Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

I defended my dissertation proposal in early 2008 but the majority of the literature most relevant and helpful to my doctoral research surfaced in 2009 and 2010. So I’m rather grateful to the PhD program at The Fletcher School for letting me run with my chosen dissertation topic given the limited empirical literature to draw on back then.

The best new book I’ve come across since my proposal is Philip Howard’s “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” which was published just a few months ago. Howard seeks to answer the following question: “What is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?” More specifically, “The goal of this book is to analyze the ways in which new information technologies have contributed to democratic entrenchment or transition in countries with large Muslim communities.”

Howard demonstrates that “technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions” and “that technology diffusion has become, in combination with other factors, both a necessary and sufficient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment.” Howard concludes: “Clearly the Internet and cell phones have not on their own caused a single democratic transition, but it is safe to conclude that today, no democratic transition is possible without information technologies.”

The book is getting superb reviews, and that is absolutely no surprise. This is truly the best book I’ve read on the topic of my dissertation thus far. Why? Howard’s research design and mixed-methods approach is by far the most rigorous one in the literature to date. I therefore plan to dedicate a few blog posts to summarize Howard’s approach and findings, starting here with the book’s prologue: “The Revolution in the Middle East will be Digitized,” which focuses on the Green Revolution in Iran. Below are some excerpts and commentary that reflect some of the key arguments from this first section of the book.

One of the main roles that information and communication technologies (ICTs) played in Iran was dissemination, which had a second-order effect on increasing levels of participation both in the streets and online.

“Opposition campaign managers in Iran consistently say that such Internet applications allow them to get messages out as never before and thereby organize bigger and bigger campaign rallies. Without access to broadcast media, savvy opposition campaigners turned social media applications like Facebook from minor pop culture fads into a major tool of political communication.”

“During the protests, even the most apolitical bloggers covered the demonstrations, and traffic at the dominant blogs swelled [and] social networking applications […] allowed even small enclaves to create content and reconnect with friends and family in Iran.”

“It does not matter that the number of bloggers, twitterers, or internet users may seem small, because in a networked social moment only a few ‘brokers’ need to be using these tools to keep everyone up to date.”

“These are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule. Indeed, it is probably more useful to evaluate applications such as Twitter through the communities they support, rather than through tool features. […] Social movement scholars write that elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime.”

“In some ways the regime’s response was decidedly old media: expelling foreign correspondents, blocking phone lines, preventing the publication of daily newspapers, and accusing enemy governments of spreading misinformation.”

“They did not count on the large number of Iranians eager to submit their own content to international news agencies, and, perhaps more important, they did not realize that large numbers of Iranians would use social media to share their own personal stories of beatings, tear gas inhalation, and protest euphoria with each other.”

“Cyberactivism is no longer the unique provenance of isolated, politically motivated hackers. It is instead deeply integrated with contemporary social movement strategy and accessible to computer and mobile phone users with only basic skills: it is a distinguishing feature of modern political communication and a means of creating the élan that marks social change.”

Like Malcom Gladwell, Howard also addresses the role of strong and weak-ties in digital activism. To learn more about Gladwell’s point of view (and mine) regarding the question of social ties, please see my previous blog post here.

“Millions of people took to the streets in the week after the election results were announced and certainly not all were using Twitter. The majority of them, however, were responding to both strong and weak network ties and to the digital technologies designed to maintain those ties.”

“The unprecedented activation of weak social ties brought the concerns of disaffected youth, cheated voters, and beaten protesters to the attention of the mullahs. The result was a split within the ruling establishment on how to deal with the insurgency, how to proceed with counting ballots, and how to credibly authorize Ahmadinejad to take power.”

Howard’s balanced approach to the impact of ICTs on democracy is one of the main strengths of his book.

“So the country has one of the world’s most vibrant social media communities and the most concentrated broadcast media system in the Muslim world. Why, then, has the digital revolution in Iran not had the type of clear political outcomes or institutional consequences seen in other authoritarian regimes?”

“The answer, in part, is that while such information technologies have become a fundamental infrastructure for journalists and civil society groups, they are a necessary but not sufficient causal condition for contemporary regime change. So based on real-world experience, what is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?”

“In the language of fuzzy sets ways, Iran’s postelection insurgency was almost an example of a digital revolution. In is unlikely that protests would have lasted as long, raised so much international support, and had such an impact on domestic politics had it not been for mobile phones and the internet. The internet did not cause the insurgency, and it is probably a truism to say that no contemporary democratic revolution in the Middle East will happen without the internet. In times of political crisis, banal tools for wasting time, like Twitter and YouTube, become the supporting infrastructure of social movements. As one ethnic Azeri blogger told me, the regime has learned that the Internet makes collective action possible.”

