Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Using the Internet to correct Politics

I came across an interesting piece of data analysis done by the communications consultancy firm Portland, where they tracked the number of geo-tagged tweets originating in Africa over a 3 month period (view the pdf file here). The top 5 countries in terms of volume of tweets were South Africa, Kenya. Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco.

One may ask "So what?" Can social media such as Twitter and Facebook bring about any meaningful change? Or is it just another outlet for spreading funny cat videos and empowering celebrities? This issue was thrust into the limelight with the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, starting with Iran but quickly followed by Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab uprisings. The use of Twitter and Facebook to organize and spread the protests has been well documented from the use of Twitter to ignite the protests in Iran to Wael Ghonim's Facebook group calling for mass protests in Egypt. Public intellectuals, however, have argued over whether social media has played a central role in these uprisings or not. Malcolm Gladwell, the well-known writer for The New Yorker, penned an interesting piece down-playing the social media effect. He cites among other things, the many revolutions which have succesfully taken place before the introduction of Twitter and Facebook. Many others have placed a varying importance on social media and the internet in kickstarting revolutions (Read this piece for a summary of positions).

I argue that the internet and social media play a far greater role in bringing about regime change then people like Gladwell give it credit for. The internet, without a doubt, has revolutionized the way we share information. The speed with which we can send messages, share photos and watch videos has increased tremendously (when is the last time you sent a "snail mail" at the Post Office?). This immediate exchange of ideas and information makes it very easy for campaigns to synchronize their message and to reach out to the disaffected masses who also feel the same way about the political situations. The fact that 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's rule was brought down in a matter of months is testament to the ability of the internet to channel and coordinate people's frustration.

To prove this I did some data analysis of my own. I compared two variables, political freedom in different countries which I derived from an annual report called Freedom In the World published by Freedom House which assesses political rights in 195 countries, assigning to each country a score ranging from 0-40 (where 40 indicates that citizens enjoy all their political rights, a country such as Norway or 0 in the case of North Korea, where the people have no say). I compared this to internet connectivity obtained from World Bank's figures on Number of internet users per 100 people. This gives us an indication of whether there is any correlation between internet connectivity, political repression/freedom to the likelihood of protests and political uprising.

We turn our focus to the countries within the box above, which have political scores below 20 (a state of mild political repression to total dictatorship) but an internet connectivity of greater than 20% (that is over 20 people have internet connectivity out of a 100). The people in these countries have the most incentive for action as political freedom goes hand in hand with other basic human rights. At the same time, they also have  internet as a tool with which to connect with other citizens to bring about the desired changes in political institutions.

Syria  Nigeria Tunisia Nigeria Jordan Oman
Vietnam Kenya Belarus Kenya Armenia United Arab Emirates
China Russia Egypt  Russia Malaysia Kuwait
Saudi Arabia Morocco Kazakhstan Morocco Singapore Azerbaijan
Brunei Bahrain Thailand Bahrain Qatar Malaysia

This list contains notable countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Russia, all of which have been in the media recently for protests, some having successfully replaced a dictator. Other countries such as Azerbaijan  and Georgia also have a largely disaffected population who are demanding more political freedom.
This analysis therefore may prove to be a powerful indicator of what countries are capable of pulling off well planned and well coordinated protests that are ultimately successful in achieving their desired goals which in most cases is regime change. Based on our predictions the countries listed above may all be host to considerable protests over the next year or two. The internet may literally be a revolution waiting to happen!


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