Book Review: The Digital Origins of Dictatorship & Democracy

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
Information Technology and Political Islam
Philip N. Howard
Published 2010

As part of my participation in the MCDM course on Digital Democracy, I am providing a review of Howard’s book on the social media revolution as it relates to the Muslim world.  My review covers four high level findings and observations:  The four key takeaways that I have taken from the book.  Then I fast-forward to the events of 2011 and 2012 to see what the last two years have brought for the Muslim world and digital democracy.

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is a fascinating look into the complexity and evolution of the Muslim world.  It is a very complex analysis of a very complex subject.

For most Americans, the scope and lack of homogeneity of the Muslim world is a mystery.  Unfortunately, most Americans are predisposed to think of Islam with some sense of tunnel vision.   For me, I only knew the basics.

  • Islam is a huge religion (22% of the world’s population).
  • There are many sects, each with the same core understanding of the religion but with different practices and specific beliefs.
  • Governments have varying degrees of influence on the religion with their citizens (from Saudi Arabia, which is a religious state); to Malaysia (with a multicultural secular view of religion); to the United States, with many Muslims but little understanding and embrace by non-Muslims of the religion in the mainstream.

Howard clearly demonstrates his intense knowledge of the Muslim religion, the growth of social media, and the transformation of governments within the Muslim world.  He takes us through a journey of how Information and Communication Technologies  (ICTs) have made various levels of impact on culture, politics and government.

First and foremost, I believe Howard set out to draw conclusions and make sense of the role of ICTs in the Muslim world.   This leads to my first key conclusion about the book:

Howard’s attempt to statistically bucket 22% of theworld’s population on a graph fails. 

In my opinion, the first third of the book was the weakest.  Howard spends the better part of two chapters working through a methodology to draw conclusions about the role of ICT’s in the Muslim world.

He starts laying the groundwork about the growth of digital devices and other communication devices amongst the population.  For me it was very similar to trends in the non-Muslim world.    The use of home computers versus cybercafés in countries like India is not unique to Muslims.    The monotony of his historical perspective is punctuated with a few unique learnings:  For example, the role of the religious community centers as a place where Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia can access social media (albeit censored sites).

Then, through complicated formulas and complex graphs, Howard cannot seem to draw any key relevant conclusions about how ICTs have trended across the Muslim world.  The most stupefying graph of all, which he spent pages trying to draw conclusions on, attempts to illustrate the relationship between a “Technology Diffusion Index” and a “Democracy Index”.    The goal of the graphic is to plot every country with a significant Muslim population and then draw conclusions about them.  But the conclusion were either (1) very simplistic or (2) had an immediate counterclaim for another country in the same quadrant.  For example, he looks at the use of political websites for political parties in the Middle East.  Those political parties without websites were deemed to be traditional.  Those with websites are contemporary.  Not exactly an earth-shattering finding.

Howard’s segmentation of the Muslim world is very educational.

Beyond the analysis above, the book then really picks up energy with many amazing facts and stories about how change is coming to the Muslim world and how digital and social media is facilitating that change.  The author’s knowledge of various segments of Islam are fascinating:  The oil states of the Middle East, the radical growth of Islam in Central Africa, the Moderate States of Southeast Asia, the diaspora communities of New York, LA and Toronto.  It makes for a fascinating overview of a complex religion and its followers.

One of the unexpected learnings of the book is the discussion of the role of the diaspora in North America and the U.K.  In the early days of social media, the main role of the diaspora was to facilitate communication with the mother countries.  Iranians in Los Angeles would use email, SMS and crude websites (like the online newspaper of the U.S. Arabic community) to facilitate information.  As the social media revolution grew, so did the dialogue and the sophistication of the tools.  For example, many Arab websites, which held powerful blogs, were hosted in the United States.

In addition, Howard makes clear that during the two decades between 1990 and 2010, access to computer and digital media in general moved from a privilege of the upper class to accessibility by the middle class and finally to an empowerment tool for the masses.

Finally, Howard does an excellent job classifying Muslim countries into four key phases of transition to democracy.   The first category is “transition” countries, which are moving at gradual pace to a more democratic model and are generally embracing digital technology in government and with their citizens.  Second are “entrenchment” countries where the government model is stable and not expected to have dramatic change.  Third are “authoritarian” countries where the government provides a high degree of control.  Finally, Howard categorizes a small number of countries as “crisis” governments, where future direction is uncertain.  He attempts to draw parallels between countries in each category in areas like e-Government, accessibility, etc.  But unfortunately there are so many factors in play that strong correlations are rarely possible in his arguments.

Social Media in the Muslim world is a double-edge sword.