“Technology alone does not cause political change—it did not in Iran’s case. But it does provide new capacities and impose new constraints on political actors. New information technologies do not topple dictators; they are used to catch dictators off-guard.”

That last paragraph resonates with me and relates to this idea of information cascades that Dan Drezner has written about here. The momentary window of opportunity that reversals information cascades offer can be used to catch dictators off-guard. This explains why preparedness and training is important.

So what ultimately was the actual impact of the 2009 protests? According to Howard,

“Digital media sustained protests well beyond what pundits expected. Indeed, this new information infrastructure gave social movement leaders the capacity not only to reach out to sympathetic audiences overseas but also to reach two important domestic constituencies: rural, conservative voters who had few connections to the urban chaos; and the clerical establishment.”

“Most important, the Internet gave the social movement access to the clerical establishment through weak ties of social networks that connected mullahs to Iranians on the street.”

“Iran’s street protests failed to topple their government. But just as important, the world’s most technologically advanced censors failed to manage the government’s election crisis. And the region’s dictators have a new concern: their own tech-savvy, disaffected youth.”

“The world has seen interest in change expressed from within Iran, and this may prove to be the most destabilizing outcome of the protests. The regime’s brutalities streamed around the globe. The world saw the dissent; the regime knows the world saw the dissent.”

This idea of shared awareness appeals to me a lot, not least because of my work on the Ushahidi platform since the tool—when used correctly—can generate shared awareness. But why is shared awareness even important in this context?

As Shirky recently noted here, “social media tools provides participants with ’shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too.” Dan Drezner takes it one step further, arguing here that, “the ability of the state to repress can evaporate […] at moments when a critical mass off citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government.”

For me, one of the most salient points that Howard makes in the prologue to this book is this: “The initial conditions for social movement organizing are very different from those of the pre-internet era.” Here are some other key take-aways:

“In contemporary systems of political communication, citizens turn to the Internet as a source of news and information in times of political crisis. It is not only that online social networking services are influential as a communications media; rather, they are now also a fundamental infrastructure for social movements. And the Internet globalizes local struggles.”

“Information and communication technologies are the infrastructure for transposing democratic ideals from community to community. They support the process of learning new approaches to political representation, of testing new organizational strategies, and of cognitively extending the possibilities and prospects for political transformation from one context to another.”

“But it would be a mistake to tie any theory of social change to a particular piece of software. In the summer of 2009 the Iranian insurgency was very much shaped by several digital communication tools, which allowed social movements within the country to organize protests and exchange information and made it possible for those groups to maintain contact with the rest of the world.”

“Traditional radio and televised appeals did not figure in the mobilization, and they are not very important to understanding what happened in Iran last summer.”

“If new information technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet provided the communications infrastructure for mobiliza- tion, was the lack of democratic transition a technological or social failing?”

This last question is spot on and for me the correct way to phrase the debate on digital activism in repressive environments. The question can also be applied to deployments of the Ushahidi platform, i.e., is the lack of impact of an Ushahidi deployment a technological or social failing?

Howard makes a number of points in his prologue that made me think about the Ushahidi and SwiftRiver platforms. For example,

“Authoritarian regimes always conduct propaganda battles over broadcast media. But what is the regime countermeasure for the chilling effects of a plea from someone in your social network who has been a victim of police brutality?”

“Rafsanjani developed a plan for ad hoc exit polling by mobile phones. Deliberative democracy theorists argue that independent exit polling is a key logistical feature of healthy election practices. This probably explains why disabling mobile phone services is so important for discouraging any organized measurement of how rigged a contemporary election may be.”

“Specialty Persian news channels in Los Angeles received hundreds of digital videos daily, and YouTube became the repository for the digitally captured, lived experiences of the chaotic streets of Tehran. On June 20, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead at a demonstration, and her death was caught on several mobile phone cameras.”


Crisis Mapping by Fire: Satellite Imagery Analysis of Kenya’s Election Violence

My brother Brice just sent me a very interesting study that combines satellite imagery and field reporting to analyze Kenya’s 2008 election violence. The peer-reviewed piece is entitled “Violence and Exodus in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 2008: Predictable and Preventable?” and was pub- lished in the Journal of East African Studies.

Given the use of satellites to monitor the referendum in Sudan, this blog post reviews the methodology and insights gained from the Kenya analysis. I’ll do this by providing key excerpts from the study along with my own commentary. This case study is of particularly interest to me since I was in Kenya the time and because that was when the first Ushahidi platform was launched. For more information on the use of satellite imagery to document human rights abuses, I highly recommend Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights Explorer.

