Tag Archives: Democracy

Democratizing ICT for Development with DIY Innovation and Open Data

The recent Net Impact conference in Portland proved to be an ideal space to take a few steps back and reflect on the bigger picture. There was much talk of new and alternative approaches to traditional development. The word “participatory” in particular was a trending topic among both presenters and participants. But exactly how “participatory” are these “participatory” approaches to develop-ment? Do they fundamentally democratize the development process? And do these “novel” participatory approaches really let go of control? Should they? The following thoughts and ideas were co-developed in follow-up conversations with my colleague Chrissy Martin who also attended Net Impact. She blogs at Innovate.Inclusively.

I haven’t had the space recently to think through some of these questions or reflect about how the work I’ve been doing with Ushahidi fits (or doesn’t) within the traditional development paradigm—a paradigm which many at the confer-ence characterized as #fail. Some think that perhaps technology can help change this paradigm, hence the burst of energy around the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field. That said, it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.

The Ushahidi platform is not finished. It will never be finished. This is deliberate, not an error in the code. Free and open source software (FOSS) is by definition in a continual phase of co-Research and Development (co-R&D). The Ushahidi platform is not a solution, it is a platform on top of which others build their own solutions. These solutions remain open source and some are folded back into the core Ushahidi code. This type of “open protocol” can reverse “innovation cascades” leading to “reverse innovation” from developing to indus-trialized countries (c.f. information cascades). FOSS acts like a virus, it self-propagates. The Ushahidi platform, for example, has propagated to over 130 countries since it was first launched during Kenya’s post-election violence almost four years ago.

In some ways, the Ushahidi platform can be likened to a “choose your own adventure” game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life. But FOSS goes beyond this analogy. The readers can become the authors and vice versa. Welcome to co-creation. Perhaps one insightful analogy is the comparison between Zipcar and RelayRides.

I’ve used the Zipcar for over five years now and love it. But what would a “democratized” Zipcar look like? You guessed it: RelayRides turns every car owner into their own mini-DIY-Zipcar company. You basically get your own “Zipcar-in-a-box” kit and rent out your own car in the same way that Zipcar does with their cars. RelayRides is basically an open source version of Zipcar, a do-it-yourself innovation. A good friend of mine, Becca, is an avid RelayRides user. The income from lending her car out lets her cover part of her rent, and if she needs a car while hers is rented out, she’ll get online and look for available RelayRides in her neighborhood. She likes the “communal ownership” spirit that the technology facilitates. Indeed, she is getting to know her neighbors better as a result. In this case, DIY Innovation is turning strangers, a crowd, into a comm-unity. Perhaps DIY Innovation can facilitate community building in the long run.

The Ushahidi platform shares this same spirit. The motivation behind Ushahidi’s new “Check-In’s” feature, for example, is to democratize platforms like Foursquare. There’s no reason why others can’t have their own Foursquares and customize them for their own projects along with the badges, etc. That’s not to imply that the Ushahidi platform is perfect. There’s a long way to go, but again, it will never be perfect nor is that the intention. Sure, the technology will become more robust, stable and extensible, but not perfect. Perfection denotes an endstate. There is no endstate in co-R&D. The choose your own adventure story continues for as long as the reader, the main character decides to read on.

I’m all for “participatory development” but I’m also interested in allowing indivi-duals to innovate for themselves first and then decide how and who to participate with. I’d call that self-determination. This explains why the Ushahidi team is no longer the only “game in town” so-to-speak. Our colleagues at DISC have customized the Ushahidi platform in more innovative and relevant ways than we could have for the Egyptian context. Not only that, they’re making a business out of customizing the platform and training others in the Arab World. The Ushahidi code is out of our hands and it has been since 2008. We’re actively promoting and supporting partners like DISC. Some may say we’re nurturing our own competition. Well then, even better.

Freely providing the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize ICT4D. Another complementary way is to democratize information access by promoting automated Open Data generation, i.e., embedded real-time sensors for monitoring purposes. Equal and public access to Open Data levels the playing field, prevents information arbitrage and disrupts otherwise entrenched flows of information. Participatory development without Open Data is unlikely to hold institutions accountable or render the quality of their services (or lack thereof) more transparent. But by Open Data here I don’t only mean data generated via participatory surveys or crowdsourcing.

