Tag Archives: Internet

Project Loon: Google Blimps for Disaster Response (Updated)

A blimp is a floating airship that does not have any internal supporting framework or keel. The airship is typically filled with helium and is controlled remotely using steerable fans. Projet Loon is a Google initiative to launch a fleet of Blimps to extend Internet/wifi access across Africa and Asia. Some believe that “these high-flying networks would spend their days floating over areas outside of major cities where Internet access is either scarce or simply nonexistent.” Small-scale prototypes are reportedly being piloted in South Africa “where a base station is broadcasting signals to wireless access boxes in high schools over several kilometres.” The US military has been using similar technology for years.

Blimp

Google notes that the technology is “well-suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.” Might Google Blimps also be used by Google’s Crisis Response Team in the future? Indeed, Google Blimps could be used to provide Internet access to disaster-affected communities. The blimps could also be used to capture very high-resolution aerial imagery for damage assessment purposes. Simply adding a digital camera to said blimps would do the trick. In fact, they could simply take the fourth-generation cameras used for Google Street View and mount them on the blimps to create Google Sky View. As always, however, these innovations are fraught with privacy and data protection issues. Also, the use of UAVs and balloons for disaster response has been discussed for years already.

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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.

The Political Power of Social Media

Clay Shirky just published a piece in Foreign Affairs on “The Political Power of Social Media.” I’m almost done with writing my literature review of digital activism in repressive states for my dissertation so this is a timely write-up by Clay who also sits on my dissertation committee. The points he makes echo a number of my blog posts and thus provides further support to some of the arguments articulated in my dissertation. I’ll use this space to provide excerpts and commentary on his 5,000+ word piece to include in my literature review.

“Less than two hours after the [Philippine Congress voted not to impeach President Joseph Estrada], thousands of Filipinos [...] converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, ‘Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.’ The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.”

“The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to seven million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada’s fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed ‘the text-messaging generation’ for his downfall.”

“As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. In the political arena [...] these increased freedoms can help loosely coordinated publics demand change.”

See this blog post on Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States.

“The Philippine strategy has been adopted many times since. In some cases, the protesters ultimately succeeded, as in Spain in 2004, when demonstrations organized by text messaging led to the quick ouster of Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had inaccurately blamed the Madrid transit bombings on Basque separatists. The Communist Party lost power in Moldova in 2009 when massive protests coordinated in part by text message, Facebook, and Twitter broke out after an obviously fraudulent election.”

“There are, however, many examples of the activists failing, as in Belarus in March 2006, when street protests (arranged in part by e-mail) against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s alleged vote rigging swelled, then faltered, leaving Lukashenko more determined than ever to control social media. During the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar but quicker path: protesters savvy with social media occupied downtown Bangkok until the Thai government dispersed the protesters, killing dozens.”

“The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes.”

Clay picks up on some of my ongoing frustration with the “study” of digital activism. He borrows his dueling analogy from some of my earlier blog post of mine in which I chide the popular media for sensationalizing anecdotes. See for example:

“Empirical work on the subject is also hard to come by, in part because these tools are so new and in part because relevant examples are so rare. The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? (such as those by Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard) is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”

Reading this made me realize that I need to get my own empirical results out in public in the coming weeks. As part of my dissertation research, I used econometric analysis to test whether an increase in access to mobile phones and the Internet serves as a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests. So I’ll add this to my to-do list of blog posts and will also share my literature review in full as soon as I’m done with that dissertation chapter.

In the meantime, have a look at the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project that both Clay and I are involved in to spur more empirical research in this space.

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months. [We] should likewise assume that progress will be incremental and, unsurprisingly, slowest in the most authoritarian regimes.

I wrote up a blog post just a few weeks ago on “How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare,” which makes the same argument. Clay goes on to formulate two perspectives on the role of social media in non-permissive environments, the instrumentalist versus environmental schools of thought.

“The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.”

“According to [the environmental view], positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about Clay’s writings is his use of past examples from history to bolster his arguments.

“One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect.”

“Just as Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed, today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions; it would be impossible to describe the Moldovan Communist Party’s loss of Parliament after the 2009 elections without discussing the use of cell phones and online tools by its opponents to mobilize. Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.”