I wasn’t aware how much scrambling for information was going on in the humanitarian community:

“Over the first days, and then weeks following the December election, information about the outbreak and extent of violence was fragmented and difficult to access. Even those tasked with responding most rapidly to violence and displacement faced problems in interpreting information that was frequently distorted by rumour and misinformation.”

Interesting to know that humanitarians were facing some of the same challenges as crowdsourcing presents. Would using SwiftRiver have made a difference to try and assess the validity of the information they were collecting?

“In the early days of January 2007, UN agencies and other humanitarian bodies had numerous sources reporting that tens of thousands of people had been displaced and dozens killed across the country, yet details on the extent, location, and chronology of the violence were hard to establish, making it difficult for these agencies to plan an effective response.”

Note the need for location and time-stamped information. Would drawing on reports from the Ushahidi platform have helped? See my co-authored study on Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence. That said, this was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in Kenya so the reports may not have been of the highest quality.

“The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), for example, implemented the election contingency plan it had put in place prior to the December polls, but staff could not confirm reports of violence, and could not deliver essential food and relief items to those people displaced by the fighting because of roadblocks mounted by protestors. Even after carrying out a helicopter assessment mission on 1 January 2008, the KRCS still found it difficult to present an overall picture of the location and timing of the violence.”

So UN agencies in Kenya turned to satellite imagery.

“In response to the challenges facing them in January 2007, UN agencies in Kenya asked UNOSAT to produce a series of maps showing the likely location of election-related violence in the west of the country. UNOSAT has a variety of satellite imaging data available to them, but one tool used to map conflict situations is data on active fires. Fire plays an important role in forcing people from their homes and terrorizing local populations, so the location of active burn sites in a conflict zone offers a reasonable indicator of where violence and displacement is occurring.”

“Indeed, upon examining available fire data from Kenya for 27 December to 3 January, staff at UNOSAT noticed unusual patterns of fires on tea plantations—areas where fire is never normally employed for agricultural management. They then carried out further analysis, and created maps of areas where, according to a chronological and spatial evaluation of the fire data, it was ‘probable that a majority of detected fires are directly or indirectly linked to the civil unrest’.”

“The result was five maps covering a portion of Rift Valley Province from Nakuru to Kitale, as well as the eastern edges of Nyanza and Western Provinces. Map 1 provides an aggregate view of all active fire locations from 27 December 2007 to 3 January 2008.”

“Maps 2-5 show fires on specific days during that period. Each of the diamonds on the maps represents an area of a square kilometre that contained an active fire location at the time a satellite passed overhead. Fires generally have to cover an area of about fifty square metres to be noticed by this technology, though intensity can affect this. The colouring in the background, on the other hand, is a function of the relative clustering of active fire locations—purely a tool to direct the map-reader and not an indication of fire intensity.”

“Apart from demonstrating the geographical dimensions of the arson and conflict occurring in the area, the maps also begin to provide a general chronology of events into which more specific accounts from witness testimonies and other sources can be integrated. UNOSAT’s four chronological maps (Maps 2-5) cover the majority of the eight day period: 27-28 December, 29-30 December, 1 January, and 2!3 January, and provide powerful visuals of how events unfolded.”

“It is important to bear in mind that gaps in data collection occurred on 31 December and 2 January, and that satellite imagery captures what is happening in a particular fraction of a second—data acquisition times generally occurred around 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 11 p.m. Kenyan local time. Bearing this in mind, it is possible using the maps to begin to understand the broad pattern of the escalation of the violence over the period.”

The authors of the study point out some limitations:

“These maps are visually compelling, but we should note that they ‘hide’ important dimensions of the violence—on a map all fires look the same. Violence in urban areas, for instance, differed markedly from that in rural areas, and these maps do not represent this difference. Another example is how little these maps reveal about the increasingly serious situation in Mt Elgon.”

This limitation is inherent to static maps, not so for live crisis maps that are interactive and dynamic.

“The mark of a single fire in the southern part of the district included on two of the maps does not stand out from the other fire locations. However, we know from other sources that violence in Mt Elgon continued to increase in severity after the elections. If violence was occurring on the Chebyuk land settlement schemes on Mt Elgon at this time, then it did not involve fires of sufficient magnitude to be detected by this satellite technology.”

