Technology is connective, but is it democratizing?

Many commentators mistakenly interpreted the Arab Spring in 2011 as a harbinger of democratic movements everywhere, and now the pendulum of punditry seems to have swung hard in the opposite direction, says Sheldon Himmelfarb of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Contrary to this doom-saying, however, opportunities for citizen participation in political processes have never been greater, thanks to the ingenuity of a new generation of activists and technologists, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Three recent studies of “peacetech” tools have documented their use and promise, as well as their limitations. The first, “Citizen Participation and Technology,” released in May by the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute (NDI), reviewed nine international programs with which NDI collaborated in countries such as Uganda, Mexico, and Egypt. The programs attempted to leverage technology to improve citizens’ participation in politics.It found, broadly, that technology is expanding this participation and is changing the relationship citizens have with organizations and public institutions, even in places where these effects might not be obvious.

“According to New York University professor Clay Shirky, social media is a tool that strengthens the public sphere — and a robust and active public sphere is necessary to increase political freedoms around the world and to create political change,” Himmelfarbd notes:

larryDiamondLarry Diamond, a founder of the liberation-technology program at Stanford University, echoes this sentiment and points toward a highly controlled society — China, where citizens have used microblogging site Weibo to identify corrupt officials — to best understand this phenomenon…For experts like Diamond and Shirky, the Internet’s decentralized architecture, the spread of cell phones, and the sheer popularity of social-network applications have combined to produce a revolution in social activism. Others, however, have taken issue with this. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has argued in the New Yorker that a crucial distinction exists between traditional activism and its online variant. Social media, he says, is effective at building loosely affiliated networks, which are the opposite in structure and character of effective social-change movements of the past.

“It is too early to tell the outcomes of today’s violent conflicts that are spawning the chorus of calls for more inclusive governments,” he argues. “But this is certain: The public sphere is growing. And in a world where 3 billion people are expected to enter the global middle class over the next two decades and have greater access to technology in their daily lives, the power of technology-enabled citizen networks to pressure governments and large institutions to act is only going to grow — putting new potential to prevent wars and solve humanity’s most pressing problems within reach, if not in our grasp.”


Uyghurs ‘trapped in a virtual cage’

Chinese authorities have exerted effective control over how Uyghurs seek, receive and impart information online by employing technical and legislative strategies, according to Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online. The new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project also documents how the Communist authorities use the criminal justice system to create an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and self-censorship.

“It is no surprise Chinese officials have placed unprecedented controls over the Uyghur Internet. They fear that an open online environment in East Turkestan will expose egregious human rights abuses committed against the Uyghur people under their administration,” said UHRP director, Alim Seytoff. “This report is the most comprehensive analysis available on the systemic repression of Uyghur online activity. The Chinese authorities can, at will, imprison Uyghurs who peacefully express dissent online and deny Uyghurs access to the Internet at the flick of a switch.”

“The Internet in East Turkestan is not the vehicle for empowerment, accountability and freedom that it is in the democracies of the world. What it represents, however, is another means for the Chinese state to disseminate propaganda and falsehoods about the Uyghur condition, as well as to flush out its perceived enemies,” added Mr. Seytoff.

Citizen Participation and Technology

 citizenparticipation and techThe recent, rapid rise in the use of digital technology is changing relationships between citizens, organizations and public institutions, and expanding political participation. But while technology has the potential to amplify citizens’ voices, it must be accompanied by clear political goals and other factors to increase their clout.

Those are among the conclusions of a new National Democratic Institute study, “Citizen Participation and Technology,” that examines the role digital technologies – such as social media, interactive websites and SMS systems – play in increasing citizen participation and fostering accountability in government. The study was driven by the recognition that better insights are needed into the relationship between new technologies, citizen participation programs and the outcomes they aim to achieve.

“While technology has the potential to amplify citizens’ voices, it must be accompanied by clear political goals and other factors to increase their clout,” the report concludes.

Examples include the use of social media for mobile organizing in Arab Spring countries, interactive websites and text messaging systems that enable direct communications between constituents and their elected leaders in Uganda, crowdsourcing election day experiences, and adapting computers and phones in order to increase opportunities for participation in the earthquake reconstruction process in Haiti.

NDI has been integrating technology into democracy programs for over 15 years and has established guidelines for the design and implementation of programs in which technology is a central component. Technology is increasingly used in the Institute’s work, including in approximately 56 different citizen participation programs implemented in every region of the world over the past four years.

Using case studies from countries such as Burma, Mexico and Uganda, the study explores whether the use of technology in citizen participation programs amplifies citizen voices and increases government responsiveness and accountability, and whether the use of digital technology increases the political clout of citizens.

The research shows that while more people are using technology—such as social media for mobile organizing, and interactive websites and text messaging systems that enable direct communication between constituents and elected officials or crowdsourcing election day experiences— the type and quality of their political participation, and therefore its impact on democratization, varies. It also suggests that, in order to leverage technology’s potential, there is a need to focus on non-technological areas such as political organizing, leadership skills and political analysis.