Turning to the fall of communism, Clay juxtaposes the role of communication technologies with the inevitable structural macro-economic forces that lifted the Iron Curtain.

“Any discussion of political action in repressive regimes must take into account the astonishing fall of communism in 1989 in eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout the Cold War, the United States invested in a variety of communications tools, including broadcasting the Voice of America radio station, hosting an American pavilion in Moscow  [...], and smuggling Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to aid the underground press, or samizdat.”

“Yet despite this emphasis on communications, the end of the Cold War was triggered not by a defiant uprising of Voice of America listeners but by economic change. As the price of oil fell while that of wheat spiked, the Soviet model of selling expensive oil to buy cheap wheat stopped working. As a result, the Kremlin was forced to secure loans from the West, loans that would have been put at risk had the government intervened militarily in the affairs of non-Russian states.”

“In 1989, one could argue, the ability of citizens to communicate, considered against the background of macroeconomic forces, was largely irrelevant. Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. [...]. For optimistic observers of public demonstrations, this is weak tea, but both the empirical and the theoretical work suggest that protests, when effective, are the end of a long process, rather than a replacement for it.”

Clay also emphasizes the political importance of conversation over the initial information dissemination effect:

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well — it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”

How about the role of social media in organization and coordination?

“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or govern-ments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations.”

I’m rather stunned by this argument: “Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination.” Seriously? If a group is unorganized and undisciplined, advocating that it use social media—particularly in a repressive environment—is highly inadvisable. Turning an unorganized and undisciplined mob into a flash mob thanks to social media tools does not make it a smart mob. Clay’s argument directly contradicts the  rich empirical research that exists on civil resistance in authoritarian states.

“For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls ‘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. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.”

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.

Democratic Effects of the Internet: Latest Findings

Jacob Groshek from Iowa State University just published his large-N quantitative study on the “Democratic Effects of the Internet” in the International Communication Gazette. I’m particularly interested in this study given it’s overlap with my own dissertation research and recent panel at ISA 2009. So thanks to Jacob for publishing and to my colleague Lokman Tsui at the Berkman Center for letting me know about the article as soon as it came out.

Using macro-level panel data on 152 countries from 1994 to 2003 and multi regression models, Jacob found that “increased Internet diffusion was a meaningful predictor of more democratic regimes.” This democratic effect was greater in countries that were at least partially democratic where the Internet was more prevalent. In addition, the association between Internet diffusion and democracy was statistically significant in “developing countries where the average level of sociopolitical instability was much higher.”

The author thus concludes that policy makers should consider the democratic potential of the Internet but be mindful of unintended consequences in countries under authoritarian rule. In other words, “the democratic potential of the Internet is great, but that actual effects might be limited because Internet diffusion appears conditional upon national-level democracy itself.”

Introduction

While many like Al Gore have professed that information and communication technologies (ICTs) would “spread participatory democracy” and “forge a new Athenian age of democracy,” the lessons of history suggest otherwise. Media system dependence theory maintains that ICTs, “including the Internet, are unlikely to drastically alter asymmetric power and economic relations within and between countries specifically in the short term.”

Others counter that ICTs are “nonetheless vital to democracy and the process of democratization.”For example, both Jefferson and de Tocqueville remarked that a catalyst for American democracy was the free press. While most communication technologies over the last hundred years have failed to fulfill their predicted impact, the Internet is considered special and different. The Internet is “the most interactive and technologically sophisticated medium to date, which enhances user reflexitivity in terms of user participation and generated content and thus has a greater likelihood of affecting change.”

According to media system dependency theory, the framework used in this study, there are two scenarios in which media diffusion may demonstrate micro- and macro-level effects. First, the greater the centralization of specific information-delivery functions, the greater the societal dependency on that media. Second, “as media diffusion and dependency increase over time, the potential for mass media messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective and behavioral effects [is] further increased when there is a high degree of structural instability in the society due to conflict and change.”

Data

The author selected 1994-2003 because “the public launch of the Internet is generally marked around 1994, following the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993 and at the time of writing, 2003 was the latest available year for much of the data.”

