gangs in Mexico, ultra-loyalist groups in Thailand, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Saudia Arabia, etc.: So what? Surely this simply shows that technology can be a very effective political tool.

Evgeny also cites one of his favorite anecdotes, the one about Russian hackers putting up instructions on how to carry out cyber attacks against Georgian websites. But at least in this case he acknowledges that, “the results of the attacks were unclear.” I’d like to know what the results of the above examples (e.g., Iranian Revolutionary Guard) were. What impact did they have? This is where I find myself being repetitive: Get the Data, Then Talk.

So this is part of the problem, you see. It’s all fine and well to mine an article with anecdotes but we don’t even know for sure what the individual or collective impact of these anecdotes is. Which, coming to think of it, isn’t much different from the hype created by some digital activists and journalists around the promises of democracy by Internet.

I want to react to a few more points in Evgeny’s article before I wrap up. Evgeny acknowledges that Chinese attempts at censorship (“The Great Firewall”) no longer works: “They might stop the man on the street, but a half-determined activists can find a way around.” Yes, of course, surely this obvious, right?

But there’s a finer point here that is oft overlooked: censorship technologies are becoming easier and easier to use which, by definition, means that these tools are increasingly accessible to the man (and woman!!) on the street.

Let me take Evgeny’s following anecdote to demonstrate—one that the mainstream media loves to bring up: “China pays 280,000 commentators to spin sensitive [online] discussions;” the famous 50 Cent Party.

You guessed it: “So what?”

There are 738,257,230 Internet users in China, 149,515,326 with broadband access (source). These individuals don’t need to get paid to write content. And they don’t need to be half-determined if all they have to do is click on the “Secure Browing icon brought to you by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF). Orders of magnitude differences still matter, even in the digital age! Oh, and by the way, the number of Internet users in China is increasing, not decreasing.

But Evgeny laments the fact that most people, when given unfettered access to information, will browse for pornography, conspiracy theories gossip, i.e., Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory.” Again, no breaking news there either. Still, Evgeny cites the fact that 70% of all content swapped by Saudi teenagers via Bluetooth is pornographic. So what?

I don’t know any digital activists who disagree with Evgeny on this: “providing unfettered access to information is not by itself going to push citizens of authoritarian states to learn about their government’s crimes.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard this kind of thinking coming out of the US State Department, USAID and most recently this Congressional Briefing on Twitter vs Tyrants.

In this sense, we do need more Evgeny’s to rain anecdotes on policymaker parades. But we also need to pierce through the puffy clouds of anecdote heaven.

In any case, if people need censorship circumvention to access porn sites, then all the better! They’ll learn how to use censorship tools. So if “an exogenous shock that triggers spontaneous acts of protest” triggers “a reverse in the cascade,” these same individuals may very well be driven to use these same tools to find out what really happened. And lets not kid ourselves here, dictators, police officers, soldiers, etc, are equally likely to be watching porn! The name Kim Jong Il comes to mind.

I’m almost finished, I promise. But I have to take issue Evgeny’s comment that NGOs “toil away on lengthy, expensive and unnecessary [technology] projects instead of ditching them when it becomes apparent they won’t work […].” This over-generalization may still be true but there’s a notable shift thanks to the free and open source movement.

With the financial crisis hitting NGOs hard, you can bet they’ll be the first to collaborate and adopt free and open source software (FOSS). Furthermore, I think it is fair to say that the FOSS movement has generated a lot of innovation in this space. Take Ushahidi, for example.

I also disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that Western governments and NGOs should “invest in tools that help make digital civic spaces less susceptible to government spin.” Ok, I don’t entirely disagree, but I do take issue with this single focus on tools, tools, tools. Technology on its own is not the answer. We need to leverage the rich tactics and strategies that have been honed in the field of nonviolent civil resistance. See my previous blog post on this topic.

Evgeny writes that a Russian think tank has set up a “Kremlin School of Blogging” while the communications ministry is soliciting proposals to “advance Russian interests on social networks.” He also notes that the Kremlin has “increased its spending on the online-only-state-owned media by 75 per cent.” Meanwhile, in Iran, Basij forces plan to launch another 10,000 blogs and clerics in Qom have offered blogging workshops to shape online discourse. In addition, Evgeny writes that pro-government Twitter messages increased exponentially within 12 hours of the elections.

My take? Yup, “So what?”

These examples seem to indicate that repressive regimes are playing catch up, and are in a big hurry to do so. I think Tom-the-cyber-cat is feeling the heat. To put a spin on the common proverb, “When the cat is away from cyberspace, the cyber mice will come out and play.” The above examples cited by Evgeny simply suggest that repressive regimes are simply doing what they need to do to manage the digital playing field. No surprises there, folks.

