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

14 responses to “Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven

  1. Dear Patrick,

    At risk of offending your very Stanfordian sensibilities … its kind of a shame that our notions of research on new media have basically boiled down to either “anecdotes” or “huge quantitative data.” There are other kinds of “data” that are neither anecdotal or “new large-N quantitative studies.”

    Right?

    • Hey Chanders, thanks for your note. I’m actually not a Stanford student, so no Stanfordian sensibilities were offended, I assure you! LOL. I’m at Tufts, not an Ivy League, right? If you read the blog post you just commented on, you’ll note that I wrote the following:

      “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.”

  2. Dear Patrick,
    All will agree that you are especially taking care not to hurt other peoples feelings. I am sure that Mister Evgeny knows this as well. But he reacts to Your posts in a rather unfriendly way. May I recommend to ignore him?
    Yours
    M.Dirksen

  3. Just so you know, I’ve been avidly reading, admiring, stewing and of course hacking away on the sidelines of this discussion. I, for one, am always happy to dismissed as irrelevant while I go about my business focused on the task at hand.

    Thanks for the continued support!

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