Are There Countries Whose Situations Worsened with the Arrival of the Internet?

(This post originally appeared on Freedom To Tinker, after @evgenymorozov tweeted that he would want help with a graph of data before he would believe that there were no countries where the situation worsened with the arrival of the internet.

@evgenymorozov @ericschmidt there are no countries where tech diffusion rates high and authoritarianism worsened.will graph it again for u

— Phil Howard (@pnhoward) April 18, 2013

It was then picked up by Cory Doctorow and given a punchline for BoingBoing.  Then nice debate about what “the internet” and the “situation” meant with @sivavaid, @sjschultze, @sarahkendzior, @arjenkamphuis, @dgolumbia, @tjl, and Richard Stallman.  Then caught the attention of Andrew Sullivan.)

Are there countries whose situations worsened with the arrival of the internet?  I’ve been arguing that there are lots of examples of countries where technology diffusion has helped democratic institutions deepen.  And there are several examples of countries where technology diffusion has been part of the story of rapid democratic transition.  But there are no good examples of countries where technology diffusion has been high, and the dictators got nastier as a result.  Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, opined the same thing.  Evgeny Morozov, professional naysayer, asked for a graph.

So here is a graph and a list.  I used PolityIV’s democratization scores from 2002 and 2011.  I used the World Bank/ITU data on internet users.  I merged the data and made a basic graph.  On the vertical axis is the change in percent of a country’s population online over the last decade.  The horizontal axis reflects any change in the democratization score–any slide towards authoritarianism is represented by a negative number.

Change in Percentage Internet Users and Democracy Scores, By Country, 2002-2011


Look at the raw data.

Are there any countries with high internet diffusion rates, where the regime got more authoritarian?  The countries that would satisfy this condition should appear in the top left of the graph.  Alas, the only candidates that might satisfy these two conditions are Iran, Fiji, and Venezuela.  Over the last decade the regimes governing these countries have become dramatically more authoritarian.  Unfortunately for Morozov, their technology diffusion rates are not particularly high.

This was just an hour’s work, and much more could be done with this data.  Some researchers don’t like the PolityIV scores, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike the internet user numbers.  Missing data could be imputed, and there may be more meaningful ways to compare over time.  Some countries may have moved in one direction and then changed course, all within the last decade.  Some only moved one or two points, and really just became slightly more or less democratic.  And there are concerning stories of censorship and surveillance coming from many countries.  But do these add up to dramatic authoritarian tendencies, or do they cancel out the benefits of having political parties, journalists, and civil society groups using digital media to reach their audiences? Fancier graphic design might help bring home the punchline. But the evidence on this point is here.  There are still no good examples of authoritarian regimes that got noticeably tougher through internet diffusion.

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