Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Limits on the Democratizing Influence of the Internet: Lessons from Post-Soviet States

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Limits on the Democratizing Influence of the Internet: Lessons from Post-Soviet States

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent research on democratization has examined the relationship between exposure to information communication technology (ICT) and democratization. Supporters of the positive influence of ICT believe that it can further democratization by providing an alternative source of information and by helping activists organize against an authoritarian regime. However, cases where authoritarian governments have prevented successful democratic transition despite the use of ICT by the opposition challenge claims ICT promotes democracy. What is especially problematic for proponents of the democratizing influence of ICT are cases where a relatively unrestricted ICT coexists with an authoritarian regime. In other words, even when governments allow a "free" internet, ICT still has a minimal effect. Why? One, ICT does not always succeed in organizing protests against the regime because of the high level of coercive capacity and/or elite cohesion of the authoritarian regime, enabling leaders to resist pressure to democratize. Second, ICT will only have a limited impact if the local opposition forces are weak. Third, even if ICT helps facilitate mass mobilization, the resulting activities are often insufficient to bring about full democratization because of structural and institutional barriers to democratization. In this article, I test these hypotheses by explaining the cases of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, both countries with authoritarian governments and relatively free access to ICT.

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One of the persistent questions in comparative politics is: What explains democratization? (1) Recent research has moved beyond the focus on economic, cultural, or elite-based theories to examine new variables, including the relationship between exposure to information communication technology (ICT) and democratization. (2) In January 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that a free, open internet was essential for democracy and called internet activity the new samizdat. (3) Supporters of the positive influence of ICT believe that the development of the internet and social media can further democratization by providing an alternative source of information, a forum for groups to organize against the authoritarian regime, and a way to gain international attention about the human rights abuses of a regime. These proponents point to use of Facebook in Tunisia and Egypt and successful cases of cyber protests in Russia and China as evidence of the power of the internet. (4) However, cases where authoritarian governments have prevented successful democratic transition despite the use of ICT by the opposition (e.g., Iran's Green Revolution) challenge the optimistic claims about ICT promoting democracy. Furthermore, "successful" cases of cyberprotests in Russia or China may bring about small changes, but do not fundamentally alter the political system. Why, despite the rhetoric and hope of events like the "Arab Spring," has the internet had a limited impact on democratization?

Much of the existing literature that is critical of the democratizing influence of ICT emphasizes how authoritarian governments can control and manipulate ICT to prevent challenges and maintain their rule. (5) What is more problematic for proponents of the democratizing influence of ICT are cases where a relatively unrestricted ICT coexists with an autocratic regime. In other words, even when governments allow a "free" internet, ICT still has a minimal effect. Why? There are three reasons for the limited influence of ICT on democratization. One, ICT does not always succeed in organizing influential activities and protests against the regime because of the strength of the regime. Authoritarian governments vary in their ability to respond to democratic challenges to their rule and in their coercive capacity. Authoritarian governments with a high level of coercive capacity and/or elite cohesion are able to resist protests demanding democratization. …

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