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The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

  • Dr. Philip N. Howard

Do new information technologies advance democratization?  Among the diverse countries with large Muslim communities, how do such technologies provide capacities and constraints on institutional change?  What are the ingredients of the modern recipe for democratic transition or democratic entrenchment?  Around the developing world, political leaders face a dilemma: the very information and communication technologies that boost economic fortunes also undermine power structures. Globally, one in ten internet users is a Muslim living in a populous Muslim community. In these countries, young people are developing their political identities-including a transnational Muslim identity-online. In countries where political parties are illegal, the internet is the only infrastructure for democratic discourse. And in countries with large Muslim communities, mobile phones and the internet are helping civil society build systems of political communication independent of the state and beyond easy manipulation by cultural or religious elites.  With evidence from fieldwork in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Tajikistan and Tanzania, and using the latest fuzzy-set statistical models, I demonstrate  that communications technologies have played a crucial role in advancing democracy in Muslim countries. Certainly, no democratic transition has occurred solely because of the internet. But, as I argue, no democratic transition can occur today without the internet. In the last 15 years, technology diffusion trends have contributed to clear political outcomes, and digital media have become a key ingredient in the modern recipe for democratization.

Philip N. Howard is associate professor of communication, information and international studies at the University of Washington.  His books include New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen (Cambridge, 2005) and The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Oxford, 2011).  Currently, he directs the NSF-funded Project on Information Technology and Political Islam.