Home Slacktivism Global Digital Activism Data Set: Geographic Representation

Note: In the interest of open research, we are sharing infographics of our in-process project, the Global Digital Activism Data Set. We hope that this transparency will elicit original perspectives and constructive critique. A previous post is here.

Another day another GDADS infographic. This one shows the target countries of the digital activism cases in the data set. The largest by far is the USA, followed by Egypt and Iran, then China*, Russia, Brazil, and India. These seven countries have significantly more cases/country than the others in the data set, and form a nice analytical unit. Is this distribution representative? If so, what explains the distribution? If not, why is a certain country being over- or under-sampled? If accurate, what trends might this distribution reveal?

The first candidate for over-sampling is the USA. Though US cases account for only 12.6% of all GDADS cases, they do make up the largest single country block. Why might the US be over-sampled? Most coders are anglophone and many are US-based making, US cases more visible. Digital activism is also widely covered in the US media meaning that it is easier to find sources for US cases than for digital activism cases in countries without as attentive media coverage (attentive, yes, though not necessarily accurate).

However, the preponderance of American cases may be representative. Almost all the key technologies of digital activism – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the Internet – were created in the US and were likely first adopted by Americans. The US may have the most cases because Americans were “early adopters” of digital activism, meaning not only a longer time horizon, but also time for early and late majority users to adopt digital activism practices (see graphic above). In addition, America is politically free with an active civil society and high Internet penetration rate, so digital activism could indeed be significantly higher in the US.

The next countries with the most cases – Egypt and Iran – are entirely different. They have relatively low Internet penetration rates. As of 2009, 11% of Iranians and 24% of Egyptians were Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union, as compared to 78% of Americans. They also have smaller populations. Today Iran has 75 million citizens and Egypt has 80 million, while the United States has 309 million. However, the greatest difference is political freedom, relatively high in the US and low in Iran and, until recently, in Egypt.

Why might we be over-sampling Egypt and Iran? Perhaps their strategic political position, particularly to the United States, meant that their digital activism got more media coverage, particularly after their respective revolutions. This may be true of Iran, since half our cases are from 2009 and after, but it is not true of Egypt. Only two Egyptian cases are from 2011. In the case of Egypt, the high number of digital activism cases may have been predictive of a coming revolt.

If this is a representative sample, then political freedom may have a complex effect on digital activism. Activism may be common both in countries where it is freely allowed and also in countries where repression incites activism even where it is dangerous. In other words, digital repression may not have a uniquely chilling effect on activism.

The last quartet of countries is also interesting because China, Russia, Brazil, and India are grouped together in other geo-political contexts. Called the BRIC countries, they are defined by their similar stage of newly advanced economic development, their large populations, and stress on “education, foreign investment, domestic consumption, and domestic entrepreneurship.”

Though they are economically similar, they are technologically and politically different. While China, Russia, and Brazil had similar numbers of Internet users (29%, 29%, and 39% in 2009, respectively), India had only 5%.

They also have very different political freedom ranking. According to Freedom House‘s 2010 report on Freedom in the World (which many people disagree with, I know) China had the lowest possible score in political rights and the second-lowest possible score on civil liberties. Russia fared only slightly better, while Brazil and India ranked well in both. Again, if the digital activism counts are representative, this would indicate a non-linear connection between political freedom and digital activism instances.

It is surprising that the most obvious commonality among the seven countries is not Internet penetration, GDP per capita, or political freedom, but population size. While the seven countries differ considerably in the first three areas, they are among the 20 largest countries by population size, the top 10% worldwide. In addition, four of the five largest countries by population – China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil – are also in the GDADS top seven for digital activism cases.

These top seven countries also allow us to make a ballpark estimate of the the Internet penetration tipping point for digital activism. Though of course other factors are also at play, in six of the seven countries at least 24% of citizens were Internet users in 2009 (the exceptions being Iran and India).

We need to be more confident of the representativeness of our sample before making any of these statements definitive, but even in its unfinished state, the GDADS is leading in interesting directions.


* If you include the digital activism cases from the special administrative region of Hong Kong, China rises to second place with 75 cases.



4 replies to this post
  1. Mary,

    I think you could be making the wrong conclusions because you are not considering that managing the process in English language it’s a barrier for users in non English-speaking countries.

    On the one hand that explains why the USA is the country that registers more activism experiences. On the other hand, being English the language used in collecting information limits the specter of interest to the users of that language, meaning that the reason why Egypt, Iran, China and Brazil are the following countries is because those countries are the ones where English speaking activists have put the spotlight in the latest years.

    I hope it can help.Great job though. Keep up the good work!

    • Francisco, thanks for your comments. Yes, the limitation of English is a problem whenever doing research at a global level, which I mentioned briefly in the post. Fortunately, we have made use of a lot of content from Global Voices, which has the specific aim of bringing the news of local blogospheres to the world by analyzing them in English and a range of other languages. Still, I am sure that we are missing cases because of the language barrier. Thanks for your constructive critique!

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