When Philip Howard traveled to Azerbaijan in western Asia several years ago to investigate the impact of digital media on political opposition movements in dictatorships, little did he realize that his research would foreshadow the grim political events in Iran last year.
Howard, a University of Washington associate professor of communications, met an Azeri student blogger who helped coordinate "smart mobs" of students expressing their dissatisfaction with the national media by reading newspapers with their shoes off. "The logistics and timing were all done through YouTube and Facebook,” Howard said.
"The police never really knew how to take this," he said. "I asked the blogger why they did this since it was not going to topple the dictator." The student responded that it was not about toppling the dictator but showing the regime that students now had the capacity for collective action.
"This made me think that there must be plenty of other ways in which information technology becomes the fundamental infrastructure for social movements, even if a toppled dictatorship is not the immediate outcome," Howard said.
Fast forward to June 12, 2009. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iranian presidential opposition candidate, organized mass demonstrations following the results of the electoral fraud by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Widespread protest led the government to unleash its military forces, sparking protests in Teheran and other cities in the largest outbreak of violence since the 1979 Revolution.
Unlike the 2005 presidential election that brought Ahmadinejad to power, however, disaffected youth and social movement leaders had access to the Internet and mobile phones, broadcasting the events to a global audience.
A broad swath of demonstrators and their network of family and friends spread news of the widespread electoral fraud by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi's calculated use of the Internet and mobile phones enabled opposition groups to circumvent government censors and state-run media to mobilize support in the turbulent days that followed.
Iran was only one of several Muslim nations that Howard and the UW's Project on Information Technology and Political Islam studied through a research project funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The findings from that project are summarized in Howard's groundbreaking book, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam recently released by Oxford University Press.
In all, the UW researchers studied information technology in 75 countries, finding that technology is not only spurring economic growth and modernization but also providing reporters and ordinary citizens with the vehicle for journalism unencumbered by ideological sanctions in dictatorial regimes.
The internet, they discovered, enabled those nations to promote civic discourse, run elections, expose political corruption, and provide civic services as well. "Countries with high rates of technology diffusion are most likely to develop strong democratic institutions," Howard said. "The recipe for democratization 50 years ago had other ingredients such as radio, television, and newspapers. Today, the recipe must include the internet."
Though his initial focus was Iran, his book has far-reaching implications for other Muslim nations. The extent of information technology in those countries is broad. "One quarter of Iran's 70 million people have used the Internet, and close to 10 million are regular users," Howard said. "In 2009, young Iranians began using Facebook as a major tool of political communication."
Worldwide, of the 1.4 billion Muslims living in 75 countries, 141 million are on line, or 10 percent of the global Muslim population. Not surprisingly new media technology has proved to be anathema to authoritarian regimes accustomed to draconian press controls.
The project's goal has been to analyze how new information technology have contributed to what Howard terms "democratic entrenchment" in countries with large Muslim communities. In effect, his aim is to sketch the topography of democratic change in dictatorial regimes.
He is quick to add the caveat, however, that such technology alone does not cause political change and does not topple dictators. "Instead, they are used to catch dictators off guard," he said.
In Iran's case, Howard views the prospects for democratization as good in spite of last year's crackdown. "The election of 2003 was stolen, and there are also protests, but little impact. This time, because of digital media, the international community saw what was going on, the mullahs split over how the regime cracked down, and the protest lasted much longer than ever before, and so much was documented."
"Ultimately," Howard said, "Ahmadinejad's regime did not collapse, but the system of political communication has changed forever." Still some media critics are wary of drawing conclusions of the role digital technology plays, however.
In an Oct. 10, 2010 column, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: "In the idealized narrative of digital democracy, greater connectivity has bequeathed more governmental transparency, more grass-roots participation and even a more efficient rendering of political justice. But you can also construct a less salutary counter-narrative."
Howard's response is revealing. "The process of democratization comes from the narratives of people who hit the streets at sensitive political moments and risk rubber bullets and tear gas," he said. "When you add up all of the narratives about democratization movements, the connection between technology use and successfully building democratic institutions is pretty clear."
Howard reserves some of his more trenchant observations on the impact of online journalism for Muslim nations with a tradition of state-controlled media. There, independent journalists are using the internet to bring international stories to a national audience.
"Independent journalists are using the internet to publish content outside the reach of government censors," he said. But that independence exacts as high price as journalists in Muslim countries face persecution. The main impact of new media technology has been to expand the breadth of news coverage available, he said. "Journalists can produce online news content that is not easily managed by government authorities and less prone to ideological control."
In dictatorships where political parties are illegal, the internet is more important for independent journalism because its use poses a serious challenge to state-dominated news media. "Journalists use the internet to file stories for foreign news agencies to appeal for international help when they are persecuted by government agents," he said.
Journalists in Tunisia, Malaysia, and Singapore, where political parties operate but there are controls on media, have found this to be the case. "Citizen journalists are now doing their own digital storytelling. They are able to supply photos, leak documents and other evidence that helps break open stories," he said.
Howard is quick to point out that the effects of mobile phones and the internet are not applicable elsewhere, however. "North Korea and Burma really don't have a media system — they are countries where the state not only dominates the media, there isn’t very much of it as all."
"Venezuela has a very complex media system, and President Hugo Chavez is doing a pretty aggressive job of remaking it," he said. "China's system is the most bounded, with the government creating unique media tools that they can closely monitor."
Thailand, where earlier this year widespread political upheavals erupted in violence, and the Philippines were excluded from Howard's studies. "Religious politics have been important in those countries, but the Muslim communities there are actually quite small," he pointed out.
Political dissent in China has different implications for Howard's theories, however. The irony was not lost when political dissident Liu Xiaobu, currently serving a long prison term for his dissident activities, was named the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for peace. His pro-democracy manifesto, Charter 08, solidified popular support for the measure online. When news of his award was announced last month, the internet carried it to a wide audience. While Liu was out of prison last year, he already had become a prolific commentator on overseas websites. Liu famously called the internet "God's gift to China."
"China, from the very beginning, has done a fantastic job of building its own media ecology," Howard said. "Its information infrastructure, right down to hardware standards and software code is purposefully distinct. And the purpose is to allow the regime to better contain what is produced and consumed."
"The difficult thing about studying China is that we cannot know much about how sophisticated their internet users are," he explained. "There are certainly ways around the great firewall of China. Some tech-savvy activists in Beijing and Shanghai will know all these tricks. But will the average kid in Wuhan know them?"
According to Howard, media technology has generally given social-movement leaders the capacity to reach out to sympathetic audiences overseas and at home. In Iran, for example, the internet has been an effective tool to galvanize support among more rural conservative voters and the clerical establishment.
Opposition leaders were able to circumvent the state's choke hold on information, Howard said. The internet has globalized local political struggles and supported the formation of democratic discourse in Muslim countries of the developing world. "Opposition leaders in Iran use Facebook to help their supporters find a shared sense of community," he said.
Howard concludes that power is linked to the state's ability to control military and media resources in Muslim states. "Digital networks are important for social movements because they, like civil society groups, operate outside the state," he said. "The internet has played a key role in nearly all democratic transitions in the last 15 years."
"Dictators around the world bet they could get the economic benefits of a modern, Internet-enabled economy without the risks," Howard said. "They're losing the bet."