Tag Archives: Nonviolence

Big Data: Sensing and Shaping Emerging Conflicts

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and US Institute of Peace (USIP) co-organized a fascinating workshop on “Sensing & Shaping Emerging Conflicts” in November 2012. I had the pleasure of speaking at this workshop, the objective of which was to “identify major opportunities and impediments to providing better real-time information to actors directly involved in situations that could lead to deadly violence.” We explored “several scenarios of potential violence drawn from recent country cases,” and “considered a set of technologies, applications and strategies that have been particularly useful—or could be, if better adapted for conflict prevention.” 


The workshop report was finally published this week. If you don’t have time to leaf through the 40+page study, then the following highlights may be of interest. One of the main themes to emerge was the promise of machine learning (ML), a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These approaches “continue to develop and be applied in un-anticipated ways, [...] the pressure from the peacebuilding community directed at technology developers to apply these new technologies to the cause of peace could have tremendous benefits.” On a personal note, this is one of the main reasons I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI); namely to apply the Institute’s expertise in ML and AI to the cause of peace, development and disaster relief.

“As an example of the capabilities of new technologies, Rafal Rohozinski, principal with the SecDev Group, described a sensing exercise focused on Syria. Using social media analytics, his group has been able to identify the locations of ceasefire violations or regime deployments within 5 to 15 minutes of their occurrence. This information could then be passed to UN monitors and enable their swift response. In this way, rapid deductive cycles made possible through technology can contribute to rapid inductive cycles in which short-term predictions have meaningful results for actors on the ground. Further analyses of these events and other data also made it possible to capture patterns not seen through social media analytics. For example, any time regime forces moved to a particular area, infrastructure such as communications, electricity, or water would degrade, partly because the forces turned off utilities, a normal practice, and partly because the movement of heavy equipment through urban areas caused electricity systems go down. The electrical grid is connected to the Internet, so monitoring of Internet connections provided immediate warnings of force movements.”

This kind of analysis may not be possible in many other contexts. To be sure, the challenge of the “Digital Divide” is particularly pronounced vis-a-vis the potential use of Big Data for sensing and shaping emerging conflicts. That said, my colleague Duncan Watts “clarified that inequality in communications technology is substantially smaller than other forms of inequality, such as access to health care, clean water, transportation, or education, and may even help reduce some of these other forms of inequality. Innovation will almost always accrue first to the wealthier parts of the world, he said, but inequality is less striking in communications than in other areas.” By 2015, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa will have more people with mobile network access than with electricity at home.

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My colleague Chris Spence from NDI also presented at the workshop. He noted the importance of sensing the positive and not just the negative during an election. “In elections you want to focus as much on the positive as you do on the negative and tell a story that really does convey to the public what’s actually going on and not just a … biased sample of negative reports.” Chris also highlighted that “one problem with election monitoring is that analysts still typically work with the software tools they used in the days of manual reporting rather than the Web-based tools now available. There’s an opportunity that we’ve been trying to solve, and we welcome help.” Building on our expertise in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, my QCRI colleagues and I want to develop classifiers that automatically categorize large volumes of crowdsourced election reports. So I’m exploring this further with Chris & NDI. Check out the Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) project for more information.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the day-long workshop was the very clear distinction made between warning and response. As colleague Sanjana Hattotuwa cautioned: “It’s an open question whether some things are better left unsaid and buried literally and metaphorically.”  Duncan added that, “The most important question is what to do with information once it has been gathered.” Indeed, “Simply giving people more information doesn’t necessarily lead to a better outcome, although some-times it does.” My colleague Dennis King summed it up very nicely, “Political will is not an icon on your computer screen… Generating political will is the missing factor in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.”

In other words, “the peacebuilding community often lacks actionable strategies to convert sensing into shaping,” as colleague Fred Tipson rightly noted. Libbie Prescott, who served as strategic advisor to the US Secretary of State and participated in the workshop, added: “Policymakers have preexisting agendas, and just presenting them with data does not guarantee a response.” As my colleague Peter Walker wrote in a book chapter published way back in 1992, “There is little point in investing in warning systems if one then ignores the warnings!” To be clear, “early warning should not be an end in itself; it is only a tool for preparedness, prevention and mitigation with regard to disasters, emergencies and conflict situations, whether short or long term ones. [...] The real issue is not detecting the developing situation, but reacting to it.”

