Is there a link between new digital technologies and good governance? What, if any, are the connections between increasingly digitally equipped populations and political change? Did social media contribute to the recent uprisings across the Arab world and other political and social movements? Is it legitimate to talk about “liberation technology?”
This report examines these questions by looking at what some key academics say on the matter, in a concise and accessible way. It is a follow-on from a previous CIMA report, by the same author, which profiled a number of key academics and their research on the links between traditional media and good governance. This report turns, instead, to digital media and brings a selection of some key academic writing to a non-academic audience.
For the purposes of this report, the term digital media is used to denote all the various types of new information and communication technologies such as the Internet, social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, blogs, podcasts, SMS and mobile phones. The terms ICTs, digital media, and new technologies are used interchangeably, and the term social media is seen as a subset of digital media.
The term “good governance” encompasses democratic processes and in particular government accountability, the realization of human rights, free expression, the rule of law, and the development of civil society and practices of citizenship.
The scholars included here were chosen either because they are representatives of a particular theoretical standpoint, or because they are making particular empirical contributions to the field through their research (or in some cases they are doing both). The report is organized into two main parts. The first presents the overarching theory and debate from two opposing standpoints that can be crudely characterized as the techno-optimists versus the techno-pessimists. On the one side are Clay Shirky and Larry Diamond who take an optimistic perspective about the potential for digital technology to drive positive political change, and, as a counterpoint, are two “Internet skeptics,” Evgeny Morozov and Christian Christensen.
The second part looks at some empirical research and country case studies by a number of academics from different disciplines; law, political science, and anthropology. Ron Deibert examines the relationship between free expression and the Internet by researching cyber-espionage, surveillance, and control. Rebecca MacKinnon has looked in particular at blogging in China and asks whether the Internet is a force for democratization there. A team from Harvard comprising Archon Fung, Hollie Russon-Gilman, and Jennifer Shkabatur have done impact case studies of new technologies in middle income and developing countries and have some interesting insights for would-be funders and supporters of technological interventions who are attempting to increase accountability. Finally Linda Herrera has analyzed the role of social media among the “wired generation” of youth, in the recent uprisings in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt.