Activism, Repression, and ICT: What We Know Now

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.

Mobilizing Structures

In terms of content, He begins with opportunity structures, first focusing on the effect ICTs can have on participation. He identifies four from McAdam, McCarthy, Zald, and Garrett:

  1. Reduction of participation costs
  2. Promotion of collective identity
  3. Creation of community
  4. Microcontributions

As perhaps the strongest conceptual link between ICTs and democracy, participation has gotten a lot of attention, particularly in the West. Here are some of the most interesting ideas on that theme:

“by lowering communication and coordination costs, ICTs facilitate group formation, recruitment, and retention while improving group efficiency, all of which contribute to increasing political participation” (Garrett 2006 citing
Bonchek 1997)

“Clearly, the disruptive use of ICTs in repressive environments is no longer the unique provenance of isolated, politically motivated hackers. It is instead deeply integrated with contemporary social movement strategy and accessible to computer and mobile phone users with only basic skills” (Howard 2011).

While some claim that the number of agile digital activists in countries under repressive rule are relatively low and most likely consist of the country’s wealthy, urban and educated elites, “elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime” in any case. (Howard, 2010)

Feezell, Conroy and Guerrero (2009) find that participation in online (Facebook) groups “strongly predicts offline political participation by engaging members online.”

A related criticism about the political impact of new media is that online entertainment serves as a new form of control….. (cited in Morozov 2011). Repressive regimes are “beginning to understand that online entertainment�especially spiced up with pornography� can serve as a great distraction from politics.”

“The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public and social ways, relative to their old status as consumer and couch potatoes.” (Shirky 2010).

ICTs create collective identity through a shared awareness of shared grievances. It is not only that everyone knows “X” but that everyone knows that everyone knows “X”.

“perception among individuals that they are members of a larger community by virtue of the grievances they share” (Garrett 2006)

Shared awareness is “the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too,” which further contributes to collective identity (Shirky 2010).

The key argument on community creation is whether or not the weak ties created through social media can be leveraged for meaningful activism. Some key quotes:

The literature also suggests that ICTs “reinforce existing social networks, while simultaneously allowing them to connect with those who hold different views” (Garrett 2006 citing Norris 2004).

Gladwell (2010) disagrees… arguing that, “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.”…. To this end, social media may not be contributing to collective identities built on strong ties, which Gladwell (2010) argues are necessary for high-risk activism.

Digital technologies enabled “unprecedented activation of weak social ties,” which “brought the concerns ofdisaffected youth, cheated voters, and beaten protesters to the attention of the mullahs….” (Howard 2011).

Meier uses the word “microdonations” for the role of the crowd in crowdsourcing. ICTs allow “very small contributions to be effectively aggregated” (Garrett 2006), for example sending a single SMS that becomes part of a comprehensive data map through the use of Ushahidi.

After participation, contentious activity is the second factor that influences mobilization structures. ICTs can “accelerate and geographically extend the diffusion of social movement information and of protest” and other forms of contention. (Garrett 2006 citing Myers 1994). Meier lays out three ways that ICTs can aid the spread of contentious activity:

  1. ICTs allow information to travel faster and further than before. This fast dissemination of “false or
    exaggerated information has led to violence,” as in Kenya in 2008, but ICTs can also be used to “verify information and check claims against multiple sources, ultimately enhancing accuracy” (Garrett 2006 citing Elin 2003).
  2. ICTs also enable activists to engage in new forms of contentious activity. New technologies do not uniquely improve the tactical vocabularies of activists, who can now launch flash mobs and DDoS attacks against more powerful foes. Previously destabilizing technology can also benefit the repressive. The printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio… first undermined the power base of old monarchies.Then these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes” (Ronfeldt 2009). The question of who has the tactical upper hand – repressive governments or civil society – is perhaps the critical question of the entire dissertation and for the field of digital activism in particular, yet it receives little attention.
  3. The adaptation of existing tactics to influence mainstream media. This is the section where Meier decided to talk about Larry Diamond’s “accountability technology”: “the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own government accountable” (cited in Morozov 2011). However, this phenomenon does not seem to require the participation of the mainstream media, and Meier does not make that point here.