Now Fast froward to 2013: OCHA just published this groundbreaking report confirming that “early warning signals for the Horn of Africa famine in 2011 did not produce sufficient action in time, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths. Similarly, related research has shown that the 2010 Pakistan floods were predictable.” As DfID notes in this 2012 strategy document, “Even when good data is available, it is not always used to inform decisions. There are a number of reasons for this, including data not being available in the right format, not widely dispersed, not easily accessible by users, not being transmitted through training and poor information management. Also, data may arrive too late to be able to influence decision-making in real time operations or may not be valued by actors who are more focused on immediate action” (DfID)So how do we reconcile all this with Fred’s critical point: “The focus needs to be on how to assist the people involved to avoid the worst consequences of potential deadly violence.”


The fact of the matter is that this warning-response gap in the field of conflict prevention is over 20 years old. I have written extensively about the warning-response problem here (PDF) and here (PDF), for example. So this challenge is hardly a new one, which explains why a number of innovative and promising solutions have been put forward of the years, e..g, the decentralization of conflict early warning and response. As my colleague David Nyheim wrote five years ago:

A state-centric focus in conflict management does not reflect an understanding of the role played by civil society organisations in situations where the state has failed. An external, interventionist, and state-centric approach in early warning fuels disjointed and top down responses in situations that require integrated and multilevel action.” He added: “Micro-level responses to violent conflict by ‘third generation early warning systems’ are an exciting development in the field that should be encouraged further. These kinds of responses save lives.”

This explains why Sanjana is right when he emphasizes that “Technology needs to be democratized [...], made available at the lowest possible grassroots level and not used just by elites. Both sensing and shaping need to include all people, not just those who are inherently in a position to use technology.” Furthermore, Fred is spot on when he says that “Technology can serve civil disobedience and civil mobilization [...] as a component of broader strategies for political change. It can help people organize and mobilize around particular goals. It can spread a vision of society that contests the visions of authoritarian.”

In sum, As Barnett Rubin wrote in his excellent book (2002) Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action, “prevent[ing] violent conflict requires not merely identifying causes and testing policy instruments but building a political movement.” Hence this 2008 paper (PDF) in which I explain in detail how to promote and facilitate technology-enabled civil resistance as a form of conflict early response and violence prevention.


See Also:

  • Big Data for Conflict Prevention [Link]

How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare

The Iranian protests of 2009 are still framed as a failure. The same goes for the 2007 protests in Burma and other nonviolent movements that have combined digital technologies with civil resistance (digital resistance). Are these efforts really failures or are we simply looking through the wrong lens? What characterizes success in digital activism?

The international community and mainstream media seem to think that success means full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. This state-centric framework is the wrong one to use if the goal is to critically assess the success of resistance movements. We should instead be looking at digital resistance through the lens of guerrilla warfare, or “little war” in Spanish.

Guerrilla warfare is characterized by small, highly mobile groups that employ military tactics to harass a larger enemy, striking and withdrawing almost immediately. Hit-and-run tactics against supply chains and disrupting communication lines is a guerrilla favorite.

Tactically, guerrillas avoid confrontation with larger enemy forces and seek instead to attack smaller, weaker groups to minimize losses and exhaust the opposition. They seek the support of local populations in the process. Their goal is to weaken the enemy and eventually to undermine the state’s ability to prosecute the war; victory by attrition.

Civil resistance movements use guerrilla warfare. Their tactics and strategies are almost identical. The majority of guerrilla actions do not use violence. Given the similarities between civil resistance and guerrilla campaigns, we should look into how the latter are evaluated. If we used today’s media frames to evaluate passed successful resistance movements, they would all be failures.

The history of nonviolent struggle shows that movements which were counted out when major repression first hit – such as Solidarity in Poland in 1981 and nonviolent South African anti-apartheid strikers and boycotters in the mid-1980’s – were, a few years later, on the winning side (1).

This means that an evaluation framework for digital resistance should include a broader time frame and have a more micro-level focus. We should be looking at a group’s ability to organize an underground movement, recruit, spread propaganda, elicit support from the local population, employ a rich mix of tactics to over time to harass, provoke and delegitimize a repressive regime, and a group’s ability to continue existing even after government crack downs.