The type of public-access Open Data generation I’m interested in could be called “Does-It-Itself” Open Data, or DII Data. Take “The Internet of Things” idea and apply this to traditional development. Let non-intrusive, embedded and real-time sensors provide direct, empirical and open data on the status of develop-ment projects without any “middle man” who may have an interest in skewing the data. In other words, hack the Monitoring and Evaluation process (M&E) by letting the sensors vote for themselves and display the “election results” publicly and in real time. Give the sensors a voice. Meet Evan Thomas, a young professor at Portland State, who spends his time doing just this at SweetLab, and my colleague Rose Goslinga who is taking the idea of DII Data to farmers in Kenya.

Evan embeds customized sensors to monitor dozens of development projects in several countries. These sensors generate real-time, high-resolution data that is otherwise challenging, expensive and time-consuming to collect via the tradi-tional survey-based approach. Evan’s embedded sensors generate behavior and usage data for projects like the Mercy Corps Water and Sanitation Program and Bridges to Prosperity Program. Another example of DII Data is Rose’s weather index insurance (WII) project in Kenya called Kilimo Salama. This initiative uses atmospheric data automatically transmitted via local weather towers to determine insurance payouts for participating farmers during periods of drought or floods. Now, instead of expensive visits to farms and subjective assessments, this data-driven approach to feedback loops lowers program costs and renders the process more objective and transparent.

There is of course more to the development field than the innovative processes described above. Development means a great many things to different people. The same is true of the words “Democracy”, “Participatory” and “Crowd-sourcing.” For me, crowdsourcing, like democracy, is a methodology that can catalyze greater participation and civic engagement. Some liken this to demo-cratizing the political process. Elections, in a way, are crowdsourced. Obviously, however, crowdsourced elections in no way imply that they are free, open or fair. Moreover, elections are but one of the ingredients in the recipe for  a democratic, political process.

In the same way, democratizing ICT4D is not a sufficient condition to ensure that the traditional development space obtains a new hashtag: #success. Letting go of control and allowing for self-determination can of course lead to unexpected outcomes. At this point, however, given the #fail hashtag associated with traditional development, perhaps unexpected outcomes driven by democratic, bottom-up innovation processes that facilitate self-organization, determination and participation, are more respectful to human dignity and ingenuity.

Introduction to Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

Reading Philip Howard’s “Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” and Evgeny Morozov’s “Net Delusion” back-to-back over a 10-day period in January was quite a trip. The two authors couldn’t possibly be more different in terms of tone, methodology and research design. Howard’s approach is rigorous and balanced. He takes a data-driven, mixed-methods approach that ought to serve as a model for the empirical study of digital activism.

In contrast, Morozov’s approach frequently takes the form of personal attacks, snarky remarks and cheap rhetorical arguments. This regrettably drowns out the important and valid points he does make in some chapters. But what discredits Net Delusion the most lies not in what Morozov writes but in what he hides. To say the book is one-sided would be an understatement. But this has been a common feature of the author’s writings on digital activism, and one of the reasons  I took him to task a couple years ago with my blog posts on anecdote heaven. If you follow that back and forth, you’ll note it ends with personal attacks by Morozov mixed with evasive counter-arguments. For an intelligent and informed critique of Net Delusion, see my colleague Mary Joyce’s blog posts.

In this blog post, I summarize Howard’s introductory chapter. For a summary of his excellent prologue, please see my previous post here.

The introductory chapter to Digital Origins provides a critique of the datasets and methodologies used to study digital activism. Howard notes that the majority of empirical studies, “rely on a few data sources, chiefly the International Telecommunications Union, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute. Indeed, these organizations often just duplicate each other’s poor quality data. Many researchers rely heavily on this data for their comparative or single-country case studies, rather than collecting original observations or combining data in interesting ways. The same data tables appear over and over again.”

I faced this challenge in my dissertation research. Collecting original data is often a major undertaking. Howard’s book is the culmination of 3-4 years of research supported by important grants and numerous research assistants. Alas, PhD students don’t always get this kind of support. The good news is that Howard and others are sharing their new datasets like the Global Digital Activism Dataset.

In terms of methods, there are limits in the existing literature. As Howard writes,

“Large-scale, quantitative, and cross-sectionalstudies must often collapse fundamentally different political systems—autocracies, democracies, emerging democracies, and crisis states—into afew categories or narrow indices. […] Area studies that focus on one or two countries get at the rich history of technology diffusion and political development, but rarely offer conclusions that can be useful in understanding some of the seemingly intractable political and security crises in other parts of the world.”