So what happens next? Are we witnessing the early stages of an “arms race” of sorts—an information race? Will closed regimes be able to keep up with the rapid pace of open technological innovation? Does their survival depend on it? If it didn’t, why would the regimes in Russia, Iran, China, etc., invest more and more resources to maintaining information blockades?

As an aside, note that Evgeny tends to swing between anecdotes of (counter) digital activism and cyber warfare. I think we need to be a bit clearer about the conceptual distinction between the two. In my opinion, digital activism and cyber warfare lie on a spectrum much like the one that characterizes conflict—from nonviolent conflict to armed conflict. Understanding both forms of conflict and digital action is critical but I do think that each needs to be evaluated on it’s own terms. Mixing it up runs the risk of confusing mice for cats.

I disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that the West should be prepared to step in and help the dissenting voices, providing free and prompt assistance to get back online as soon as possible. I’m not a big fan of external, top down intervention models. They don’t work in the field of conflict early warning and conflict prevention. In fact, they fail abysmally.

I would rather take a people-centered approach, local-training-of-local-trainers, something I have referred to elsewhere as a bottom-bottom approach. In other words, lets help foster more resilient digital communities by helping to build internal capacity that minimizes the need for external intervention and maximizes self-learning.

This is why I’d recommend watching a little more Tom & Jerry. Jerry often finds himself trapped in his little mouse hideout because Tom has a gazillion mousetraps set up right outside. If Tom also starts censoring the Internet and blocks the use of mobile phones as well, then Jerry needs to draw on more than just technology to get out of this tight spot. External intervention is hardly possible in some circumstances but if Jerry is somewhat conversant in nonviolent civil resistance, he’ll have a few creative tactics up his sleeve to get him through to the next episode.

In case it seems like I disagree with Evgeny on every point, let me say that I agree with his following remarks:

  • “Reaching out to offline but effective networks will yield more value than trying to badger bloggers to take up political activities.” See my blog post on this very issue.
  • “Western embassies working on the ground in authoritarian states often excel at identifying and empowering such networks and new media literacy should become part of diplomatic training.” That said, local activists who are connected to foreign embassies often run great risks, see this blog post of mine for more on this.
  • “We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Nobody knows who to create sustainable digital public spheres capable of promoting democracy.” And just one dissertation on this topic won’t cut it either.

I’m not ready to place my bets on either Tom or Jerry. I’d rather be up front and say, I don’t know. It depends. But I intend to tip-toe around the many anecdote droppings to find out whether one can take a more data-driven approach to answer the question, “So what?”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk

I just attended a panel at Harvard University on “The Impact of Social Media in the Middle East” which is part of a 3-day conference on the Middle East and North Africa. My colleagues Rob Faris from the Berkman Center and Evgeny Morozov now at Georgetown were both on the panel in addition to Iranian-American activist Lily Mazahery and Kuwaiti blogger Ziad Al-Duaij.

The panelists engaged in rapid-fire debate on the role of Twitter in Iran after their presentations. The typical laundry list of anecdotes were thrown around to win the hearts and minds of the audience.  The summary: Yes, Twitter had a significant impact; No Twitter had no significant impact.

Maybe it’s because I hadn’t eaten all day, but I found this all quite annoying. This is precisely the kind of anecdotal acrobatics that prompted me—two years ago—to pursue a dissertation on The Role of New Media and Technology in Popular Resistance Against Repressive Rule.

If you look close enough, you’ll find that many of the debates in the “field” of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes. The preponderance of these would have us believe that new media and digital technology spell certain democracy. Yet an increasing number of anecdotes reveal (surprise, surprise) that repressive regimes are making use of new media and technology to forward their own agendas.

So where exactly does this leave us?

In anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell, depending on your own agenda. I chose to pursue a dissertation in this area because I want to get beyond anecdotal ping pong. Yes, we have more and more anecdotes. And that’s great. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Are we starting to see a trend emerge? Who is winning this digital—albeit dangerous—game of cat-and-mouse?

I don’t mind being in anecdotal heaven since I realize that hard data is rather hard to come by. But I wish the panelists had been upfront and just said: “Right, given the general lack of quantitative data and rigorous qualitative case study analysis, we have to resort anecdotes, so bear with us as we warm up for our anecdotal ping pong tournament.”

Don’t get me wrong, all the panelists have a wealth of experience and insights to draw on that I simply don’t have. So all I can do is emphasize the need for more data collection and a mixed methods approach to answer the question on everyone’s mind:

Does access to new media and digital technology
change the balance of power

between repressive regimes and resistance movements?

This is what I’m trying to get at with my dissertation. Of course, the answer will be: “It depends”. But at least I’ll be able to draw on data and comparative case study analysis to make an informed judgment on what “it” depends on. How do I plan to get there? See this blog post for the quantitative model and this blog post where I propose an analytical qualitative framework to understand the impact of new media and technology on repressive rule and civil resistance.

