Patrick Meier (above), a fellow at Stanford, has shared a draft the literature review for his doctoral thesis, “Do ‘Liberation Technologies’ Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive Regimes and Civil Society?”. Though the loaded term “liberation technology” implies a certain bias in how that question will be answered, it is an important one: do information and communication technologies weight the scales in favor of civil society, in favor of repressive regimes, or is their value neutral? These types of literature reviews are critical in building the field of digital activism, one avenue by which ICTs are used to create more democratic societies.
Meier’s chapter provides a invaluable resource. Not only is he thorough and evinces a nuanced understanding of the subject matter, but he organizes that information skillfully. For those those of you who don’t have the time to read through the 54 pages of Patrick’s chapter, here is a summary with some analysis.
Review of the Quantitative Literature
Meier starts by reviewing the quantitative research in the field, which explores the link between democracy and ICT using statistical methods and large data sets. Yet most of these studies are of little use because the time periods they cover pre-date the most important developments in liberation technology. Chris Kedzie’s 1997 study uses a data set from 1993, before the birth of the world wide web. Toby A. Ten Eyck’s study from 2001 uses an even older data set from 1970-77. A 2009 study by Michael L. Best and Keegan W. Wade “supports the existence of a positive relationship between democratic growth and Internet penetration,” yet their 2002 data pre-dates important ICT innovations like Web 2.0 and social media.
Jacob Groshek’s 2010 study, which concludes that “Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed” uses data from 1994-2003, running into the same methodological problem as Best and Wade. As I noted in a review of Groshek “major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were created after 2003.” Meier also references the Global Digital Activism Data Set of the Meta-Activism Project, which shows a sharp uptick in digital activism cases starting in 2006, none of which is included in the existing studies.
The only study which looks specifically at the effect of mobile phones, by Fabien Miard in 2009 using data from 1991-2006, is discouraging. Miard concludes that “mobile connectivity is neither negatively nor positively associated with political activism”.
Yet quantitative studies that use more recent data offer more optimistic results. A 2011 study by Philip N. Howard, using Internet and mobile data from countries with large Muslim populations from 1994 to 2008 concludes that “it is the relatively large internet and mobile phone user base – a wired civil society – that consistently serves as a causal condition across multiple democratization recipes”.
Though Meier doesn’t draw this conclusion in his review, I would say that current quantiative analysis has not yet made a persuasive argument about the effects of ICT on democracy and that the seminal quantitative research on this topic has not yet been created… all of which bodes well for the usefulness of the Global Digital Activism Data Set.
Review of the Qualitative Literature
Meier seems more comfortable in his review of the qualitative literature, and I have to agree that it is deeper and richer than the quantitative material. As a way of organizing that material he uses the social movement analytic framework developed by the revered scholars Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, the same structure used by R. Kelly Garrett’s 2006 literature review on social movements and ICT, which Meier credits as the best of its kind currently available. I agree.
The social movement framework has three part: “mobilizing structures” (mechanisms that facilitate collective action), “opportunity structures” (societal conditions in which social movements develop), and “framing processes” (attempts to create and disseminate movement narratives). This structure works well for the review, a testament to the continuing usefulness of pre-digital analytic frames to explain digital phenomena. In this section Meier analyzes how ICTs effect each of these three elements of the social movements framework. Continue reading