For example, the “2% and More Women in Politics” coalition led by Mexico’s National Institute for Women (INMUJERES) used a social media campaign and an online petition to call successfully for reforms that would allocate two percent of political party funding for women’s leadership training. Technology helped the activists reach a wider audience, but women from the different political parties who made up the coalition might not have come together without NDI’s role as a neutral convener.

The study, which was conducted with support from the National Endowment for Democracy, provides an overview of NDI’s approach to citizen participation, and examines how the integration of technologies affects its programs in order to inform the work of NDI, other democracy assistance practitioners, donors, and civic groups. RTWT 

“Citizen Participation and Technology: An NDI Study”

Thursday, June 12

4—5 p.m.

The National Democratic Institute 455 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 8th Floor Washington, D.C.

Featuring panelists:

Robin Carnahan

Former secretary of state of Missouri

Joshua Kaufman

Director of the Office of Evaluation and Impact Assessment, USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab

Ian Schuler

CEO, Development Seed

Noel Dickover

Leader of the PeaceTech Camps project at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Moderated by:

Nathaniel Heller

Executive Director, Global Integrity

Description:Digital technologies are increasingly interwoven into political and civic life. NDI’s study was driven by the need for better insights into the relationship between new technologies, citizen participation programs in which they are deployed, and broader political outcomes they aim to achieve. “Citizen Participation and Technology: An NDI Study” aims to help donors, academics and democracy support organizations understand the challenges and opportunities of using technology to provide effective assistance in citizen participation programs.

The event will feature a brief presentation of key findings from NDI’s study, followed by a panel discussion on how technology is affecting citizen participation in emerging democracies.

Please RSVP here.


Ukraine in Transit: From Digital Resistance to Digital Renaissance

ukraineEuromaidanAs Ukraine’s civil society seeks to consolidate the gains of the Euromaidan protests, online space and digital media are becoming more important for government transparency, election monitoring, and media reporting; and at the present time, this space is open. From the Facebook and Twitter coverage that brought thousands of protesters onto the streets in late 2013, to the Euromaidan’s self-organization efforts, to the multitude of online civic advocacy projects, Ukraine is looking to establish new ways to strengthen accountability and promote openness in civil society and government institutions.

In addition to the multitude of tasks and challenges Ukraine faces in forging its future, it must also content with numerous online threats, stemming from weak digital security awareness as well as cyber-attacks inflicted on its resources by powerful adversaries. This session will examine the threats, and opportunities, the digital age presents for Ukraine.

Ukraine in Transit: From Digital Resistance to Digital Renaissance


Alisa Ruban, United Action Center (Center UA)

Vadzim Loseu, The ISC Project

Vitaliy Moroz, Internews Ukraine

Moderated by:

Joanna Rohozinska, National Endowment for Democracy

Tuesday, May 13, 10:00 a.m.-12:00 noon

National Endowment for Democracy, 1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800

Washington, DC 20004

RSVP to Benjamin Morano ( before Monday, May 12

Trial by Twitter? Erdogan, Gülenists, and the future of Turkish democracy

TurkeyMiddleClassFlagProtestTaksimRTR22YAE-198x132Last week’s attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “wipe out” Twitter was  rightly decried as a sign of his creeping authoritarianism and an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors, says Halil Karavelli, a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

The country’s democrats have yet again “failed to stand on their own feet,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy,” Karavelli observes:  

In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gülen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.

erdoganFor Erdogan, the timing of the recent scandals could not be worse, says Svante E. Cornell, the editor-in-chief of The Turkey Analystand Karavelli’s SAIS colleague.

On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local, he writes for the Middle East Forum:

Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gülenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gülenists’ own dirty dealings.

“As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy — whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now,” Karavelli writes:

It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. RTWT

Erdoğan is a talented politician and may yet find ways to survive this crisis as a weakened leader, argues Cornell:

His main asset is the sense of unity within the core AKP that provides a strong antidote to an overt split….Even the Gülenists appear to see a united AKP—but without Erdoğan—as the ideal outcome. But even if Erdoğan succeeds in staying in power, his chances of achieving one-man rule are now largely illusory. He could change party rules and seek a fourth term or, more likely, open an escape hatch and seek to be elected president under the current constitution. This would lead to his gradual loss of influence over day-to-day politics. In any case, it is more than likely that the Islamist movement that he led to unprecedented dominance over Turkish politics will soon conclude that Erdoğan has done his part. ….

What, then, would a post-Erdoğan Turkey look like? This will be the moment of truth for Turkish “moderate” Islam. At first sight, Turkey’s trajectory over the past several years suggests that even in the best possible circumstances, political Islam will be unable to shake its undemocratic, authoritarian, and intolerant characteristics. Even Turkey’s largest Islamist community, the Gülen movement, now implicitly acknowledges this, opposing the very notion of political Islam.

“Islamists have been able to say with some justification that the problem is not political Islam but Erdoğan as a person,” Cornell notes. “The track record of Erdoğan’s successors will determine whether political Islam can redeem itself.”