Contentious Politics & The Internet

“Contentious Politics & The Internet” Panel & Presentation,
2016 APSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA

The papers in this panel are united by a common interest in how the Internet, in particular access to social media and communication technology, has transformed the dynamics and opportunities of citizen-led protest, anti-government activity, and subsequent government repression. While the Internet has been celebrated as an empowering tool for non-state actors to collectively organize, autocratic governments are increasingly discovering the enormous potential to censor and alter the digital information flow to their benefit. Yet, few studies exist that explicitly investigate how the Internet has altered the organization and structure of contentious politics.

The authors in this panel all present methodologically rigorous and innovative investigations that focus on the interplay of new technology and traditional dynamics of protest and repression. The studies cover a wide range of methodologies, ranging from surveys and survey experiments to innovative measures of government censorship and click-through data from websites, all aimed at improving our understanding of how digital technologies aid and stifle processes of repression and dissent. The theories tested in these papers demonstrate their ‘real-world relevance’ in drawing on in-depth analyses of contemporary cases, including China, Syria, Belarus, and Eastern Ukraine.

The first set of papers investigate how new technology has changed citizens’ perceptions of contention; how technology has changed the data citizens collect, information they will read, and political opinions they form. Zhukov and Baum ask how biases in wartime reporting can influence public support for interventions. By pairing new media-generated event data on the war in Eastern Ukraine with a multi-national survey experiment, they are able to convincingly show how different forms of media bias will lead to variation in support for third-party interventions, depending on who is perceived to be the primary perpetrator of violence. Taking a closer look at wartime reporting on the Internet, Gohdes asks how social media accounts of conflict have changed what is known about political violence. Drawing on Twitter data, crowd-sourced data and information collected by human rights groups, her study shows that despite the high volume of reports, social media reporting varies strongly by both perpetrator and victim characteristics. Nielsen’s paper looks at information used in the collective organization of terrorist groups and asks why some content on jihadi websites is more popular than other writings. Using daily click-through data that was collected over a four-year period from thousands of documents in a jihadi web-library, his study looks at the popularity of certain prominent leaders and topic-specific content, thereby offering new insights into the type of documents that will most likely be circulated among jihadi group members.

The second set of papers investigate how governments can strategically use this new structure of online information to manipulate information access, political opinion, and the probability of contention. Hobbs and Roberts’s paper looks at how government crackdowns on access to social media alter the dynamics of collective action. They theorize that censorship of access social media is likely to have a stronger stifling effect on the larger, less involved periphery of citizens than on the more tech-savy activist ‘core’. Using online measures of evasion of the Great Firewall and evidence from a representative survey in China they show that increased government censorship decreases the extent to which the periphery access uncensored conversations — making it increasingly hard for the organizers of dissent to access their potential recruits. Also approaching the question of censorship from the government perspective, Crabtree and Weidmann investigate the logic of strategic internet service provision under authoritarian rule. Using an innovative survey experiment design, they contact support centers of national telecommunications providers in Belarus, thereby varying partisan cues in their emails. The study exemplifies how governments might strategically opt against providing internet access to areas assumed to display high support for the opposition.

Jason Lyall

Richard Nielsen, MIT