Tag Archives: Smart Mobs

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)

Economist3

A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests [...] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Citizen Communications In Crisis

I recently spoke with Professor Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about her Crisis Informatics research project and followed up by reading her co-authored paper entitled: “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation” published in 2007. The focus of Leysia’s publication overlaps with my previous blog entry on the intersection of citizen journalism (Global Voices) and conflict early warning/response.

Leysia provides a valuable and insightful sociological perspective that is often lacking in our own field.  Indeed, the sociology of disaster includes a public with its own impetus for participation that conventional conflict early warning/response systems rarely consider. Following are some excerpts from her paper that I found pertinent and interesting:

  • ICT in disaster contexts will give further rise to improvised activities and temporary organizations with which formal response organizations need to align.
  • The role held by members of the public in disaster—a role that has always been characterized as one of high involvement by disaster sociologists throughout the nearly century-long history of disaster research—is becoming more visible, active, and in possession of greater reach than ever seen before.
  • Our stance is that the old, linear model for information dissemination of authorities-to-public relations-to-media is outmoded, and will be replaced—at least in practice—by one that is much more complex. Peer communications technologies are a critical piece of these emergent information pathways.
  • Disaster social scientists have long documented the nature of post-disaster public participation as active and largely altruistic. “First responders” are not, in practice, the trained professionals who are deployed to a scene in spite of the common use of that term for them; they are instead people from the local and surrounding communities.
  • People are natural information seekers, and will seek information from multiple sources, relying primarily on their own social networks—friends and family—to validate and interpret information coming from formal sources, and then to calculate their own response measures.
  • The possibilities for public participation are expanding with increased access to the Internet and the wide diffusion of mobile technology—mobile phones, text  and multimedia messaging, and global positioning devices. This technology in the hands of the people further pushes on boundaries between informal and formal rescue and response efforts, and has enabled new media forms that are broadly known as citizen journalism.
  • For example, wikis enable broad participation in the creation and dissemination of information. Some visual wikis use mapping technology for linking textual or photographic information to representations of physical locations, thereby documenting, for example, the extent of damage to a specific neighborhood. Recent disasters show how people, whom we already know will seek information from multiple sources during uncertain conditions, have fueled the proliferation and utility of these sites. In this way, the public is able to take not only a more active part in seeking information, but also in providing information to each other, as well as to formal response efforts.
  • Emerging ICT-supported communications in crisis will result in changing conditions that need to be addressed by the formal response. ICT-supported citizen communications can spawn, often opportunistically, information useful to the formal response effort. Citizen communications can also create new opportunities for the creation of new, temporary organizations that help with the informal response effort. The idea of emergent or ephemeral organizations that arise following disaster is not at all new; in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of disaster sociology, and supports the need for communities to be able to improvise response under uncertain and dynamic conditions. ICT-supported communications, however, add another powerful means by which this kind of organization can occur. No longer do people need the benefit of physical proximity to coordinate and serendipitously discover each other.
  • Implications for Relief Efforts: As the reach of response extends to a broader audience with ICT, how will the formal response effort align with, support and leverage wider community response? Relief work—the provision of food, shelter and basic necessities—already largely arises out of volunteerism through either grassroots efforts or managed through official channels.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Waiting for Rheingold?

I am blogging live from the Politics 2.0 conference in London where Joss Hands just gave a talk on “Mobil(e)ising the Multitude: The Political Significance of Mobility in Contemporary Protest and Resistance Movements.” A long title for a long talk that could have been labeled as “A Critique of Rheingold’s Smart Mobs“. I was disappointed in not hearing a talk based on the first title. In any case, it was still interesting to listen to a review of Smart Mobs.

One of the interesting points made by Joss was in relation to reputation and reputations systems discussed by Rheingold. While the latter sees these as self-organized, Joss suggests they are not dissimilar to surveillance systems and profiling, a point that had not occurred to me before. The presenter put forward solidarity as an alternative means of reputation, which resonates with my study of social resistance and nonviolent movements. At the same time, however, reputation systems of the likes of eBay and Amazon are not exactly panopticons in the strict sense that Joss articulates. Individuals register in order to gain profit. In that sense, participation is self-motivated.