Organizational issues contribute to the third mechanism by which ICTs influence mobilizing structures. Here are some key quotes about a topic I think is one of the most fascinating in the field:

The information revolution may mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” (Ronfeld 2009)

“New forms of bottom-up collaboration now rival the hierarchical organization in its capacity to create information-based products and services, and in some cases, to solve the critical challenges facing the world.”(Tapscott and Williams 2010)

“Repressive regimes may not have the organizational flexibility to decentralize substantially.” [Here Meier hits upon a key structural advantage of civil society activists.]

“While it may be true that new forms of activism are emerging, they may be eroding rather than
augmenting older, more effective forms of activism and organizing” (Morozov 2011).

Meier lays out three ways that ICTs can affect the organization of social movements.

  1. “The technologies facilitate the adoption of decentralized, non-hierarchical organizational forms, and make movement-entrepreneur-led activism more likely” (Garrett 2006). Many scholars contend that decentralized forms of organization are particularly likely to thrive in the information revolution (Brafam and Beckstrom 2006; Diani and McAdam 2003; Rheingold 2003; Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001, Castells 1996), though Gladwell (2010) continues to believe hierarchy and top-down command and control are still necessary for success. Meier responds that “New social media tools don’t dictate the organizational form of the movement, they simply create more options. So a hierarchical organization can very well use new media platforms to conduct their own highly centralized movement.” And decentralized, non-hierarchical organizational forms are not necessarily superior. Take the example of flash mobs, Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey (2010) note that “poorly organized mass actions are highly unpredictable and easily manipulated” by regimes.
  2. The rise of movement entrepreneurs: Technology facilitates the emergence of these activists who are not part of formal institutions but are “motivated by individual grievances to undertake social movement activity and who rely on their own skills to conduct their actions” (Earl and Schussman 2003). Meier gives the example of the activists who created the platform and organization Ushahidi. Yet Meier does not mention the model of the “free agent,” which Beth Kanter and Allison Fine present in their book “The Networked Nonprofit.” A free agent, who leverages influence through social media, is never co-opted by an existing organization nor creates her own, operating forever as an individual within a network.

Opportunity Structures

Continuing through the social movement framework, Meier next addresses opportunity structures, the societal contexts that create opening for social movement success. This section reviews four elements: accessibility of the political system, the stability/fragmentation of elites, presence of allies, and the state’s capacity and propensity for

In the context of the accessibility, Meier introduces the important idea of information cascades. Though I would have put this idea in the section on contentious activity in the previous section, it is nevertheless important. An information cascade is a iterative pattern of group behavior whereby each individual takes action based on the perceived action of others. This action of the individual is in turn also shared with the group, influencing the behavior of other members. The classic example, though not cited by Meier, is Susan Lohmann’s work on the 1989-91 Leipzig protests that led to the end of a divided Germany. In that case, East German citizens witnessed their fellow citizens marching in the streets unmolested and the next day joined in. Over a period of months, crowds grew from the hard core to the late converts to large swaths of the population. The capacity of citizen media production ICTs offer, coupled with the ease of dissemination, facilitates this pattern in the modern era. However, “a little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence” (Drezner 2010).

Meier continues with X observations about accessibility.

  1. The accessibility of the political system of a coercive states is by definition highly limited.
  2. The alignment among elites in coercive states tends to be particularly stable.
  3. “Coercive states generally have important allies.”
  4. “That a repressive regime has the capacity and propensity for repression goes without saying.”