On this latter point, for example, “a more comprehensive and accurate frame on [Iran and Burma] would have reminded us that such shows of force are used only when a regime feels threatened, that is, when it perceives itself in a position of potential weakness if opposition is permitted to gain any foothold” (2).

The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen published this piece in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. It was a notable step up from the “Cyberspace and Democracy” article in the same issue. In any case, Eric and Jared address the same core questions I am writing my dissertation on so here’s my take on what they had to say.

I far prefer the term “connection technologies” over “liberation technologies”. I also appreciate the authors’ emphasis on the diffusion of power via mini-rebellions as opposed to full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy. Any serious student or practitioner of strategic nonviolent action knows full well that power is not monolithic but defuse—even in the most autocratic regimes. Repression is driven by obedience. As Gene Sharp noted in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”:

By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.

This is why power is necessarily diffuse in every single society. Rulers operate thanks to just a few key pillars of support including: the police, military, civil service, educational system, organized religion, media, business and financial communities, etc. These pillars are only there because of obedience—and individuals comprising these pillars always have the power to withdraw their support. In strategic nonviolent action, obedience is regarded as the heart of political power. Indeed, if people do not obey, the decision-makers cannot implement their decisions, simple as that.

Manifestations of disobedience are most powerful when public, which is where mini-rebellions come in. These can slowly but surely erode the pillars of support temporarily propping repressive regimes. Eric and Jared write that, “taken one by one, these effects may be seen as impractical or insignificant, but together they constitute a meaningful change in the democratic process.” Ah, but there’s the rub. How does one string a series of mini-rebellions into more than just a series of mini-rebellions? Otherwise, digital activists run the risk of winning the battles but losing the war.

Here is why lessons learned and best practices from the long history of nonviolent civil resistance and guerrilla warfare are crucial. This was the crux of my response to Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Civil resistance takes careful planning, grand strategy to tactics and specific methods. Successful civil resistance movements are not organized spontaneously! Concerted and meticulous planning is key.

There are two principles of strategic planning:

Strategic sequencing of tactics: “The strategic selection and sequencing of a variety of nonviolent tactics is essential. Tactics should be directly linked to intermediate goals which in turn flow from the movement’s or campaign’s grand strategy. There are over 198 documented types of nonviolent tactics, and each successful movement invents new ones” (1).

Tactical capacity building: “Successful movements build up their capacity to recruit and train activists, gather material resources, and maintain a communications network and independent outlets for information, such as encrypted emails, short-text messaging, an underground press, and alternative web sites. This also involves detailed campaign and tactical planning, and efficient time management. Time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle” (2).

This is why I disagree with Eric and Jared when they write that “in many of these cases, the only thing holding the opposition back is the lack of organizational and communications tools, which connection technologies threaten to provide cheaply and widely.” The tools themselves won’t make up for any lack of organizational or communication skills, planning, strategy, and so on.

Towards the end of their article, the authors note that, “these kinds of cat-and-mouse games will no doubt continue…” referring to the dynamic between repressive regimes and resistance movements. The point is hardly whether or not this dynamic will continue. The more serious question has to do with what drives this dynamic, what factors influence whether or not the cat has the upper hand?

If you’re interested in learning more about civil resistance and strategic disruption, I highly recommend reading these short books:


My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker, Part 2

The first part of my response to Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker explained why principles, strategies and tactics of civil resistance are important for the future of digital activism. In this second part, I address Gladwell’s arguments on high vs. low risk activism, weak vs. strong ties and hierarchies vs networks.

According to Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, the civil rights movement represented “high-risk activism” which requires “strong-ties”. By strong-ties, McAdam refers to the bonds of friendship, family, relationships, etc. These social ties appear to be a necessary condition for recruiting and catalyzing a movement engaged in high-risk activism. “What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement.” Indeed, you’re more likely to join a rally if your close friends are going. “One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization.”

In contrast, Gladwell argues that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” The problem with evangelists of social media, according to him, is that they “believe a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend.” In addition, while “social networks are effective at increasing participation,” they only do so by “lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”

Gladwell then adds the “networks versus hierarchies argument” to further his point. Strategic nonviolent action requires organization, planning and authority structures. Social media, on the other hand, “are not about this kind of hierarchical organization.” This is a “crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant,” says Gladwell.

Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations.

But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.