Joss also argues that Rheingold’s description of Smart Mobs as emergent behavior does not reflect reality. He describes the behavior observed in the Philippine SMS revolution, for example, as a series of cascades, i.e., not instantaneous. Joss notes that it was the official opposition party in the Philippines that started the text messaging, which then spread out in waves. Here Joss is a little off. Emergent behavior does not imply instantaneous action. Furthermore, Smart Mob behavior is no less emergent if government communication mobilizes the multitude. So while Joss argues that we have yet to see actual Smart Mob behavior, I’m not convinced we’re still waiting for Rheingold (see waiting for Godot).

In conclusion, there is a problem with academics drawing on popular science concepts such as emergence without understanding the science behind emergence. Joss used the word at least a dozen times to discredit some of Rheingold’s arguments but he never provided an appropriate definition let alone any definition.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Getting Tactical with Technology

Why is conflict early warning and nonviolent action erroneously assumed to be conceptually and operationally distinct in the practice conflict prevention? Isn’t communication central to the effectiveness of both early warning and nonviolent action? Yes it is.

Planning, preparedness and tactical evasion, in particular, are central components of strategic nonviolence: people must be capable of concealment and dispersion. Getting out of harm’s way and preparing people for the worst effects of violence requires sound intelligence and timely strategic estimates, or situation awareness.

Unlike conventional early warning systems, nonviolent groups make use survival tactics and mobile communication technologies instead of endless security council meetings and academic databases. To this end, studying and disseminating testimonies of those who survive violence can provide important insights into numerous tried and true survival tactics. Luck may at times play a role in survival stories. But to quote the French scientist Louis Pasteur, “in the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”

From survival testimonies communities in crises can “learn what dispersed and hidden livelihoods look like. They can be shown how they might dismantle their village homes and build temporary huts near their fields as the Vietnamese sometimes did in the face of American airpower. Or use crop colors and canopies that are less noticeable from the air, as Salvadoran peasants sometimes planted.” Understandably, “no sophisticated warning systems were available, so people had to develop their own skills in detecting and identifying aircraft” (See Barrs 2006).

Today, local communities are increasingly making use of ICTs to get out of harm’s way. From Iraqis using Google Earth to avoid the bloodshed in Baghdad, the Burmese underground using radios and mobile phones to monitor the movement of soldiers, and the SMS revolution in the Philippines that deposed the Estrada regime, one can only expect what I call the iRevolution to continue full steam ahead. Indeed, evidence of human rights abuses in Tibet was available on the web within hours, both in the form of blogs and video footage. Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” regularly sends Sudanese government officials satellite imagery depicting their complicity in the genocide. The next logical step will be to provide local communities with this information.

Patrick Philippe Meier

It’s the Economy 2.0, you Geek

The Chinese government spent 8 years and $700 million to build the Great Firewall, a system that monitors and censors Internet communication. As Wired recently noted, “virtually all internet contact between China and the rest of the worlds is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country at only three points.” This coupled with Cisco technology enables the Chinese authorities to physically monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic.

The Great Chinese Firewall is not designed to be invincible, however. In fact, one of the reasons why the Chinese government has to “allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes” is to “keep China in business” (Wired). For example, “many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers […] to survive” (The Atlantic). VPNs and proxy servers also “happen to be” two dependable alternatives to evading government censorship. “This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work” (Wired).

Wall

The same is true of other ICTs such as mobile phones and SMS text messages. More than 20 million SMS messages are sent every day in Iran alone. Furthermore, the Washington Post writes that,

“As each new technology has spread, the region’s authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf’s monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels. If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region’s profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.”

There is increasing empirical evidence that economic growth is in part a function of greater access to global information flows (economics 2.0). However, authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information revolution will have to make increasingly difficult choices: “any state that permits Internet or cellular phone use for commercial possibilities will face difficulties in perfectly censoring undesirable communication or halting all attempts at political co- ordination” (Drezner 2006).

