Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Brian H. Lai
Does the Internet facilitate anti-regime dissent within authoritarian states? I argue that the Internet fosters dissent mobilization through three factors: distance, decentralization and interaction. First, the Internet fosters dissent mobilization by allowing protesters to communicate relatively cheaply and instantaneously over great distances. While other communication mediums also reduce distance costs, the second factor, decentralization, allows dissenters to use the Internet to evade state controls and reduces the state's ability to restrict information flows. Third, the Internet's Interactive nature allows users to both become consumers and producers of information. Interactivity also fosters trust between users that can evolve into offline action. However, the empirical record consists almost entirely of open sourcenews reporting and qualitative studies, and there are few clear theoretical links between the traditional dissent and repression literatures and recent Internet mobilization theories. My goal in this project is to place a generalizable theory of Internet-mediated dissent within traditional mobilization context and more recent communication, computer science and legal literatures. I frame my theory of Internet mediated dissent through three components. The first component is Internet access as a mobilizing structure, in which I posit that Internet access creates conditions for social mobilization that are difficult for regimes to counter. The second component is the effect of Internetcensorship on Internet-facilitated dissent. For the third theoretical component, I assess that despite the type of censorship, increased Internet use eventually overwhelms the regime's capacity to censor information. I test my theoretical components through a series of large N cross national time series negative binomial regressions spanning 1999-2010.
In the first test, I find that increased Internet access increased the likelihood of protest in non-democratic states. Results of the second tests are mixed: technical censorship has no effect on protest, soft controls decreased incidence of protest, and combined technical and soft programs increase the likelihood of protest, albeit the substantive effect is slight. In the third test, I hypothesize that Internet use eventually crosses a user threshold after which censorship is no longer effective. The results of the third test suggest that censorship is not effective regardless of Internet access levels. However, the influence of Internet use on protest tapers off once a specific threshold is reached. The dissertation proceeds as follows: in Chapter 2, I present literature review that frames my research question within previous empirical work. Next, in Chapter 3 I propose and illustrate my theory of Internet-mediated dissent. In Chapter 4, I test whether or not incidents of anti-regime protest increase as Internet use increases inside non-democratic states. I build on these results in Chapter 5, in which I test whether technical filters, soft controls or a combination of methods decrease the likelihood of protest inside non-democratic states, followed by a test for whether increasing Internet use overwhelms censorship programs. Finally, in chapter 6 I summarize my findings, discuss data complications, offer ideas for future research, and discuss the implications of this project.
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Copyright 2012 James Fielder
Fielder, James Douglas. "Dissent in digital: the Internet and dissent in authoritarian states." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2012.