“The mapping of fires can therefore tell us only part of the story. Cohesive explanations of specific situations can only begin to emerge if we triangulate the evidence provided by the maps with other kinds of information. This research is continuing, but at this stage we can offer a preliminary analysis that highlights several significant points:

  • Even before the first wave of violence in the Rift Valley was sparked by the announcement of the presidential poll result on 30 December 2007, conflict had already broken out in some areas over the two days between the closure of the polls and the announcement of the presidential result. This correlates with evidence in media and human rights reports that some majimboist activists planned violence after the election regardless of the outcome of the vote.
  • Over the hours following Kivuitu’s announcement of Kibaki’s victory, violence broke out in several different locations across the province, some of this undoubtedly a spontaneous reaction to the alleged ‘theft’ of the election, and targeted against persons associated with the PNU and its allies. However, many other attacks were evidently planned and orchestrated. Kikuyu-settled areas of Eldoret were ablaze within two hours of Kibaki’s re-election, armed Kalenjin men arriving in lorries to carry out the attacks. These assaults were not confined to ‘aliens’, but included attacks upon properties owned by ex-president Moi and his close Kalenjin associates, including Nicholas Biwott, whose KANU party had made an electoral pact with PNU.
  • The locations of this first major wave of violence in the first week of January show a clear spatial pattern: the outbreaks were invariably in places where non-indigenous populations were living. The targets of this violence were predominantly Kikuyu and Kisii communities, who were identified as PNU supporters. Though many attacks were murderous, the main purpose was to ‘chase away’ the victims. By 6 January, the Kenya Red Cross estimated a national figure of 211,000 persons internally displaced in violence since 30 December, the vast majority of these being within Rift Valley.
  • The violence accordingly coalesced in two types of location: the first was larger and smaller towns, where populations are ethnically more mixed and where businesses are concentrated—for example the rapid upsurge of conflict in and around Eldoret. The second was on rural settlement schemes, where land has been purchased or leased by farmers from a wide range of ethnic groups—for example, Burnt Forest, Ndalat, and the Molo area of Nakuru District. The settlement schemes at Burnt Forest, the scene of dreadful violence in the 1990s, were completely cut off by road barricades by the morning of 1 January, impeding the work of relief agencies, in what was clearly an organized and coordinated assault.”

This study clearly shows the added value of combining satellite imagery analysis with reporting from the ground. This analysis was all carried out retroactively, however. To this end, lets hope that the Satellite Sentinel Project, which I blogged about here, and Sudan Vote Monitor, which uses the Ushahidi platform, will be sharing information to allow for near real-time integrated analysis.

New Publications on Haiti, Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping

Two new publications that may be of interest to iRevolution readers:

MIT’s Journal, Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization just released a special edition focused on Haiti which includes lead articles by President Bill Clinton and Digicel’s CEO Denis O’Brien. My colleague Ida Norheim-Hagtun and I were invited to contribute the following piece: Crowdsourcing for Crisis Mapping in Haiti. The edition also includes articles by Mark Summer from Inveneo and my colleague Josh Nesbit from Medic:Mobile.

The SAIS Review of International Affairs recently published a special edition on the cyber challenge threats and opportunities in a networked world, which includes an opening article on Internet Freedom by Alec Ross. My colleague Robert Munro and I were invited to submit write the following piece: The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response, which focuses specifically on Haiti. Colleagues from Havard University’s Berkman Center also had a piece on Political Change in the Digital Age, which I reviewed here.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like copies of the articles on Haiti. In the meantime, here is a must-read for everyone working in Haiti: “Foreign Friends, Leave January 12th to Haitians.”

Impact of Technology on Democracy and Activism: Findings from Multiple Statistical Studies

Chapter 2 of my dissertation consists of a literature review on the impact of the Internet and mobile phones on democracy and activism. The first part of this literature view focuses specifically on analyzing the results from all the peer-reviewed quantitative studies that currently exist on the topic. The second part reviews more micro-level qualitative research. Part 1 is available here as a 7-page PDF. Part 2 will be available shortly.

Here is the list of studies reviewed in Part 1:

Eyck, Toby. 2001. “Does Information Matter? A research note on information technologies and political protest,” Social Science Journal, 38(2001): 147-160.

Howard, Philip. 2010. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England).

Groshek, Jacob. 2010. “A Time-Series, Multinational Analysis of Democratic Forecasts and Internet Diffusion,” International Journal of Communication, 4(2010): 142-174.

Groshek, Jacob. 2009. “The Democratic effects of the Internet, 1994-2003: A Cross-National Inquiry of 152 countries,” The International Communication Gazette, 71(3): 115-136.

Meier, Patrick. 2011. “The Impact of the Information Revolution on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts,” doctoral dissertation, The Fletcher School, Tufts University.

Miard, Fabien. 2009. “Call for Power: Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism,” paper presented at the 50th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), February 2009, New York.

I’m particularly keen on getting feedback on my draft, especially if you think I’ve missed a statistical study or find any errors in my analysis. Thank you.