I tried to summarize Gladwell’s arguments in the diagram below and would be interested in feedback. The red arrow represents high-risk activism and the green low-risk. As per his argument, high-risk activism requires both strong ties and high levels of organization.

Gladwell makes a compelling case and one that I largely agree with, but not completely. Would the four colleague students who instigated the first wave of protests in North Carolina during the Winter of 1960 have turned down the opportunity to use email, SMS, Facebook or Twitter? Would their use of social media tools have caused their movement to fail? Would the strong-ties these students shared be diluted as a result of also being friends on Facebook? I personally doubt it, they would still have shown up at Woolworth.

Gladwell is right to distinguish between high-risk and low-risk activism but this is a false dichotomy. Not everyone in society faces the same kinds of risks, nor do they face the same levels of risk all the time. Total war in the Clausewitzian sense only holds true for thought-experiments. Indeed, a recent study study found that, “The average percentage of area covered by civil war [...] is approximately 48%, but the average amount of territory with repeated fighting is considerably smaller at 15%.”

So if communities face a range of risks that span from low to high, then one would want to leverage both strong-ties and weak-ties along with appropriate organizational forms, offline tactics and social media tools. This means that both networks and hierarchies are needed; and that neither organizational form need remain static over time since risks are not static. Indeed, an effective social movement needs organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and networks that promote resilience and adaptability. Both are absolutely key to the practice of strategic nonviolent action.

There’s no doubt that the civil rights movement represented high-risk activism. Does this mean that the same methods used in the 1960s would work for high-risk activism in a country like Egypt, North Korea or even in Cambodia during the genocide that killed an estimated 1.2 to 1.7 million people?  Can the US media of the 1960s really be compared to North Korean media? As my colleague David Faris noted in a recent email exchange on Gladwell’s article,

The initial sit-ins may have been launched by a small group of people impervious to the danger, but they grew to 70,000 not only because close friends were doing it, but also because people saw acquaintances protesting, and decided that the level of risk required to participate had fallen. This is important because in the U.S. in 1960 the media were willing to report on these events. This is not the case across the authoritarian world, where news relayed by text and Twitter may be the only reliable source of information apart from your immediate circle of friends. By relaying information about the preferences of your weak ties, social media provide individuals with more accurate pictures of the preference-sets of other members of their community.

New social media tools don’t dictate the organizational form of the movement, they simply create more options. So a hierarchical organization can very well use new media platforms to conduct their own highly centralized movement. It’s just like the Ushahidi platform, it is a tool, not a methodology. If a group of protesters don’t put any serious time into planning their campaigns, identifying key strategies and tactics, training, drafting contingency measures, fund raising, etc., then the presence of social media tools will not explain why their protests are ineffective. It would be too easy of an excuse.

Ushahidi is only 10% of the solution

Here’s a graphic designed by my colleague Chris Blow that shows why technology is at most 10% of the solution (the context is Ushahidi but the principle applies more broadly). If a movement doesn’t take on “all the other stuff”, then it doesn’t matter whether members are part of a network, a centralized organization, have weak-ties or strong-ties, or whether they are in a high-risk or low-risk environment. They are unlikely to succeed.

My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker

Malcom Gladwell’s article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” was forwarded to me by at least half-a-dozen colleagues after it was published just three days ago. I have purposefully not read other people’s responses to this piece so that I could write down my own observations before being swayed by those of others.

So what do I think? Finally, someone else is calling attention to the importance of  civil resistance (strategic nonviolent action) in the context of new digital technologies! This intersection is what I’m most excited about when it comes to the new tools of social media.

Gladwell uses the example of the civil rights movement, which in his own words was an example of “high-risk activism” and “also crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline.” Indeed, “the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion.” Gladwell is spot on, strategic nonviolent action is nonviolent guerrilla warfare. If I’m not trained in civil resistance, then I can still use all the technology I want but the tools won’t necessarily make me more effective or make up for my lack of skills in nonviolent warfare.

But most tend to completely skip over the rich lessons learned from the long history of nonviolent action because they are more excited about the tools. As Gladwell notes, “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” But these tools were never used in the vast majority of protests in the history of the world. See this piece by the Global Post on “How to Run a Protest without Twitter.”

