A TEXT POST

My review of The Digital Origins of Dictatorships and Democracy

Perspectives on Politics (2011), 9 : pp 897-900 (original)

Evgeny Morozov, Stanford University

The Digital Origins of Dictatorships and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. By Philip Howard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 304p. $17.20.

Philip Howard’s important book offers a timely and thorough treatment of a subject that has been catapulted into the global limelight thanks to recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt: the impact of the Internet on the political cultures in the Middle East.

Howard’s focus is on the relationship between technology diffusion and democratization in countries with significant (i.e., constituting at least 10% of the population) Muslim communities in the period between 1994 and 2010. These 75 countries make for a good analytical set and share more than Islam: They have some of the fastest technology adoption rates in the world, whereas many of their governments try to stymie the political uses of information and communications technology (ICT) while striving to benefit from them economically.

The author’s meticulously researched account stands in stark contrast to two rather simplistic narratives that have become extremely popular with pundits and journalists, who like to view the Internet either as a breeding ground for terrorists or as an almighty force that causes revolutions anywhere it goes. Howard rejects both accounts as misleading. While there are plenty of extremists online, they are still outnumbered by moderates. Likewise, while neither the Internet nor cell phones have caused democratic transitions on their own, he sensibly remarks that “today, no democratic transition is possible without information technology” (p. 34).

Howard makes a convincing case that the impact of the Internet on Muslim countries is worth studying even though the size of online audiences is relatively small. Radio, television, books, and newspapers are more widely available, but the Internet is catching up rapidly—not least because many governments have embraced technology as a touchstone for modernization. The Internet’s impact on religion, gender politics, and collective identity may be harder to grasp than its impact on the organization of protests, but it probably matters much more in the long run.

The book employs a clear structure that is easy to follow. The introductory chapters outline some particular methodological challenges involved in studying the impact of technology diffusion on democratization (with a particular focus on Muslim countries). Howard devotes the core of the book to documenting the impact of ICTs on various political actors in the region: governments, political parties, journalists, civil society, and social elites. In the concluding chapter, he attempts to synthesize his insights into a general theory of technology diffusion and democratization.

ICT policies in Muslim countries have evolved considerably since 1994 and have led to the emergence of what Howard dubs the “wired state.” ICTs are of greater help for democratization if the state is willing to create an independent authority to regulate the telecommunications sector and shield it from political intervention, to privatize national telecommunications infrastructure and break the monopoly status of the national telecommunications provider, as well as to pass strong privacy laws and embark on the spectrum reform.

Predictably, few Muslim countries have taken all of these steps. Instead, most of them are keen to promote policies that boost economic development (e.g., by improving price signals and transparency of the market) but balk at introducing reforms that might weaken their ability to monitor private communications or result in expanded use of ICTs for activism.

Political parties in Muslim countries have greatly benefited from the Internet; they go online to organize, raise money, target previously unreachable publics, and challenge the ideological hegemony of the ruling elites. The Internet is of particular importance in countries where political parties are illegal, as it gives them the only media platform on which to act.

The Internet has also greatly changed the practice of journalism in most Muslim countries. The Internet provides for a richer information diet and serves as an important source of news during political or military crises. It helps to confirm or disprove false news reports from government agencies and creates a way to get news from the diaspora to a home country (and vice versa).

The Internet serves as an important incubator for social movements of both secular and religious kinds, offering them a platform for collective action, both at home and abroad. It also performs important ideational and symbolic functions, introducing Muslim audiences to new values and ideas and signifying modernity in civic life. Civil society is strengthened as a result.

There is also a more pernicious side to technology diffusion, however. The ruling elites in some Muslim countries have used ICTs to censor the political and cultural expression of their citizens—often by purchasing Internet filtering software from Western technology firms. Howard argues that despite such censorship attempts, the growing decentralization of cultural production makes it hard for the social elites to maintain ideological hegemony.

After examining how ICTs have been used by the main political actors in Muslim countries, Howard uses an innovative statistical approach—fuzzy set logic—to demonstrate that technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions. By using fuzzy set analysis, he sets out to identify combinations of causal conditions rather than fixate on single causes of democratization, thus striking an elegant balance between technological and social determinism and accounting for the fact that the “logic” of the Internet is mediated by the political realities of the countries where it is used.

The author shows that once combined with other political, social, and economic factors (e.g., size of population and Muslim community, education level, lack of dependency on oil exports), technology diffusion is both a necessary and sufficient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment. Small countries with educated populations and active online civil society are particularly likely to see technology diffusion lead to democratic transition.

The book’s greatest contribution is in helping to move the academic and popular conversation about technology’s impact on democratization from simplistic narratives of “Twitter revolutions”—that is, the role of the Internet in fomenting popular protest—to a more nuanced account of how information technologies may bring on “incremental change in multiple facets of political life” (p. 198) once combined with other conditions favorable to democratization.