So the real question is not whether the repressive state is more technicaly savvy. No, the salient question is how much longer the coercive state can in fact afford to enforce control given the state’s growing dependency on the information economy? For example, The Atlantic writes that, “about 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?”

It’s easy to slip into technological determinism and focus entirely on James Bond super gadgets like the Great Chinese Firewall. But come on, it’s the Economy 2.0, you geeks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

It’s the Economy 2.0, you Geek

The Chinese government spent 8 years and $700 million to build the Great Firewall, a system that monitors and censors Internet communication. As Wired recently noted, “virtually all internet contact between China and the rest of the worlds is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country at only three points.” This coupled with Cisco technology enables the Chinese authorities to physically monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic.

The Great Chinese Firewall is not designed to be invincible, however. In fact, one of the reasons why the Chinese government has to “allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes” is to “keep China in business” (Wired). For example, “many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers […] to survive” (The Atlantic). VPNs and proxy servers also “happen to be” two dependable alternatives to evading government censorship. “This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work” (Wired).

Wall

The same is true of other ICTs such as mobile phones and SMS text messages. More than 20 million SMS messages are sent every day in Iran alone. Furthermore, the Washington Post writes that,

“As each new technology has spread, the region’s authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf’s monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels. If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region’s profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.”

There is increasing empirical evidence that economic growth is in part a function of greater access to global information flows (economics 2.0). However, authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information revolution will have to make increasingly difficult choices: “any state that permits Internet or cellular phone use for commercial possibilities will face difficulties in perfectly censoring undesirable communication or halting all attempts at political co- ordination” (Drezner 2006).

So the real question is not whether the repressive state is more technicaly savvy. No, the salient question is how much longer the coercive state can in fact afford to enforce control given the state’s growing dependency on the information economy? For example, The Atlantic writes that, “about 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?”

It’s easy to slip into technological determinism and focus entirely on James Bond super gadgets like the Great Chinese Firewall. But come on, it’s the Economy 2.0, you geeks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

iRevolution or Control-Alt-Delete?

The Information Revolution has brought us iPods, iPhones and iRevolutions. What are iRevolutions? They are what SmartMobs do. Think about it, what do you get when you give activists engaged in nonviolent social resistance increasingly decentralized, distributed and mobile technologies? That’s right, an iRevolution. Just like iPods and iPhones have empowered their owners by rendering them more autonomous and by increasing the number of buttons they can press, so has the Information Revolution empowered local activists and transnational networks—albeit to circumvent control and censorship by coercive states, i.e., by pressing their buttons.

Clearly, the information revolution has dramatically reduced the costs of networked communications. However, does this enable civil society to more effectively mobilize action, influence centralized regimes and to get out of harm’s way when the regimes decide to crack down? Or are states becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to control the flow of information?

The general consensus based on a recent study is that coercive states now have the upper hand in using ICT to control and suppress politically sensitive information such as human rights abuses. However, the literature on the information revolution and its impact on state-society relations is not consistent. Current studies suffer from two important limitations that cast sufficient doubts on the conclusion that coercive states have the upper hand in the information revolution.

First, the terms “information revolution” and “Internet” are used interchangeably throughout the literature even though: (i) the majority of studies generally focus on the Internet exclusively, and (ii) the information revolution includes additional means of communication, such as mobile phones. In other words, the literature focuses almost exclusively on assessing the effect of the Internet instead of evaluating the aggregate impact of the information revolution on antagonistic state-society relations.

Second, the two terms are purposefully not differentiated on the basis that the predominant feature of the information society is the spread of the Internet. While this is true of the most industrialized democratic societies, it is not the case for the majority of developing countries experience conflict and/or repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these countries.

So who will win this cat-and-mouse game? I don’t know. But then again, that’s why I’m doing a dissertation on this topic.

Patrick Philippe Meier