But I do not claim that my research design is perfect, which is why I’d be grateful for any feedback iRevolution readers may have.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Empirical Study on Impact of Global ICT Use on Democratic Tendency

Important: The econometric analysis of this paper has received serious criticisms. My contribution to the paper was threefold: (1) the literature review, (2) the recommendation that autocratic regimes be included separately in the analysis, and (3) the interpretation of the results. Hence my being second-author. I had no involvement in the econometric analysis and do not have access to the data in order to improve the analysis. I am therefore removing my name and affiliation from this study.

I recently co-authored a study on the impact of new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on Democratic Tendency. The study was presented at the 3rd International Conference on ICT for Development (ICTD2009) in Doha, Qatar, earlier this year.

The study asks whether the rapid increase in global Internet access has any democratizing effect? Unlike (the few) earlier studies that sought to explore this question, this study draws on multiple perception-based measures of governance from the World Bank to assess the Internet’s effect on the process of democratization.

ICT Impact on All Countries

The results of the large-N regression analysis suggest that the level of “Voice & Accountability” in a country increases with Internet use, while the level of “Political Stability” decreases with increasing Internet use. Additionally, Internet use was found to increase significantly for countries with increasing levels of “Voice & Accountability.”

In contrast, “Rule of Law” was not significantly affected by a country’s level of Internet use. Increasing cell phone use did not seem to affect either “Voice & Accountability,” “Political Stability” or “Rule of Law.” In turn, cell phone use was not affected by any of these three measures of democratic tendency.

ICT Impact on Autocracies

Given the focus of my dissertation research, we also assessed the impact of new ICTs on autocratic regimes and  noted a significant negative effect of Internet and cell phone use on “Political Stability.” We didn’t include this in our final conference paper (PDF) due to space constraints, so I’d like to share the results publicly here.

We selected autocratic regimes from our dataset using the Polity IV dataset—any country that did not score a “0″ on the measure of autocratic tendency was included. This measure produced a total of 68 countries in this section of the study. Table VIII below displays the results from estimating the model that predicts levels of “Voice & Accountability” (VA), “Political Stability” (PS) and “Rule of Law” (RL) from Internet use and the control variables.

Picture 2As the results above show, a statistically significant negative relationship exists between the diffusion of Internet and access and “Political Stability”. The coefficient, -0.0085, is larger than the statistically significant coefficient of -0.0025 found when all countries are included in the analysis. This suggests that the Internet has a greater destabilizing effect in autocracies rather than globally.

Picture 3

The findings in Table IX above reveal that the increase in cell phone use also has a destabilizing effect on autocracies, although the effect, -0.0026, is not as large as the one found for increasing Internet use. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that there was no statistically significant relationship between cell phone use and “Political Stability” in the previous model which included all 181 countries. This would suggest that cell phones do play a more important role in contributing to “Political Instability” in autocracies.

Conclusion

In sum, the empirical analysis of autocracies also yielded interesting findings. Increasing Internet use in countries under autocratic rule appears to lead a statistically significant increase in “Political Instability.” So does an increase in cell phone use.

Furthermore, when testing for reverse causality, the analysis revealed that an increase in “Political Stability” within in autocratic regimes leads to a notable decrease in both Internet and cell phone use. This may reflect the fact that increased political stability in autocracies means stronger coercive rule.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mapping Election Fraud in Afghanistan

My colleague Nils Weidmann recently moved to Princeton to start his post-doc with the Empirical Studies of Conflict group. Nils is always up to something interesting. His latest research project focused on mapping election fraud in Afghanistan.

Nils analyzed voter turn-out at voting stations using Beber and Scacco’s last digit method, which was used to analyze the Iran elections earlier this year. The method is very straightforward. In a free and fair election, the last digits (numbers “0″ through “9″) for voting station turn-out should occur in equal frequency, i.e., should be “random.” Any non-randomness in this distribution may thus indicator manipulation.

For example,  the distribution below for Helmand province is clearly not random since the digit “0″ occurs far more frequently than the other digits.

Picture 1

Provinces with non-random distribution of last digits for voting stations can then be mapped.

Picture 2

As Nils points out, “despite the fact that the certified results contain almost no suspicious stations anymore, evidence of manipulation remains for four provinces.” See map below.

Picture 3

Nils also produced spatial distribution maps for polling stations that had a higher number than the 600 voter count allocated and maps for polling stations with an overly high vote shares for one candidate.

It would be great to super impose all the maps that Nils produced in order to compose a vote fraud probability index. I’d also be curious to know how projects by GeoCommons and Alive in Afghanistan might contribute to the research that Nils is pursuing, and vice versa.

Picture 5

Patrick Philippe Meier