The first three parts of this section are rather weak, with fairly self-evident observations. What is missing is the proper content: Evgeny Morozov’s many argument that ICTs make repressive political system less accessible, not more. Meier needs not only to reference Morozov’s works, as he has done, but to really make those arguments in each of the four sections, not only the last one. I would also urge Meier not to try to rebut each cyber-pessimist argument. Letting valid criticisms stand is important. The paper tends to the side of cyber-optimism throughout and adding more of the cyber-pessimist side throughout the section would make the literature review more balanced and also enrich this particular section.

Meier ends the chapter close to balance, yet still polemical. Just because an opinion is in the minority does not mean it is wrong.

In sum, several scholars argue that coercive governments increasingly have the upper hand in controlling and suppressing politically sensitive information (Morozov 2011; Cherian 2008; Deibert et al. 2008; Oates 2008; Singel 2008; Zittrain 2008; Mydans 2007; Goldsmith and Wu 2006; Lessig 2006; Drezner 2004; Kalathil and Boas 2003; Hermida 2002; Price 2002). Others argue that, at least in the short to medium term, the spread of the Internet will tend to benefit authoritarian regimes at the expense of dissidents and pro-democracy activist (Chase and Mulveron 2002). This was not the case in earlier studies, which suggested that the information revolution and the Internet in particular would lead to more open and democratic societies (Kidd 2003; Scott and Street 2000; Andrew 2000; Clarke 1994). Still, some scholars such as Howard (2011), Shirky (2010), Diamond (2010), Meier (2010), Ronfeldt (2009) and McGlinchey (2009) express cautious optimism.

Meier next moves on to economic structures of opportunity. He notes that the literature focuses on two economic aspects of ICT and political systems: globalization and the information economy and state regulation and technical knowhow

  1. Meier next raises the idea of the dictator’s dilemma. The concept is “founded on the idea that globalization and globalized markets – largely facilitated and accelerated by the Internet – force governments to keep their countries’ communication borders open” (Best and Wade, 2009). This context is not deterministic of course. It only defines the economic stakes for digitally repressive states, many of whom have chosen to bypass the dilemma by censoring information in a way that does not limit economic growth, though even China, which has experienced astronomical growth and has rigorous Internet censorship, is not totally unharmed. “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” (Cuttler 2008). Repressive regimes also shut down ICT systems, but only for short periods, for example shutting off SMS function around an election. It is also “possible to disconnect particular geographic regions or even parts of the city. For example, during the unsuccessful color revolution in Belarus in 2006, the authorities turned off mobile coverage in the public square where protesters were gathering…” (Morozov 2011).
  2. Meier points out that regulation can be used a form of censorship, “particularly true in contexts where
    telecom companies are state owned since… states and telecoms are essentially one institution” (Obadare 2005; Wolfsfeld 2003). This particularly applies to the regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs), which are asked to limit the information flowing through their networks. Regulation can also censor by controlling “ownership of the telecommunications provider and Internet exchange points, pricing structures, and the political application of security and decency laws” (Howard 2011).

While these are both interesting points, I think Meier could dig deeper into the economic effects of political systems. A good resource is Kate Brodock’s chapter “Economic and Social Factors: The (Digital) Activism Divide” in the book “Digital Activism Decoded”. Economic inequality means that existing economic elites (the middle class) have greater access than the truly poor and marginalized to ICT. Though the increased political capacity of that group is highly significant, it presents a challenge to the political, not economic order of country. Eszter Hargittai’s work on the skills divide is also relevant. While these particular nuggets might best fit in the section on mobilizing structures, the economic connections between foreign firms that provide censorship equipment to repressive regimes, such as the American firm Cisco’s role in China, should be mentioned here.

Framing Processes

The final section in the qualitative literature review section is on framing processes, “strategic attempts to craft,
disseminate and contest the language and narratives used to describe a movement. The objective of this process is to justify activists’ claims and motivate action using culturally shared beliefs and understandings” (Garrett 2006 citing Zald 1996). Though the ability to bypass mass state media in reaching a large audience is “amongst the most discussed changes associated with new ICTs” (Garrett 2006), and defines ICT as an aid to civil society in framing contested issues, government censorship limits this capacity. Though Meier does not mention it in the literature review, Tunisia provides and interesting case in which digital citizen media (particularly video) was used to bypass state-controlled local media and gain access to more independent international media outlets like Al Jazeera and France 24.