Howard’s approach is not without shortcomings. His theorizing of the “wired state” focuses almost exclusively on the positive features of a superior information infrastructure—administrative efficiency, faster economic growth, more government transparency—but mostly glosses over more negative features (e.g., more pervasive surveillance and the emergence of new forms of control). However, technology diffusion is poised to affect both the infrastructural and despotic powers of the state, to use the important distinction made by Michael Mann (see his “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results,” European Journal of Sociology25 [November, 1984]: 185–214). Muslim countries have not been as aggressive as China in experimenting with new forms of online surveillance and censorship, but this is likely to change as their governments seek to establish control over the Internet to avoid Egyptian- or Tunisian-style popular protests.

The only example of ICTs being used for malicious purposes discussed by Howard at length is that of Internet censorship, which he equates primarily with Internet filtering. He points out that most governments are powerless against sites that are hosted abroad, especially as domestic audiences discover how to access them using various censorship circumvention tools. He argues that the Web is too big and decentralized to be censored effectively and that governments are losing the fight. This is a far too sweeping and optimistic assessment that does not take into account emerging forms of Internet censorship like denial-of-service attacks. Unfortunately, Howard limits his discussion of cyberattacks only to acts of “hacktivism,” that is, individual attacks by activists on Websites of governments and other institutions, but the attacks increasingly happen in the other direction as well, with activists finding themselves targets of such attacks, most probably sanctioned by the governments.

Howard’s discussion of Internet control would also have benefited from a deeper look at the political economy of today’s Internet and the growing importance of intermediaries. A growing share of Internet content is not hosted on stand-alone Websites (which are the main focus of his analysis) but, rather, resides on services like YouTube, Facebook, and WordPress, which do not have consistent policies on dealing with controversial content. Governments are quickly learning how to manipulate the content policies of these intermediaries, if only to complicate the work of their opponents: Supporters of the Sudanese government have been infiltrating Facebook groups of the opposition, flooding them with uploads of pornographic materials and hoping that Facebook administrators would disable these groups for violating its own policies (see “How Sudan Used the Internet to Crush Protest Movement,” by Alan Boswell, McClatchy Newspapers, 6 April 2011). Howard is right to assume that a clever and technologically savvy organization would be able to publish a webzine on foreign servers but the real question is whether anyone would actually be eager (and able) to visit it. If being read means being findable via Google or Bing and having an account on Facebook and Twitter, then visibility requires more than just finding a way to establish a Website on a foreign server.

It is a pity that the author devotes only one page to discussing the foreign policy implications of his theory. His brief recommendations are threefold: a) Western governments that seek to encourage democratization should stop providing censorship software to dictators, b) the likes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank should be willing to help develop public information infrastructure in Muslim countries, and c) Internet use should be encouraged among journalists and political parties in the region. While it is hard to disagree with these recommendations, they do not address some of the fundamental tensions in the emerging “Internet freedom agenda” of the U.S. government. Would a major U.S.-endorsed push to promote Internet freedom result in some authoritarian governments banning access to American Internet services and replacing them with their own domestic alternatives? Since American sites, for all their flaws, tend to be more permissive (and safer) than local alternatives, could this actually harm the climate for freedom of expression? Should the U.S. government prioritize funding of particular tools to circumvent censorship or focus on solving more intractable problems like denial-of-service attacks?

Howard is justifiably angry with the Western media for their grossly exaggerated account of the Web as a hotbed for Islamist movements. But equally troublesome is the media’s penchant for portraying bloggers as agents of democratic change. Many regimes have tried to co-opt bloggers: even Iran has recently held a blogging competition among pro-government bloggers (see “Iran Holds Its Own Blogging Competition,” by Cyrus Farivar, Deutsche Welle, 1 April 2011). Howard is right to suggest that the Internet helps to create fractures in the ideological hegemony of social and political elites, but it is also true that some of the positions taken by socially conservative bloggers in Muslim countries—which constitute a sizable share of the government’s blogosphere—may embolden their government to be even more radical in their foreign or social policies. The diversity of bloggers, their relations to state power, and their ability to help legitimize certain government policies need to be theorized more rigorously. As long as the ideological hegemony of the elites remains a problem—and it very well may be in most Muslim countries at the moment—the Internet could be of great help. On the other hand, the Chinese officials openly state that their task is to guide, rather than suppress, public opinion online. They have been quite successful in dispatching hordes of Internet commentators to do this.

Could some of the democratic gains identified by Howard be due to the fact that governments in Muslim countries are still ignorant of modern public relations and online propaganda? Would smarter and more Internet-savvy regimes be able to reestablish some of their ideological hegemony even in the new digital and decentralized public sphere? Is “networked authoritarianism”—a term used by scholars of the Chinese Internet—more of an oxymoron or a template that could be adopted by other governments? Ultimately, Howard shies away from commenting on just how easy it would be to subvert the democratic potential of the Internet. Still, his book is a well-informed and ambitious study that expounds on the historical relationship between technology diffusion and democratization in Muslim countries in a very nuanced and technologically literate manner.

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