Howard thus takes a different approach, particularly in his quantitative analysis, and introduces fuzzy set logic:

“Fuzzy set logic offers general knowledge through the strategy of looking for shared causal conditions across multiple instances of the same outcome—sometimes called ‘selecting on the dependent variable.’ For large-N, quantitative, and variable oriented researchers, this strategy is unacceptable because neither the outcome nor the shared causal conditions vary across the cases. However, the strategy of selecting on the dependent variableis useful when researchers are interested in studying necessary conditions, and very useful when constructing a new theoretically defined population such as ‘Islamic democracy.’

“Perhaps most important, this strategy is most useful when developing theory grounded in the observed, real-world experience of democratization in the Muslim communities ofthe developing world, rather than developing theory by privileging null, hypothetical, and unobserved cases.”

Using original data and this new innovative statistical approach, Howard finds that “technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions.”

“I find that technology diffusion has become, in combination with otherfactors, both a necessary and suffi cient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment.”

“Protests and activist movements have led to successful democratic insurgencies, insurgencies that depended on ICTs for the timing and logistics of protest. Sometimes democratic transitions are the outcome, and sometimes the outcome is slight improvement in the behavior of authoritarianstates. Clearly the internet and cell phones have not on their owncaused a single democratic transition, but it is safe to conclude that today, no democratic transition is possible without information technologies.”

My next blog post on Howard’s book will summarize Chapter 1: Evolution and Revolution, Transition and Entrenchment.

Access to Mobile Phones Increases Protests Against Repressive Regimes

I recently shared a draft of my first dissertation chapter which consists of a comprehensive literature review on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. Thanks very much to everyone who provided feedback, I really appreciate it. I will try to incorporate as much of the feedback as possible in the final version and will also update that chapter in the coming months given the developments in Tunisia and Egypt.

The second chapter of my dissertation comprises a large-N econometric study on the impact of ICT access on anti-government protests in countries under repressive rule between 1990 and 2007. A 32-page draft of this chapter is available here as a PDF. I use negative binomial regression analysis to test whether the diffusion of ICTs is a statistically significant predictor of protest events and if so, whether that relationship is positive or negative. The dependent variable, protests, is the number of protests per country-year. The ICT variables used in the model are: Internet users, mobile phone subscribers and number of telephone landlines per country-year. The control variables, identified in the literature review are percentage change in GDP, unemployment rate, the degree of autocracy per country-year, internal war and elections.

A total of 38 countries were included in the study: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Burma, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, DRC, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. I clustered these countries into 4 groups, those with relatively (1) high and (2) low levels of ICT access; and those with (3) high and (4) low levels of protests per country-year. The purpose of stratifying the data is to capture underlying effects that may be lost by aggregating all the data. So I ran a total of 5 regressions, one on each of those four country groups and one on all the countries combined.

All five negative binomial regression models on the entire 18-year time panel for the study data were significant. Of note, however, is the non-significance of the Internet variable in all models analyzed. Mobile phones were only significant in the regression models for the “Low Protest” and “High Mobile Phone Use” clusters. However, the relationship was negative in the former case and positive in the latter. In other words, an increase in mobile phone users in countries with relatively high ICTs access, is associated with an increase in the number of protests against repressive regimes. This may imply that social unrest is facilitated by the use of mobile communication in countries with widespread access to mobile phones, keeping other factors constant.

These findings require some important qualifications. First, as discussed in the data section, the protest data may suffer from media bias. Second, the protest data does not provide any information on the actual magnitude of the protests. Third, economic data on countries under repressive rule need to be treated with suspicion since some of this data is self-reported. For example, authoritarian regimes are unlikely to report the true magnitude of unemployment in their country. ICT data is also self-reported. Fourth, the data is aggregated to the country-year level, which means potentially important sub-national and sub-annual variations are lost. Fifth and finally, the regression results may be capturing other dynamics that are not immediately apparent given the limits of quantitative analysis.