  • Socio-political variables included population, urbanism, education, resources, media development, sociopolitical instability, accountability of governors (democracy), gross national income (GNI) and the Human Development Index (HDI), which was included to place countries in developmental categories. While other studies use gross national product (GNP) per capita, Jacob employs GIN per capita, “which is a similar but updated version of GNP that has become the standard for measuring countries’ wealth.”
  • For social instability measures, Jacob used the weighted conflict index found in the Bank’s Cross-Polity Time-Series Database, which represents “an index of domestic stress” used to “approximate domestric stress as a function of sociopolitical instaiblity. “In terms of this study, increased domestic stress was identified as one of the key sociopolitical conditions, namely instability, that might engender a greater democratic effect as a result of the increased diffusion of [...] media technologies.” This variable includes codings of assassinations, general strikes, guerrilla warfare, government crises, riots, revolutions, and anti-government desmonstrations.
  • The ICT variables included in the study were Internet diffusion per 100 and a combined figure of televisions and radios divided by popluation figures available from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The author did not include newspaper figures because “recent trends in declining newspaper readership suggest newspaper circulation figures may no longer accurately represent mass media development.”
  • The democracy data was drawn from the Polivy IV database, specifically the ‘Polity 2′ democracy score, which is “often recognized for its validity, sophistication and comprehensiveness.” Jacob also notes that factor analyses of the data showed that the Polity 2 scores “load highly (over .90 for all years in this study) with Freedom House (2005) government accountability figures, which have been used previously [...].” Note that Jacob used the Polity 2 score with a one-year time lag.
  • The 152 countries were chosen on the basis of their inclusion in many existing databases. The author omitted countries if 15% or more of the data was missing for any category or year. For countries included with missing figures, “mean substitution at the country level was used for each missing case per variable.” It would be helpful if Jacob had noted the number of countries for which mean substitutions was used.

Binary regional and time operators were also added as part of specifying fixed effects regression models.” Like several previous studies, the author did not include government control of the press because an important collinearity problem with democracy measures. “

Method

Jacob used multiple regression models to test his hypothesis that Internet diffusion has democratic effects.  a number of potential causal arguments. He also used fixed effects panel regression to control for time and region-specific effects, omitted variables bias and heteroskedasticity problems. “Specifically, the fixed effects models controlled for unobserved variables that differed across time but did not vary across state.”

Findings

The figure below fits a fractional polynomial (linear-log) regression line to a scatterplot of all countries for all years. Of the most non-democratic countries in 2003 (Belarus, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates), only Bahrain showed an increase in the Polity 2 democracy measure. In Belarus, the democracy measure fell dramatically during the 10-year time period despite the fact that the important increase in Internet users by 2003.

While Jacob doesn’t draw on the Open Net Initiative (ONI) research on censorship, the group’s 2008 empirical study “Access Denied” does demonstrate an important global rise in Internet filtering. In other words, repressive regimes are becoming increasingly savvier in their ability to regulate the impact Internet diffusion within their borders.

internetdemocracy1

When taken together, Jacob’s findings suggest that “the democratizing effect of the Internet is severely limited among non-democratic countries.” In addition, Jacob’s results suggest that higher levels of sociopolitical instability in “developing countries proved to be just as important in cultivating a democratic effect as the increased diffusion of Internet.” Another interpretation might be that, “sociopolitical instability may contribute to more apparent levels of Internet effects, even when presented with seemingly inconsequential levels of diffusion” that characterize developing countries.”

This is a surprising finding regardless of the interpretation. At the same time, however, Jacob should have noted that empirical studies in the political science literature have debated the destabilization effects of democratization. See Mansfield and Snyder (2001) for example. In addition, the political transitions literature does note the importance of mass social protests and nonviolent civil resistance in sustainable transitions to democracy. See Stephan and Cherdowith (2008) and my recent findings on the impact of ICTs on the frequency of protests in repressive regimes.

Conclusion

Jacob’s empirical research is an important contribution to the study of ICTs and impact on society, both from a development context—developing versus developed countries—and regime type—democratic versus nondemocratic.

Patrick Philippe Meier