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.