Dr. Phil Howard - courtesy of the UW Dept. of Communication

As Americans celebrate their revolutionary anniversary today, other countries, especially in the Middle East, are still in the midst of the promising throes of their own revolutionary moments.

The recent and much-discussed “Arab Spring” that unfolded dramatically across the region late last year and early this year — starting in Tunisia and Egypt before engulfing Bahrain, Libya and now Syria, among other countries — was driven and inspired by, but not necessarily caused by, the use of social-media tools by activists, says Phil Howard, a University of Washington-based researcher who has studied the use of such tools.

Information-communication technologies (or ICT’s) form part of the “democratization recipes” that Howard has been exploring at the Project on Information Technology and Digital Islam at the UW, and as seen in his 2010 study, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

He discusses the book a bit in this video.

Among his driving research questions: “Do information technologies advance or ‘cause’ democratization?”

Understanding the ingredients of digital democracy

To answer that question, Howard and his team have been looking for the crucial “ingredients” of nascent, digitally enabled democratic movements in the Middle East — including the presence of ICT-supporting, “wired states” that have healthy political parties online; an active culture of online journalism (as expressed by plucky bloggers and vloggers); and civil-society elements, including online activists watching the court systems and elections.

Some of the conditions that go into a successful democratic “recipe” (such as telecom policy reform, and investment in digital infrastructures) have led to political outcomes and institutional consequences, as seen, most spectacularly, in the Arab Spring.

“I think there’s a pretty good consensus that digital media played an important part of the Arab Spring,” he says. Previously, traditional organizing tools just weren’t able to galvanize publics, or motivate them enough, to enact change.

But it’s important to remember that regimes are savvy and want to survive — as in Syria — and are willing to mix both limited concessions with the careful use of old-fashioned, brutal force to discourage activists from reaching beyond their circles.

Howard also doesn’t see any one tool as overly critical, but says that it’s important to look at a whole “suite” of such tools.

Nonetheless, “The most successful protests over the past five years were organized on and [were] even about digital media,” he says. Basically, these were protests organized for, by and about bloggers, as with the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt.

Technology as a tool for transparency

Howard adds that over the last 15 years, most of the big steps toward democracy in Egypt and elsewhere can be explained by these leaps into digital media by civil-society actors and activists that have encouraged dialogues with and among a larger set of publics. The major exceptions to this process have been those states with lots of oil (and who are thus able to buy off, or appease, disgruntled elements with their societies).

Sign at a demonstration for Egypt in San Francisco. (Steve Rhodes photo, via Flickr)
In contrast, successfully “wired” nations in the near future will be those states savvy enough to run elections smoothly and fairly, and provide transparent court and security systems.

“Young democracies get better at doing democratic things if their governments have good information-society structures,” he says.

Both Tunisia and Egypt were already pretty primed before this year’s events, and prepared for change, with populations that were moving online, and that had democratic ingredients at work already.

“What is new is the process of constitution building…for the first time we’re seeing new constitutions” being built, he says. “There’s an enormous conversation about what a new constitution should look like,” and how governments should be run, shorn now of their strongmen.

As a result, he says, “We’re going to see the first ‘born-digital’ states.”

Tunisia as a barometer for the movement

With Tunisia having reset its elections for this October, it will be the place to watch for what’s next.

“Tunisia’s really starting from scratch,” he says, in the best sense, with many intellectuals coming home to help. It’s also smaller state (with around 10 million people, compared to Egypt’s 80 million) that may have an easier time, due to its comparatively small size, of starting and running a new government. Its military is respected, but will also respect, in turn, any democratically mandated changes that come out of the elections.

“Tunisians have inspired the region, and if they’re able to pull off an election, they’ll inspire others” again, he says.

In Egypt, the military is much more of a “back-seat driver,” that may make a similar transition more treacherous. But with that peril comes much promise.

“It’s getting harder and harder” to have publics suspend their disbelief in bad governments throughout the Middle East, and regimes will find themselves rapidly running out of legitimacy if they attempt to seriously rig elections.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, and what’s needed next

Even in Iran, where he thinks of the 2009 “Green Revolution” protests as “a revolution that almost happened,” Howard says that “digital media split the mullahs,” enough, perhaps, to cause the savvier amongst them (and they are savvier than many in the West give them credit for, in navigating the online world) to distance themselves from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in advance of the upcoming elections there.

And in Saudi Arabia, where women drivers have been quietly staging an online-coordinated protest of their own, there is the unlikely promise of ICT-enabled political change.

“The Saudi’s pretend to have elections, which is dangerous,” Howard says, for where such charades exist, revolutions tend to follow.

Howard’s work holds immense promise, but it could use some tech support in figuring out how to really read and analyze Arabic Twitter-feeds and Facebook posts. Content analysis of English-language material online, using cloud-computing, for example, is fairly sophisticated.

Far more challenging is digging into what the regional media in, for instance, Egypt had to say in the weeks and months leading up to the Arab Spring. It’s also hard to see the extent to which women are participating in these processes, he says.

Anyone interested in helping Howard tackle some of these issues can reach him at pnhoward@uw.edu.

GeekWire contributor Will Mari is a first-year Ph.D. in the UW’s Dept. of Communication, and studies the history of technology and journalism. You can reach him at: wtm2@uw.edu.

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