Qualitative comparative analysis is therefore needed to test and potentially validate the results derived from this quantitative study. Indeed, “perhaps the best reason to proceed in a qualitative and comparative way is that the categories of ‘democracy’ and ‘technology diffusion’ are themselves aggregates and proxies for other measurable phenomena” (Howard 2011). Unpacking and then tracing the underlying causal connections between ICT use and protests requires qualitative methodologies such process-tracing and semi-structured interviews. The conceptual framework developed in Chapter 2 serves as an ideal framework to inform both the process-tracing and interviews. The next chapter of my dissertation will thus introduce two qualitative case studies to critically assess the impact of ICTs on state-society relations in countries under repressive rule. In the meantime, I very much welcome feedback on this second chapter from iRevolution readers.

ICTs, Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship: Comprehensive Literature Review

Building on my previous post with respect to Howard Philip’s “Origin of Dictatorship and Democracy,” I’ve completed a draft of my dissertation chapter which comprises a comprehensive literature on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. This is a 54-page document (17,000+ words)  which I believe represents the most up-to-date and in-depth review of the literature currently available. The chapter reviews both the quantitative and qualitative literature in this space.

You can download the chapter here (PDF).

I’m actively looking for feedback to make the chapter even stronger and more useful to scholars and practitioners interested in this space. So please do add any recommendations you may have in the comments section below. Thank you very much!

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.


Latest Empirical Findings on Democratic Effects of the Internet

Jacob Groshek from Iowa State University recently published the latest results from his research on the democratic effects of the Internet in the International Journal of Communication. A copy of Groshek’s study is available here (PDF).

Groshek published an earlier study in 2009 which I blogged about here. In this latest set of findings, Groshek concludes that “Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed,” which was 1994-2003. The author therefore argues that “the diffusion of the Internet should not be considered a democratic panacea, but rather a component of contemporary democratization processes.” Interestingly, these conclusions seem to contradict his findings from 2009.

The purpose of this blog post is to summarize Groshek’s research so I can include it in my dissertation’s literature review. What follows therefore are some excerpts that summarize Groshek’s research design and methodology. I also add my thoughts on the study and the implications of the findings.

Some Background:

“Technological developments, especially communicative ones, have long been positioned — and even romanticized — as powerful instruments of democracy (Dunham, 1938; Lerner, 1958). This tradition goes back at least as far as the printing press and its contribution to democratic movements of past centuries (Schudson, 1999) in relation to conceptions of the public sphere and the fourth estate (Jones, 2000). Over the course of the past century, telegraphs, telephones, radios, and televisions were all introduced as “new” media, and each of these technologies were often ascribed broad potential for enhancing democratic development around the world (Becker, 2001; Navia & Zweifel, 2006; Spinelli, 1996).”

The Methodology:

“Though there are many ways to operationalize democracy and measure the prevalence of media technologies, this study relies principally on macro-level time–series democracy data from an historical sample that includes 72 countries, reaching back as far as 1946 in some cases, but at least from 1954 to 2003. From this sample, a sequence of ARIMA (autoregressive integrated moving average) time–series regressions were modeled for each country for at least 40 years prior to 1994.”

“These models were then used to generate statistically-forecasted democracy values for each country, in each year from 1994 to 2003. A 95% confidence interval with an upper and lower democracy score was then constructed around each of the forecasted values using dynamic mean squared errors. The actual democracy scores of each country for each year from 1994 to 2003 were then compared to the upper and lower values of the confidence interval.”

The Results:

“Based on the statistical findings, three countries that demonstrated democracy levels greater than those statistically predicted  [Croatia, Indonesia and Mexico] were selected for brief contemporary historical analyses to identify whether the Internet acted as a specific causal mechanism that may have contributed to democratization processes. These case study evaluations were basic overviews of historical events, figures, and policies that placed these findings into context to better specify what precise role, if any, the Internet had on the increases in democracy observed in these three countries that were greater than they had been predicted to be, statistically.”

Interestingly, out of the 72 countries studied, the only one with democracy scores significantly below the statistically predicted score was Belarus.

“While the purpose of this study is to more specifically assess the possibility that Internet diffusion might be linked to democratic growth, the case of Belarus provides an important counterbalance to that concept. This is because, starting with 1995, the actual democracy score was less than the predicted democracy score — and it remained below the predicted values through 2003, even though Internet diffusion reached approximately 14% by the end of the time frame investigated. Thus, it is evident that less democratic countries can invest in increasing Internet diffusion and still constrict democratic development.”

What about Croatia, Indonesia and Mexico?

