A Survey on Repression vs Liberation: Does Technology Make a Difference?

I’m getting started on the second half of my dissertation research. This will comprise a series of semi-structured interviews with individuals who are knowledgeable about the impact of information and communication technologies in four countries under authoritarian rule. These countries include: Burma, Iran, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

I’ll be looking to interview at least 10 individuals per country case study. That means a total of 40 interviews between now and December. I also want to interview an additional 10 individuals who are not necessarily experts in one country per se but are particularly well informed about the overall subject matter. These 50 individuals will represent a mix of political activists, digital activists, technologists and academics who are either from the countries in question or experts on these countries.

I’d be most grateful for suggestions on which 50 individuals you might recommend touching base with. I already have a list about of about 30 but would like to compare this with reader suggestions. Please email me at patrick @ irevolution dot net. Obviously, I’m aware of the sensitivities around interviewing those colleagues who may be based in the countries in question. I will of course take appropriate precautions based on guidance from digital security professionals. Interviewees will remain anonymous in my own notes and these notes will be destroyed following my write-up which will be devoid of specific details and personal identifiers. Obviously, anyone I approach (directly or indirectly) can turn down the interview request.

I’d also be very interested in getting feedback on the survey questions I propose to ask. The ultimate question I want to answer is whether access to new ICTs empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice-versa? The associated set of questions¬† below are based on a conceptual framework grounded on a comprehensive literature review. While these have already been approved by my dissertation chair, I’m keen to get a crowdsourced opinion. Feel free to add your thoughts on the comments section below or email them to me if you prefer.¬† Note that I will use more conversational language when posing the questions below. Thank you very much.

Mobilizing Structures
1. Are more individuals participating in social resistance? Why/why not? If so, how and is this changing?
2. Is the resistance becoming more contentious? Why/why not?
3. Are resistance movements better organized? Why/why not?

Opportunity Structures
4.
Do social resistance groups have more or less access to the political system? Why/why not?
5. Is state control of information communication increasing opportunity costs? Why/why not?

Digital Activism
6. How have resistance groups used ICTs to organize and mobilize? If so, how?
7. Have ICTs been critical to the success of social resistance activities? Why/why not?
8. How have state officials used ICTs to control resistance groups?
9. Have ICTs been critical to the success of controlling resistance activities? Why/why not? And if so, how?
10. Would you characterize the competition between coercive states and social movements as a game of cat-and-mouse? Why/why not? If so, who do you think is winning and why?

9 responses to “A Survey on Repression vs Liberation: Does Technology Make a Difference?

  1. I hope you don’t mind this as a public comment – I’d be curious as to the choice of the four countries…you’ve got great regional representation for Asia, Africa, and the CIS, but what about the Arab world, arguably the most repressive in terms of free speech/information? I realize Iran is vaguely part of the amorphous Middle East, but it’s definitely an outlier in terms of culture.

    I think your research questions as presented above are fascinating, but really think you’re missing a piece by skipping out on the region.

    • Hi Jillian, many thanks for your reply. The four countries in question were selected as a result of the large-N quantitative analysis I carried out. I’m taking a mixed methods approach whereby the large-N analysis serves as the selection criteria for the 4 case studies I’m carrying out qualitative research on.

  2. Patrick, I think you have a great topic for your dissertation research. Your “ultimate question” is a big one and I’m looking forward to following your work. As a doctoral student too, just beginning to approach the dissertation proposal stage of my program, I’m thinking about how to answer similar questions. I’m wondering why you are using semi-structured interviews. Wouldn’t that really just address the perception of “liberation technologies” and not your actual question? I’m also curious about the criteria that you’re using to determine if someone is “knowledgeable about the impact” of these technologies.

    • Thanks for your goods question, Tanya. I’m using semi-structured interviews precisely not to limit myself to perception alone. They are more a starting base for a conversation than the only questions that will be addressed. It’s important to leave these questions open-ended, in my opinion, because it’s the indirect commentary that often holds valuable information. Also, keep in mind that I’ve already carried out a large-N quantitative analysis as the first part of my dissertation research. In terms of selection criteria, I would include those who have been active in this space for more than 5 years and/or published/blogged extensively. I will also ask recognized experts for recommendations (snowball sampling). Thanks again for your questions.

  3. Philip Howard’s new book “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, ” uses a ‘fuzzy set’ comparative model to look the role of the internet in democratization in Muslim countries. Might be a rich set of data for you to use (particularly on Iran), and I’d be curious to hear how useful his methodology is.

  4. Dear Patrick, it would be interesting to capture from respondents their perceptions of you each regime uses ICTs to govern, in other words, how the same technologies pro-democracy activists use are used by the governments against them. I realise this may fall under question 10.

    I also hope that there is someway you can balance your commendable stripping away of identity markers that may put respondents at risk with some recording of gender, age, education, geo-location and when applicable, race and ethnicity. Barriers to adoption and use, and in fact, the ways in which ICTs are used are framed by these factors, and indeed, content availability and creation in the vernacular / swabhasha.

    All the best with your study. For the same reasons as Jillian, I would have liked Sri Lanka included, but look forward to the results of your work with keen interest.

    Sanj

    Sanjana Hattotuwa
    TEDGlobal Fellow

  5. Distinguish research questions (which you have listed) from your survey/semi-structured interview questions

  6. Perhaps completely un-related: does anyone ever reference Freire’s “Education for Critical Consciousness”?
    “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was far more widely discussed. Since that one has pret’near dropped out of sight I’m thinking the former has practically disappeared.

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