April 25, 2014

Philip N. Howard is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He directs the World Information Access Project (wiaproject.org) and the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam (pitpi.org). His book The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy has just been published by Oxford University Press. He teaches courses on research methods, politics online, and international development. Howard has been a Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington D.C., the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research in London, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto. Philip holds a BA from Toronto, a MSc from the London School of Economics, and a PhD from Northwestern.

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Digital Activism and Non Violent Conflict

As a CITP fellow last year, one of my goals was to get a new project on digital activism off the ground.  With support from the US Institutes of Peace and a distributed network of researchers we pulled together an event dataset of hundreds of instances where people tried using information and communication technologies to achieve political goals.  The Digital Activism project launched.

The research team analyzed some 1,200 cases of digital activism worldwide, including some 400 cases from the past three years. First, we defined activism as efforts not just at regime change, but campaigns for policy changes at all levels of government. Second, we made sure this was a truly global sample – going far beyond the best-known cases that both sides in this debate had cited. Our initial research in this Digital Activism Research Project showed us how much more work can and should be done, one particular trend was apparent right away.
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Are There Countries Whose Situations Worsened with the Arrival of the Internet?

Are there countries whose situations worsened with the arrival of the internet?  I’ve been arguing that there are lots of examples of countries where technology diffusion has helped democratic institutions deepen.  And there are several examples of countries where technology diffusion has been part of the story of rapid democratic transition.  But there are no good examples of countries where technology diffusion has been high, and the dictators got nastier as a result.

Over twitter, Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, recently opined the same thing.  Evgeny Morozov, professional naysayer, asked for a graph.

So here is a graph and a list.  I used PolityIV’s democratization scores from 2002 and 2011.  I used the World Bank/ITU data on internet users.  I merged the data and made a basic graph.  On the vertical axis is the change in percent of a country’s population online over the last decade.  The horizontal axis reflects any change in the democratization score–any slide towards authoritarianism is represented by a negative number.  For Morozov to be right, the top left corner of this graph needs to have some cases in it.

Change in Percentage Internet Users and Democracy Scores, By Country, 2002-2011

noexamples

Look at the raw data.

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Singapore Punishes Net Freedom Advocate

Over the last few days my activist self has come out.  I was a tenure reviewer for Dr. Cherian George at Nanyang Technical University, one of Singapore’s most high-profile universities.  His tenure case was overturned at the top, where university administration meets the country’s political elites.

It is difficult to dismiss George on the basis of academic merit. With degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford, his pedigree is admirable. He has three books under his belt: the eviscerating “Air Conditioned Nation”, the evocative “Freedom From the Press” and a scholarly tome comparing independent online journalism in Singapore and Malaysia that was actually published at home by Singapore University Press. Through a string of academic articles, George has been equally critical of the government and the press, so it is not surprising that the country’s journalists have not rushed to his defense. He has revealed to colleagues that the decision to deny his tenure was solely because of “non-academic factors”—the university administrators told him as much. He’s had positive teaching evaluations. This wasn’t a merit based decision.
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Now Available in Print and eBook: “Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring”

I am happy to announce that my new book, co-authored with Muzammil M. Hussain, is now available in print (Oxford University Press, Amazon, Google Books) and eBook (Kindle).

In April of last year, I presented some of our initial findings and described the methodology in a presentation at the Center for Information Technology at Princeton. You can listen to that presentation here:
Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Information Technologies and the Fuzzy Causes of the Arab Spring

Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring
Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain

Did digital media really “cause” the Arab Spring, or is it an important factor of the story behind what might become democracy’s fourth wave? An unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world’s most entrenched dictators. Howard and Hussain find that the complex causal recipe includes several economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. This book looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.

Philip N. Howard is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, with adjunct appointments at the Jackson School of International Studies and the Information School.

Muzammil M. Hussain is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Washington and Visiting Scientist at the Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich.

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Personal Democracy Robots?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post for Slate arguing that it is time to consider developing—and maybe even using—democracy robots on Twitter.  Preprogrammed messages released on a strategic schedule could have an impact on public opinion in sensitive moments for an authoritarian regime.  The EFF’s eloquent Jillian York retorted “let’s not”.

In short, I argued that the other side is using social media armies and bots in their campaigns to manipulate the opinion of their publics, diasporas overseas, and even international opinion.  Since authoritarian governments are investing in such technologies, D-bots could be an important part of a systematic response from the democracies that want to promote democracy.

Most of these crafty bots generate inane commentary and try to sell stuff, but some are given political tasks. For example, pro-Chinese bots have clogged Twitter conversations about the conflict in Tibet. In Mexico’s recent presidential election, the political parties played with campaign bots on Twitter. And even an aspiring parliamentarian in Britain turned to bots to appear popular on social media during his campaign. Furthermore, the Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Venezuelan governments employ their own social media experts and pay small amounts of money to large numbers of people (“50 cent armies”) to generate pro-government messages, if inefficiently.

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Zuckerberg Goes to Russia as the Global Network Initiative Turns 4

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) was founded in October 2008 to help technology firms navigate the political implications of their success. Engineers at the world’s leading technology firms have been incredibly innovative, but do not always the global dynamics of their innovation. Moreover, they do not always acknowledge the ways in which politicians get involved with the design process. The creation of the GNI signaled that some in the technology sector were ready to start having more open conversations. Facebook recently joined the GNI–now four years old–as an “observer”. But the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg also traveled to Moscow to meet with that country’s tech-savvy second-in-command, Dmitri Medvedev. With the anniversary of the GNI in mind, let’s consider the different ways of interpreting the Zuckerberg-Medvedev summit.

Zuckerberg Meets MedvedevNixon Meets Mao

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