“A circumspect approach to understanding the role Internet diffusion played in Croatia’s democratization is to recognize that, by most accounts, it was an important factor that helped determine the trajectory of political development in this country. It was not, however, the defining feature of this democratic transition, which was set in motion years earlier by a coalescing of events and political figures that also transcended Croatia’s national boundaries (Hampton, 2007).”

“Indonesia had observed actual democracy levels greater than that of the predicted confidence interval from 1999 to 2003. Yet, for nearly all of the timeframe investigated here, Indonesian media development was tightly restricted by the government and subject to severe censorship (Eick, 2007), so it seems unlikely that the diffusion of the Internet would be a critical democratic agent. In addition, the diffusion of the Internet was a paltry 0.44 people per 100 in 1999, when the democracy level spiked through the upper confidence interval of the predicted value.”

“[In the final case, it is] impossible to summarily conclude that Mexico was more democratic precisely due to Internet diffusion than it would have been had the Internet not diffused, at least when considering institutionalized national level democracy. This is because the transnational civil society network pioneered by the Zapatistas was more about élites who had Internet access and how the Zapatistas tapped this group and projected their ideological views through the Internet, even though, in Mexico, the Internet only reached a tiny portion of the general population. Therefore, it was not high levels of Internet diffusion among the Mexican citizens in 1994, but rather influential Internet users that contributed democratic change during that time period.”

In Conclusion:

“The results of the investigations undertaken in this study yield no conclusive evidence that the democratic growth from 1994 to 2003 was due singularly, or even primarily, to the diffusion of the Internet.”

Side note: I personally don’t know anyone or of any empirical study that claims that democratic growth around the world is singularly or even primarily due to the Internet. Do you?

“It is therefore prudent to consider the Internet a potentially potent but underutilized democratic tool, one that is only as useful as the citizens who employ and implement it for political purposes (Schudson, 2003). Thus far, the Internet has not been diffused or activated to an extent that this technology has sustained the third democratic wave (Huntington, 1991). Importantly, virtuosity and democratic agency are not inherent in media technologies, no matter how interactive or participatory. Rather, these exist in individuals, and in the crucial applications and uses they make of communicative technologies (Nord, 2001; Schudson, 1999, 2003).”

“Thus, the general conclusion of this study is that the Internet has not catalyzed transformative, national-level democratic growth, although there is some reason to believe that it may contribute to these changes, as the cases of Mexico and Croatia exhibit. This finding, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there may be national-level democratic effects related to Internet diffusion in the future, nor does it rule out possible effects on personal or other sub-national levels.”

It’s great to see more data-driven research on this topic and be spared (albeit temporarily) anecdote-laden and chronically repetitive popular media reports on technologies being either all-liberating or all-repressive. A possible corollary to Groshek’s  findings is that the use of the Internet by repressive regimes did not lead to a statistically significant decrease in expected democracy scores.  In other words, dictators may love the web, but that romance ain’t having a macro-level impact on the level of repression.

Obviously, multiple factors contribute to democratic processes and transitions. The more interesting questions, in my opinion, are these: what are the underlying drivers of protest movements and how might new technologies accelerate those drivers and/or create new ones? Along these lines, how do tactics and strategies from civil resistance benefit from using new technologies? Does the careful, planned and innovative use of these technologies in social protests provide activists with a competitive edge they didn’t have in the past?

Update: My colleague Mary Joyce makes an excellent point regarding the time span covered by the analysis, i.e., through to 2003. As she rightly notes, major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were created after 2003. See her blog post here for more of her analysis on Groshek’s work.

Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations

The Chair of my dissertation committed, Professor Dan Drezner just published this piece in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that directly relates to my dissertation research. He presented an earlier version of this paper at a conference in 2005 which was instrumental in helping me frame and refine my dissertation question. I do disagree a bit with the paper’s approach, however.

Professor Drezner first reviews the usual evidence on whether the Internet empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa. Not surprisingly, this perusal doesn’t point to a clear winner. Indeed, as is repeatedly stated in the academic discourse, “parsing out how ICT affects the tug-of-war between states and civil society activists is exceedingly difficult.”

Drezner therefore turns to a transaction costs metaphor for insight. He argues that “metaphorically, the problem is akin to the one economists faced when predicting how the communications revolution would affect the optimal size of the firm.” I’m not convinced this is an appropriate metaphor but lets proceed and summarize his reasoning on firm size in any case.