Meier lists X ways that ICTs can contribute to framing:

  1. “New ICTs can be an effective tool for generating publicity and news coverage” (Garrett 2006). In Iran, for example, “Mousavi’s use of digital campaign tools was a strategic response to his exclusion from coverage by state-run television and newspapers” (Howard 2011).
  2. ICTs can be used by repressive regimes to rouse citizens’ patriotism (and jingoism). These states frame contested issues in terms of patriotism for the purposes of propaganda in order to undermine support for resistance movements (Morozov 2011). In Saudi Arabia, the regime “uses ICTs to brand itself online as the center of Islam, the home of Mecca, and the source of Islamic exegesis. It uses ICTs to protect the ruling family’s control over both economic resources and politics” (Howard 2011).


Meier begins his analysis of the literature by exploring the weakness of the data-driven studies. He defines X weaknesses:

  1. The data analyzed typically goes through 2003, well before the Web 2.0 revolution (the most serious weakness)
  2. The analysis tends to focus on the impact of the Internet or mobile phones, but not both
  3. The studies tend to aggregate data on democratic and authoritarian states, thus running the risk of not capturing more subtle effects regarding the impact of ICTs on repressive regimes.

In discussing the timeframe of the data used in these studies, Meier makes a critical point which I agree with. It is too early to accurately gauge the political effects of the most recent wave of ICT innovation, the social media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube that were launched in the middle of the last decade. “In terms of data,” write Meier, “one would ideally want to draw on data from 1994 through to at least 2014 to really capture the potential impact of Web 2.0 platforms and mobile phones in countries with repressive regimes.” Though the 2014 figure may be conservative, I certainly agree that the data set would need to include all of the past decade, which only Howard’s does. Meier identifies the most useful independent varaibles: “number of mobile phone calls, text messages, smart phone users, Facebook users, Twitter users, YouTube users and Flickr users per year (or even weekly)” yet acknowledges the difficulty in collecting this data because it is proprietary.

Yet, despite the difficulty in doing quantitative analysis, Meier criticizes the methodology of the qualitative literature as well. This critique is the most passionately-argued section of the chapter, and for that reason one of the best. Noting that “the qualitative literature, while more voluminous than the statistical studies, is not particularly conclusive either but often more riddled with anecdotes or one-off case studies…. The most serious weakness in the qualitative literature,” he write, “is the issue of sample bias and extensive use of anecdotes rather than in-depth comparative, qualitative case study analysis.” He lists other weaknesses as well:

  1. “First, the terms “information revolution” and the “Internet” are used interchangeably throughout the literature even though the former includes additional means of communication, such as mobile phones.” In particular, “the political science literature focuses almost exclusively on assessing the effect of the Internet…”
  2. This focus on the Internet is only ever appropriate in the rich world, whereas in developing countries with repressive regimes “mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT… (UNCTAD 2008), and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these regions (Zuckerman 2007).”
  3. Political scientists also uniquely impute “corporeal means to enforce information control” to repressive regimes (imprisonment, harassment), while ignoring that citizens also have their own corporeal means to counter these attacks through nonviolent methods like rallies and boycotts. There is indeed a dearth of study of ICTs in nonviolent action: “The only systematic study carried out on the role of technology in nonviolent action is by Martin (2001).”
  4. The social movement literature inaccurately treat ICTs as deterministic. “The analyses tend to frame socio-technological change in terms of static capabilities used in predictable ways” (Garrett and Edwards 2004).
  5. “While sociology, political science and communication literatures have each addressed the impact of ICTs on authoritarian rule and social resistance, there is little evidence of any serious cross-disciplinary research that seeks to connect the findings from these various disciplines,” notes Meier. In fact, “few works are commonly cited across the field, and most are known only within the confines of their discipline. The absence of a common set of organizing theoretical principles can make it difficult to find connections between these disparate works beyond their common subject matter. The scholarly community would benefit from a broader view of the field” (Garrett 2006).
  6. “Apart from Eyck’s 2001 study (which only focused on technology in the 1970s) and there don’t appear to be other large-N quantitative studies on the impact of information communication technology on resistance in general, and protests in particular.” His dissertation aims to remedy this.
  7. Perhaps because of the lack of interdisciplinarity, “the current literature does not emphasize the use of network theory as a theoretical framework” despite its usefulness. Even though “the networked design… is a distinguishing feature of social media that will be ever more threatening to authoritarian rule” (Howard 2011), Meier notes that “the added value of network science is rarely considered- let alone pursued,” using frameworks from political science, economics and sociology instead.