I specifically blogged about this issue two years ago in a post entitled: “Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.” Some excerpts:

The future of political activism in repressive environments belongs to those who mix and master both digital activism and civil resistance—digital resistance. Digital activism brings technical expertise to the table while civil resistance offers rich tactical and strategic competence.

At the same time, however, the practice of digital activism is surprisingly devoid of tactical and strategic know-how. In turn, the field of civil resistance lags far behind in its command of new information technologies for strategic nonviolent action.

In this blog post, I called attention to the work of Gene Sharp who is considered by many as one of the most influential scholars in the field of civil resistance. His book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, is a must-read for anyone interested in strategic nonviolent action. I argue that digital activism needs  much stronger grounding in the tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil resistance. That is why I followed up with a second blog post in 2008 on “Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

So when starting from the principles, strategies and tactics of civil resistance, I do think that the tools of social media can act as multiplier effect in a nonviolent campaign. Gladwell rightly likens the civil rights movement to a military campaign. And communication is central to the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns. In fact, some of the most successful nonviolent campaigns detailed in numerous case studies turned on the ability to get accurate, timely information. The literature on military history also demonstrates that “success in counter-guerrilla operations almost invariably goes to the force which receives timely information.”

Effective civil resistance requires sound intelligence and strategic estimates. But Gladwell only dwells on the role of new technologies in the context of recruitment. He doesn’t consider the effect of new tools on information sharing and information cascades. And if Gladwell had the time to read more of McAdam’s work, he’d have come across other relevant causal mechanisms described in the literature that are relevant to the discussion.

I plan to follow up with a second post based on Gladwell’s piece to address his points on strong versus weak ties and hierarchies versus networks.

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Nathan Freitas

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Nathan Freitas‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • A bit of history on Twitter – the roots of this new media technology wave and  specifically, Twitter, began in 2004 with an open source Web service called  TXTmob. [...] So Twitter was born out of an activist movement,  so it’s no surprise that it’s come full circle and is being used that way again.
  • During the Second World War and the Cold War, inventors, mathematicians used  the first digital computers to play a critical role in the Allies’ efforts to  stay in front of the Axis.  During the Civil Rights movement the use of telephones, telegraphs and  traditional social networks in churches and universities created a foundation  to mobilize supporters throughout the South.  And in recent years, hackers,  nerds and geeks like myself have gravitated towards the social justice,  environmental and human rights movements.
  • So the idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into teams  of activists around the world using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to innovate and  develop new systems to use the same grassroots organizing and non-violence  techniques that have come from Gandhi, but in a new era.
  • The fascinating  thing about what happened in Burma in 2007 was the emergence of the video  journalist.  Someone with a very cheap digital camera broadcasting their  message using the Internet:  instant messaging, FTP file transfer – and ending  up on the BBC.  [...]  The idea that they could do that to cover  their movement and even though the Saffron Revolution wasn’t  successful, the impact they left in the world of activism about the possibility was very successful.
  • The power  of the moving image is unavoidable.
  • In many cases, authoritarian states’ powers prove too formidable for new media  technology.  We saw this with Tibet in the uprisings last March.  The only view  that the world had of the uprising was from the Chinese state media.  Internet  was cut off, phone was cut off, reporters from around the world were blocked  from accessing an area the size of Texas.
  • However, the use of these tools brings  serious risk to the user, their friends, family and broader movement. [...] So we need to spend more time focusing on protecting activists, protecting  these generations that take 20 years to rebuild if they’re decimated.

Me: Just one comment on this last point, the issue of risk and protection is why I wrote up this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Summary of Congressional Briefing

My colleague Chris Doten sent me the following email on September 25th:

Hey Patrick-

I’m currently working for the US Helsinki Commission, which as you probably know is a semi-congressional human rights watchdog. They’ve asked me to put a briefing together on the role of new media technology in democratization – very exciting opportunity for me, and I hope to do it justice. I thought you might have thoughts on experts to whom I could talk in the field, or potential panelists we should call.

Thoughts? Hope you’re doing well!


Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more excited to learn that the topic of my dissertation research and consulting work would be the subject of a Congressional Briefing. I emailed Chris right back for more details. He put it simply:

“If you were in the driver’s seat for such a panel,
where would you go?”

What a treat. I’ve been studying the role of new media and digital technology in authoritarian regimes for a while now, and I’m on the Board of Advisors of DigiActive and Digital Democracy. I’ve also served as New Media Advisor on a major USAID project that seeks to foster peaceful transition to democratic rule in a certain authoritarian state.

