Originally published here: Insidesources.com – Posted to Technology March 26, 2015 by Britt Christensen, Ph.D.
During the previous 10 years, conflicts and sociopolitical instability of different types touched nearly every corner of the world. New communication technologies are at the center of the discussion regarding strategy, policy and outcomes of these conflicts. With the assistance of camera-phones, the civil war in Syria could very well be the most documented war of all time. ISIS is demonstrating technological sophistication by using social media to gain supporters and recruits.
On December 17, 2010, police in Tunisia confiscated a vegetable cart from jobless, college-educated Tunisian citizen, Muhamed Bouazizi, who subsequently set himself on fire in protest. Since then, a wave of violent and nonviolent regime change has taken down Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, while still threatening others.
What these activities in diverse environments demonstrate is that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media are now an integral part of protest movements and violent conflicts around the globe.
But we are only starting to learn about the role of ICTs on sociopolitical engagement and activism. Theoretically, these technologies allow the citizenry to create and acquire information outside of state-controlled media. Governments try to control online activity, but savvy users can circumvent the authorities, eroding the regime’s chokehold on public discourse.
One of the more prominent debates about the complex relationship of new ICTs and activism during the Arab Spring sprang from discussions between Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. Shirky, a technological optimist, provided numerous examples of social media and communication technologies enabling quick and decisive political action. For example, Filipino citizens using text messaging to help spur mass protests to bring down Philippine President Joseph Estrada as far back as 2001.
But Morozov illuminated numerous problems regarding the democratizing force of communication technologies. He pointed to the failed Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, which many in the West deemed the “Twitter Revolution,” as an example of not only the limited capacity of communication technologies to usher in change, but also the dangers with which the technologies can be used against the protesters when the resistance fails. Governments are increasingly savvy at surveillance, censorship, producing propaganda, and digitally tracking dissenters. He warned against “technological determinism,” the certainty that technologies forge political, social, and cultural changes.
In my recently-completed dissertation, I tested the theoretical propositions set forth by Shirky, Morozov, and many other scholars, including Dr. Erica Chenoweth, at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and Dr. Jacob Groshek at the Emerging Media Studies Division at Boston University.
Using cross-national panel data from 1990-2012, I examined the relationships among sociopolitical instability, major intrastate conflicts, democracy levels, and media and new ICT penetration rates and press freedoms. My results suggested several compelling conclusions.
First, countries with higher rates of Internet and cell-phone penetration are more likely to experience nonviolent conflict compared to violent conflict and to have higher levels of institutionalized democracy. Similarly, higher levels of press freedoms were strong predictors of sociopolitical stability, nonviolent conflict over violent conflict, and increased levels of institutionalized democracy.
Second, Internet and cell-phone use strongly related to increased occurrences of anti-government demonstrations but also purges and government crackdowns on political opposition.
These results add insight into whether dissenters or governments use new ICTs alternatively to organize or suppress opposition. In fact, both sides of the argument deserve credit. New ICTs were related to higher instances of anti-government organization and instances of government crackdowns.
These findings confirm the intuition that technology now plays a central role in the dynamics of political change. There is strong evidence that new ICTs are democratizing influences. They appear to be highly related to regime-challenging nonviolent conflict, which is quicker, more effective, and more likely to lead to democracy than violent conflict.
This reinforces the understood concept that freedom of speech and expression help societies deliberate their futures. While, to some, freedom of expression is a “western value,” it is nonetheless positively related to democracy, and to nonviolent rather than to violent conflict. And ample experience and research demonstrates that this type of stability is a key to long-term peace and prosperity. In this way, ICTs help contribute to prosperous and peaceful societies.
These findings should be of interest to researchers, democracy and civil rights advocates, and policymakers. Supporting authoritarian governments that control the media and new ICT systems in a country may appeal to some people who opt for short-term stability over freedom of speech and democratic rights. But ICTs are making that an ever-more difficult and unproductive task. In the long run, the goal must be longer-lasting peace and development. The Internet, social media, and mobile devices have upped the stakes for both protesters and authoritarian regimes and must be taken into account when making policy towards them.