In the conclusion, Meier continues his critique. “Do liberation technologies change the balance of power between repressive regimes and civil society?” he asks. Answers provide by the quantitative and qualitative literature do not provide reliable answers. Yet another problem is that there two methodologies are siloed. “The main drawback of both literatures as that they are either focused on quantitative analysis or qualitative analysis,” Meier states. “Very few actually combine quantitative and qualitative methodologies as part of their research design.”

It is for this reason that Meier’s dissertation will use a mixed-method strategy for comparative research, combining statistical analysis with case studies. He briefly sketches his methodology – running regressions on regimes in four clusters (high and low mobile phone use versus high and low protest events), followed by case studies on two countries and defends his choices. In a way, I wished that his chapter had ended with a cogent synthesis of the past 50 pages, rather than a few paragraphs on research design. The discussion is section is so strong, yet the conclusion loses that energy.

Other Sources

This is a truly excellent literature review and provides tremendous value to the field. Still, as it is still in draft form, I thought it appropriate to end with suggestions of sources that were not mentioned in the chapter, but that are worth including

  • “Changing the World One Webpage at a Time: Conceptualizing and Explaining ‘Internet Activism'” by Jennifer Earl, Katrina Kimport, Greg Prieto, Carly Rush, Kimberly Reynoso (a new quantitative study of web site use that deserves to be included)
  • The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler (this is a classic of the field and I was surprised not to see it, particularly the chapters Political Freedom Part 1 & 2)
  • Technology & Social Power by Graeme Kirkpatrick (no one knows about this book but it is awesome – provides a philosophy for the analysis of technology)
  • Digital Activism Decoded edited by Mary Joyce (Yes, it’s a shameless plug, but there are good essays in there. For Meier’s work I recommend the chapters by Scholz, Brodock, Glaisyer, Kavada, Murdoch, and Hwang)
  • The Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine: (though practical rather than academic, their analysis of “free agents” complements the sections on movement entrepreneurs)
  • “The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-91” by Susanne Lohmann (the most-cited source on this phenomena)
  • “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics” – Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly, Ethan Zuckerman (excellent analysis of the state of the field, and a good framework for analysis)
  • The Myth of Digital Democracy by Matthew Hindman (another voice of the cyber-pessmists, this one focused on the blogosphere)
  • Against Transparency by Lawrence Lessig (more a skeptic than a pessimist, but an interesting idea about the negative effects of government openness)

4 thoughts on “Activism, Repression, and ICT: What We Know Now

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Activism, Repression, and ICT: What We Know Now | meta-activism project --

  2. Hey, two tips for your site:

    1/ your feed is broken: your feed URL seems to be invalid

    2/ there is no obvious link to “how to contact you” (I had trouble trying to find a way how to Email you problem 1, but did not find an email address in the “About” or a “Contact” link anywhere…) Suggest to add one. (only thing I could do, was to leave a comment)



    • Thanks, Peter, for alerting us to the feed problem. I’ll look into it. Also, there is a contact link at the top of the page, but it says “Join”…. Maybe we’ll change that too.

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