So I suggested to Chris that he contact my colleagues Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown), Nathan Freitas (NYU), Rob Farris (Berkman Center), Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky (Digital Democracy), and Mary Joyce (DigiActive). While Rob’s schedule didn’t allow him to be a the Congressional Briefing last Thursday, my other colleagues were indeed there. Chris Spence (NDI), Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House) Chiy Zhou (GIF) were also present.

Both DigiActive and Digital Democracy also submitted written remarks for the record here and here. Here is a copy of the full 30 page transcript of the Congressional Briefing. Since reading through 30 pages can be quite time consuming, I have summarized the briefing using annotated excerpts of the most important points made by panelists. You’ll note that while I agree with some of the comments made by the panelists, I clearly disagree with others.

Opening Remarks & My Critique

Q/A Session & My Critique

Patrick Philippe Meier

Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Eric McGlinchey, one of the professors on the panel, presented his research paper (PDF) on “Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia.”

Eric notes that the theories and prescriptions of the transitions literature have not borne fruit in Central Asia. Indeed, “the region today is more autocratic than it was eighteen years ago at the time of the Soviet collapse.”

Eric thus seeks to understand why “Transitions 1.0″ failed and to “investigate the potential for a Transitions 2.0” by exploring three autocracies Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As Eric notes, “new information communication technologies (ICTs) are emerging in Central Asia and, as survey research demonstrates, these new ICTs hold the potential to transform the region’s political culture from one that abides authoritarian rule to a culture that embraces political reform.”

I very much appreciate Eric’s balanced approach to technology and demographic change. As he writes,

[T]he current class of political elites is graying while the youth population of Central Asian society is growing larger.  And whereas the hierarchical Communist Party carefully controlled the political milieu in which the current political elite was acculturated, today new ICTs have broken the government’s information monopoly, laid bare the inequities of patronage politics and are in the process of changing the mental maps with which this growing younger generation views national governance.

Institutional path dependency, as Paul Pierson explains, is sustained by—learning effects‖ and—adaptive expectations. New ICTs have simultaneously transformed what youth in Central Asia learn and what they expect—and it is this transformation [...] that may ultimately undermine the cost calculations that have thus far sustained autocratic patronage in the region.

Whether access to ICTs can be shown to have a successful track record in promoting liberalization and democratization is still an open debate which requires more empirical research to shed compelling insights on the question.

Eric cites the work by David Hill and Khrishna Sen (2000) who “illustrate how the Internet enabled Indonesian oppositionists not only to break Suharto’s media monopoly, but to break this monopoly using conversational, dialogic, (and) non-hierarchical” forms of communication.”

That said, Hill, Krishna and several other scholars emphasize that the “political environment within which oppositionists marshal technologies like the Internet, can dampen the transformative effects of new ICTs.” To be sure,

Just as autocracies can control printing presses, radio and television, so too can savvy authoritarian governments monitor and exert control over new telecoms and Internet service providers.  Moreover, even absent such control, new ICTs need not be liberalizing.

Peter Chroust, for example, demonstrates how illiberal groups—neo-Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan—can equally use new ICTs to facilitate communication and mobilization.

Benjamin Barber suggests that fears that new ICTs force people—into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology motivate actors to fight for the opposite, for the construction of even more differentiated local identities. As such, Barber predicts, new ICTs will result in more, not less ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious violence.

Eric’s research is informative because there is still very little research on the impact of ICTs on populations in Central Asia. The results of his empirical survey suggests that “although the causal effects of new ICTs are mixed and highly dependent on structural context, the use of new ICTs nevertheless does appear to have a liberalizing effect on political culture.”

More specifically, where state filtering of the Internet is less pronounced—in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—survey results suggest that Internet users do exhibit greater inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement.  Conversely, where state filtering of the Internet is extensive, as it is in Uzbekistan, inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement differ little between Internet users non-users.

Eric concludes as follows:

Will Transitions 2.0 succeed where Transitions 1.0 failed?  To a large degree the answer to this question rests in the ability of Central Asian governments to continue effective filtering of the Internet and of global communications broadly, something that may get progressively more difficult as Internet access shifts from what now are readily controlled public areas (work, Internet cafes and libraries) to the comparative privacy of smart phones and home computers.