Economists argue that the size of a firm is a function of transaction costs. “If these costs of market exchange exceed those of more hierarchical governance structures—i.e., firms—then hierarchy would be the optimal choice. With the fall in communication costs, economists therefore predicted an associated decline in firm size. “There were lots of predictions about how the communications revolution would lead to an explosion in independent entrepreneurship.”

But Drezner argues that decreasing communication costs (a transaction cost) has not affected aggregate firm size: “Empirically, there has been minimal change.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any literature to back this claim. Regardless, Drezner concludes that firm size has not significantly changed because “the information revolution has lowered the organizational costs of hierarchy as well” and even “increased the optimal size of the firm” in some sectors. “The implications of this [metaphor] for the internet’s effect on states and civil society should be apparent.”

The problem (even if the choice of metaphor were applicable) is that these implications provide minimal insight into the debate on liberation technologies: large organizations or institutions have the opportunity to scale thanks to the Internet; meaning that government monitoring becomes more efficient and sophisticated, making it “easier for the state to anticipate and regulate civic protests.” More specifically, “repressive regimes can monitor opposition websites, read Twitter feeds, and hack e-mails—and crack down on these services when necessary.” Yes, but this is already well known so I’m not sure what the transaction metaphor adds to the discourse.

That said, Drezner does recognize that the Internet could have a “pivotal effect” on state-society relations with respect to “authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information society.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really expand on this point beyond the repeating the “Dictator’s Dilemma” argument. But he does address the potential relevance of “information cascades” for the study of digital activism in non-permissive environments.

“An informational cascade takes place when individuals acting in an environment 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. Less formally, an information cascade demonstrates the power of peer pressure—many individuals will choose actions based on what they observe others doing.”

So if others are not protesting, you are unlikely to stick your neck out and start a protest yourself, particularly against a repressive state. But Drezner argues that information cascades can be reversed as a result of a shock to the system such as an election or natural disaster. These events can “trigger spontaneous acts of protest or a reverse in the cascade,” especially since “a little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence.” In sum,  “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.”

This line of argument seems to cast aside what has been learned about civil disobedience. Drezner suggests that reverse information cascades can catalyze spontaneous protests. Perhaps, but are these “improvised” protests actually effective in achieving their stated aims? The empirical evidence from the literature on civil resistance suggests otherwise: extensive planning and strategizing is more likely to result in success then unplanned spontaneous protests. If I find out that it’s cooler in the frying pan than the fire, will I automatically jump into said pan? A little bit of additional information without prior planning on how to leverage that information into action can be dangerous and counterproductive.

For example:

“The spread of 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.”

Yes, but this means little if these groups are not adequately prepared to deliberately exploit weaknesses in authoritarian control and cash in on this window of opportunity.

“At moments when a critical mass of citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government, the ability of the state to repress can evaporate.”

Yes, but this rarely happens completely spontaneously. Undermining the pillars of power of a repressive state takes deliberate and calculated work with an appropriate mix of tactics and strategies to delegitimize the regime. There is a reason why civil resistance is often referred to as (nonviolent) guerrilla warfare. The latter is not random or haphazard. Guerilla campaigns are carefully thought through and successful actions are meticulously planned.

Drezner argues that, “Extremists, criminals, terrorists, and hyper-nationalists have embraced the information society just as eagerly as classical liberals.” Yes, this is already well known but the author doesn’t make the connection to training and planning on the part of extremists. As Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his book The Upside of Down: “Extremists are often organized in coherent and well-coordinated groups that have clear goals, distinct identities, and strong internal bonds that have grown around a shared radical ideology. As a result, they can mobilize resources and power effectively.” Successful terrorists do not spontaneously terrorize! Furthermore, they create information cascades as much as they react to them.

In conclusion, Drezner criticizes the State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 Initiative. State presumes that technologies will primarily help the “good guys” and  “assumes that the biggest impediment to the flowering of digital liberalism comes from the heavy hand of the state.” (He doesn’t say what the biggest impediment is, however). Drezner ends his piece with the following: “It is certainly possible that the initiative fails because of the coercive apparatus of a repressive government. It is equally likely, however, that the initiative succeeds—in empowering illiberal forces across the globe.” This is already well known. I’m not sure that one needs a transaction metaphor or to refer to the dictator’s dilemma, information cascades, spontaneous protests and extremist groups to reach this conclusion.