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The Impact of Technology Access on Protest Frequency in Authoritarian Regimes

Patrick Meier will be presenting the preliminary results of his dissertation research that draws on a nested analysis approach. The results are from the first half of his dissertation research--namely a large-N study to determine whether technology  access is a statistically significant predictor of protest frequency in countries under repressive rule.

Patrick Meier is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Patrick's dissertation research seeks to determine whether local access to new media and digital technologies changes the balance of power between repressive regimes and civil resistance movements. He also co-authored an applied econometric study related to his research for Harvard University's Berkman Center for the Study of Internet and Society. Patrick has consulted on projects directly related to his dissertation research. Patrick is on the Boards of Ushahidi, DigiActive and Digital Democracy, and a graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Patrick has presented his research worldwide and is regularly interviewed by specialized and popular press.

Summary of the Seminar
Patrick Meier, a PhD Candidate at Fletcher School, Tufts University introduced his research to investigate the relationship between increased availability of ICTs and popular resistance movements.

A key question in the relatively new field of digital activism is whether new technologies will help or hinder efforts to remove authoritarian governments. What we tend to see are patterns of repression by regimes, followed by circumvention as activists find ways to work around new restrictions. The ability to learn and adapt would seem to be crucial in determining whether activists or governments gain the upper hand.

When studying this area more closely, a number of research gaps emerge. Firstly, many studies use ‘information revolution' and ‘internet' interchangeably; this fails to recognize the importance of other technologies such as mobile phones. Secondly, discourses from complexity science that model how networks operate have not yet been brought into this literature. Thirdly, since the majority of studies to date are qualitative in nature, there is a real lack of quantitative analysis. The result is that we are left with a collection of anecdotes, some demonstrating that technology has promoted activism, and others detailing how repressive regimes are using technology successfully for their own ends. This anecdotal approach produces little clarity about the relationship between technology and political activism.

One of the aims of Patrick's dissertation research is to help fill this quantitative void. He is currently conducting a large-N study that will try to answer the question: are ICTs a statistically significant predictor of protest activism? The study looks at 38 countries between1990 and 2007. Countries were selected using two criteria: first, whether they were defined as having a score in the range -5 to -10 on the Polity IV measure of autocratic tendency; second, whether they were featured amongst the prominent examples in the existing literature about digital activism. To measure levels of protest activity, Patrick will be using a data set that uses Reuters newswire reports. Control variables include population, levels of unemployment, internal wars and elections.

Preliminary findings are quite counter intuitive, suggesting that there is a negative relationship between increasing use of technologies like mobile phones and numbers of protests. Recognizing some of t he inherent problems and limitations associated with a large-N study, Patrick will also be conducting detailed qualitative research into four case study countries to gain a better understanding of how technology impacts activism in different contexts.

Patrick will be updating progress and results of his research at his blog iRevolution.