No less consequential is whether ICT-induced changes in political culture translate to societal changes in political engagement.  This study suggests that the retreat of Soviet institutions of political acculturation and the arrival of new ICTs will likely produce a political culture that is less trusting of autocratic rule and more open to outsiders and civic engagement.

Whether Central Asians will assume the daunting risks that undoubtedly are required to transform their governments so as to more closely reflect these changed political values, however, remains an open question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Nonviolent Resistance in Post-Communist Countries


I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and had the good fortune of sharing the panel with Olena Nikolayenko from Stanford University. Nikolayenko presented an excellent paper (PDF) entitled: “Youth Movements in Post-Communist Societies: A Model for Nonviolent Resistance.”

Olena seeks to explain the variation in social movement outcomes in non-democracies by “investigating the dynamics of tactical interaction between challenger organizations and the ruling elite.” She argues that “both civic activists and autocratic incumbents engaged in processes of political learning. Hence, tactical innovation was vital to the success of youth movements, especially late risers in the protest cycle.”

I think she’s spot on with the tactical learning argument. In fact, I use the same hypothesis for my dissertation as well, referring to the cyber game of cat-and-mouse between resistance movements and repressive regimes.  By tactical innovation, Olena means “experimentation with the choice of frames, protest strategies and interaction styles with allies.”

This dynamic approach to the study of social movements to post-communist countries is particularly interesting since the notion of tactical innovation has only been applied to mature democracies.  As Olena notes, however, tactical innovation may very well be of “greater importance to the challenger organizations in the repressive political regimes.”

This is because “the stakes of the political struggle—regime change or the survival of the autocratic incumbent—have wide-ranging implications for the ruling elite and the society at large.”

Olena’s decision to focus on post-communist countries is also important because of the focus on unsuccessful cases. As she rightly notes, there is a notable bias in social movement literature on cases of success. And yet, there is much to gain from analyzing movements that are defeated by repressive regimes.

Explaining Social Movements

What is particularly neat about Olena’s dynamic approach is that she draws on Doug McAdam’s work (1983) and thus distinguishes between “tactical innovation of movement participants and tactical adaptation of the ruling elite.” McAdam’s piece is entitled: “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.”

Tactical innovation involves a shift from conventional forms of collective action and the application of novel confrontational tactics. Tactical adaptation refers to tactics of the incumbent government to neutralize unorthodox mobilization efforts of challenger organizations and introduce new barriers for contentious collective action.

In terms of tactical innovation, Olena explains that to gain leverage in the political arena, “a social movement needs to articulate persuasive messages, employ effective protest strategies, and forge ties with influential allies. Each of these choices can involve tactical innovation.”

I’m especially interested in the protest strategies piece given the focus of my dissertation. Olena draws on some of Charles Tilly‘s research that I had actually not come across before but which is incredibly relevant to my own doctoral research. Tilly’s relevant piece published in 1978 is entitled: “From Mobilization to Institutionalization.”

Though a range of protest tactics seems to be limitless, protesters tend to resort to a recurrent toolkit of contentious collective action. Tilly conceptualizes a repertoire of contention as “a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice.” In his influential work, Tilly (1978) demonstrates how it takes such macrohistorical factors as the rise of the nation-state and the emergence of new communication technologies to engender novel forms of protest. A central advantage of novel protest strategies is that they can catch the authorities off guard and produce a stronger political impact than familiar protest tactics.

As for tactical adaptation, Olena examines how repressive incumbent governments respond to the “rise of reform-oriented and technologically savvy youth movements by setting up state-sponsored youth organizations and intensifying the use of modern technology to subvert youth mobilization.” This an important part of the cyber game of cat-and-mouse that is all too often drowned by the media hype around new technologies.

Social movement literature has documented a toolkit of strategies that the ruling elite deploys to suppress mass mobilization. Repression is a common policy instrument used in non-democracies. In the so-called hybrid regimes, the ruling elite systematically manipulate democratic procedures to the extent the turnover of power is hardly possible, but refrain from the conspicuous use of violence.

It is critical to understand the underlying tactics employed by repressive regimes to suppress and/or manipulate political change.


