UW Today

June 13, 2013

Philip Howard’s new book explores digital media role in Arab Spring

News and Information

"Democracy's Fourth Wave?" by Philip Howard and Muzammil HussainPhilip Howard is an associate professor of communication and co-author, with UW doctoral student Muzammil Hussain, of the book “Democracy’s Fourth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring,” published in March by Oxford University Press. He answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.

Q: What’s the central concept behind the book?

A: The central argument of this book is that to understand the Arab Spring you need to understand how media use has changed in recent years.

It has been 15 years since the last “wave” of democratization. Between 1989 and 1995, many remnants of the Soviet Union and failed authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world turned themselves into variously functional electoral democracies. But as a region, North Africa and the Middle East were noticeably devoid of popular democracy movements — until the early months of 2011.

Democratization movements had existed long before technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet came to these countries. But with these technologies, people sharing an interest in democracy built extensive networks, created social capital and organized political action.

Whether or not this Arab Spring leads to long-term entrenchment of democratic institutions and cultures in the Arab state-system is a question mark, but one which requires a critical examination of the tools and infrastructures being used to organize and mobilize political change in one of the world’s last remaining authoritarian strongholds.

Q: Did the availability of personal digital devices cause the Arab Spring?

A: Perhaps the best evidence that digital media were an important causal factor in the Arab Spring is that dictators treated them as such. The months during which the Arab Spring took place had the most national blackouts, network shutdowns and tool blockages to date.

Yet authoritarian regimes have come to value digital media, too. Security services in Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria observed how democracy advocates were using social media in Egypt and Tunisia and developed counterinsurgency strategies that allowed for them to surveille, mislead and entrap protesters.

Over the last 15 years, states (both authoritarian and democratic) have become increasingly willing to interfere with the links between nodes of digital infrastructure. Our examination finds that the existence of long-term online civil society with connections to transnational observers — including international news media and transnational diaspora networks — helped outmaneuver many authoritarian regimes, this time. These days authoritarian regimes around the world take their Facebook and Twitter strategies seriously.

Philip Howard

Philip Howard

Q: Do you believe citizens’ access to global digital communications will outpace the power of repressive regimes to slow or stop those communications?

A: While activists in the Arab Spring were successful in exploiting new communication channels, repressive regimes have been active in learning from their successes and failures as well. Thus far, civil society actors have consistently been the more creative and successful innovators in using digital media to advance their goals.

On the other hand, regimes with economies benefiting from rich natural resources have had the ability to implement sophisticated censorship platforms. We expect digital media to continue playing an important role in more fragile regimes, but predicting the future of oil-wealthy monarchies and dictatorships is less easy.

Q: What role does information technology have in the modern recipe for democratization?

A: The modern recipe for democratization seems to have several consistent ingredients. Countries where mobile phone use is high seem to have more successful protests, where success means drawing out lots of people to protest and actually getting what you want out of the government.

Countries where Internet use is high seem to have more lively civil society groups and investigative journalism.  Both of these things are important for democracy because civic groups use the Internet to raise funds and engage with their supporters, and journalists use the Internet to publish the things they can’t publish or broadcast in state-owned media.

In every single case, the inciting incidents of the Arab Spring were digitally mediated in some way. Information infrastructure, in the form of mobile phones, personal computers and social media, were part of the causal story we must tell about the Arab Spring. People were inspired to protest for many different and always personal reasons. Information technologies mediated that inspiration, such that the revolutions followed each other by a few weeks and had notably similar patterns.

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