Olena focuses on nonviolent youth resistance movements in the following five countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine. These movements share several important characteristics:

  1. The formation of youth movements during the election year, with the exception of Serbia’s Otpor;
  2. Anticipation of electoral fraud;
  3. Demand for free and fair elections;
  4. Mass mobilization in the repressive political regime,
  5. Use of nonviolent methods of resistance.

Despite these similarities, however, some of the movements were “more successful than others in expanding the base of popular support for political change in non-democracies.”

Olena carried out 46 semi-structured interviews with key informants to get an in-depth description of social movements. To estimate the the level of youth movements, Olena relied on three indicators: (1) size of movement; (2) size of post-election protests; and (3) duration of post-election protests.


While the Otpor movement in Serbia was responsible for demonstrating a series of important tactical innovations, subsequent youth resistance movements in post-communist countries were unsuccessful. This is largely due to the fact that these movements simply “copied” these tactics without adding much in terms of innovative thinking. Otpor also trained these movements and perhaps should have emphasized the importance on endogenous innovation a lot more.

In terms of political learning by elites in repressive regimes, Olena’s findings show that:

[I]n light of electoral revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have significantly raised costs of political participation. Specifically, the coercive apparatus applied violence to prevent the permanent occupation of the public space in the wake of fraudulent elections.

Moreover, the authorities deployed coercive measures against youth movements before they could develop into powerful agents of political change. In addition, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have invested considerable resources into the creation of state-sponsored youth organizations.

The analysis demonstrates that both civic activists and the ruling elite are able to draw lessons from prior episodes of nonviolent resistance during a protest cycle. As a result, late risers in the protest cycle need to apply a series of innovative strategies to overcome increasing constraints on political participation and introduce an element of surprise.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Wasp: Paper-War as a Tactic of Civil Resistance

Eric Russell’s science fiction novel, Wasp, is brilliant. It was published in 1957 and weaves civil resistance theory with creative tactics that remain fully relevant half-a-century later. What I want to do here is share some excerpts that describe a very neat civil resistance tactic. Please see my previous post for the context of the story along with the novel’s compelling theory on civil resistance.

One of the tactics that our protagonist James Mowry employs is paper-based. He writes hundreds of letters to Sirian Empire officials threatening more resistance if they continue fighting the war against Earth. This gives the semblance that the fictitious resistance group, Dirac Angestun Gesept, is far more than a one-person show.

In the early evening, he mailed more than two hundred letters to newspaper editors, radio announcers, military leaders, senior civil servants, police chiefs, prominent politicians and key members of the government.

When one is fighting a paper-war, Mowry thought, one uses paper-war tactics that in the long run can be just as lethal as high explosive. And the tactics are not limited in scope by use of one material. Paper can convey a private warning, a public threat, leaflets dropped by the thousands from the rooftops, cards left of seats or slipped into pockets and purses.

For his next paper-based tactic, Mowry choice to mail dozens of small but heavy parcels.

Each held an airtight can containing a cheap clock and a piece of paper, nothing else. The clock emitted a sinister tick—just loud enough to be heard if a suspicious-minded person listened closely.

Paper threats, that was all—but they were effective enough to eat still further into the enemy’s war effort. They’d alarm the recipients and give their forces something more to worry about. Doubtless the military would provide a personal bodyguard for every big wheel on Jaimec; that alone could pin down a regiment.

Mail would be examined, and all suspicious parcels would be taken apart in a blast-proof room. There’d be a city-wide-search with radiation detectors for the component parts of a fission bomb. Civil defense would be alerted in readiness to cope with a mammoth explosion that might or might not take place. Anyone on the streets who walked with a secretive air and wore a slightly mad expression would be arrested and hauled in for questioning.

After disrupting every-day processes for several weeks, the Sirian regime was in a state of panic deploying several thousand additional plain-clothed police officers, carrying out hundreds of random checks a day, erecting hundreds of road blocks, etc; in effect mobilizing considerable resources and time in reaction to major disruption caused by just one person. Could one man pin down an entire army this way?

Mowry wondered […] how many precious man-hours had his presence cost the foe? Thousands, tens of thousands, millions? To what forms of war service would those man-hours have been devoted to if James Mowry had not compelled the enemy to waste them in other directions? Ah, in the answer to that hypothetical question lay the true measure of a wasp’s efficiency.

Another tactic (not included in the story) is to write messages on paper money, as recently happened in Iran.

Patrick Philippe Meier