It is logical for the reader to think about the positive changes that social media has brought to a religion that in some countries can be repressive:  Freedom to communicate more easily, to gather information more quickly and fluidly, and to learn more freely.  But it’s easily to forget about how social media can be used by both governments and radical groups to censor, coerce, and shock, both within Islam and around the rest of the world.

Howard does an excellent job bringing this point to the forefront with several strong examples shared in various chapters of the book.

  • The rise of e-Government.  Governments are able to control access to data, to voting, to the rights of women (by suppressing access to government).
  • The use of YouTube and other social media.  While it is empowering to see positive change viewed through YouTube, it is shocking to see a beheading videotaped and shared through social media.
  • Websites, blogs and other online media (normally hosted in the West) for radical parties and groups allow the easy spread of information, recruiting of followers, fundraising, and other tactics employed by mainstream groups.

In the final analysis, I would weigh in that the benefits of social media in the Muslim world have outweighed the negative impact.  But it has opened my eyes to both sides of a powerful tool like social media.

The growth of mobile communications played a more impactful role than social media up until 2010.

Throughout the book, it felt as though key strides were made as Muslims became empowered with their mobile devices.  This is a phenomenon that has happened across the globe and has been a true game-changer for most Muslim countries.

Nothing is more powerful than the spread of SMS in unlocking the potential of people in the developing and oppressed world.

  • With the access to mobile technology, information and communication ability travels with the user.  Howard points to the growth of mobile technology in Muslim households across the world.  Mobile phones have empowered youth, women, and generally hastened the pace of change.
  • Of special note is the use of SMS, which is inexpensive and powerful in connecting people.  Indonesia, for example, has the highest per capita rate of SMS usage of any county in the world.
  • The ability of demonstrators to quickly assemble under the radar of government has been an effective tool of change in countries from Indonesia to India to Egypt.

In conclusion, I would argue that mobile communications played the most important role in the transition of the Muslim world.  But again, this same trend played an equally important role in predominantly non-Muslim parts of the world like Eastern Europe and China, where use of mobile telephones help bring about lasting change across those geos.

The view post-2010:  Do Howard’s hypotheses and trends hold merit in the new Arab world?

Unfortunately for Howard, 2011 and 2012 have brought the quickest, most dramatic changes to government in the Muslim world in our lifetimes.  I felt it would be useful to examine two examples of what’s transpired to the information put forth in Howard’s book – one real trend and one country-specific example.

 The Role of Twitter

Unfortunately, Twitter only became a global phenomenon as Howard’s book was going to press.  Such is the nature of the world of social media.  One cannot blame him for not being able to predict the power of Twitter in accelerating change in the Middle East.

Howard did point out that Twitter is powerful because it is hosted in the United States, so Twitter is difficult for governments to censor or interfere with.  In fact, there is a fascinating nod to the U.S. government asking Twitter to postpone an upgrade for fear it would interfere with demonstrations in the Middle East.

According to Mary Joyce, an activist and blogger on

“Networked actors used social media like Twitter to broadcast elite anti-regime narratives. This mechanism of international agenda-setting made it difficult for heads of state to oppose the movement publicly, giving the activists a conducive international environment in which to push for regime change.  Activists also used social media to mobilize the actual street protests, which forced the Tunisian and Egyptians dictators from power.”

Twitter allowed unbridled communication to followers.  Twitter is nimble and accessible via mobile.  It played the largest role in social media changes in the events in 2011.

Libya – Movement from Authoritarian to Crisis to Transition

One of the success stories of the last year is the regime change in Libya.   The details of that story don’t need to be repeated here, but it would be interesting to examine the role of social media in the rapid change.

As in Egypt a year earlier, the role of Twitter was once again instrumental in mobilizing the Libyan movement to topple Qaddafi.   And providing the world up-to-the-tweet updates.  Here is the tweet that some earmark as one of the first that changed the course of Libya:

An analysis of what happened in Libya does indeed drive home several of Howard’s key takeaways for me in the book.

  • The role of the diaspora in driving information in a country that is repressive.  This time the groups were based in London and they were keenly tuned into the temperature of Libyans.  And also able to influence the West to act.
  • The divide between the Government of Libya (practicing censorship and not opening the nation to social media) and the youth of the country, taking a cue and playbook from their North African neighbors in Egypt.
  • Using social media to share the revolution in Libya with the world, via sites like You Tube, and others.

In Summary

Social media changes quickly.  In fact, one can only imagine the difficulty of actually authoring a book on the topic of social media.  So in the final analysis, I would make the following closing thoughts about The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:

  • Philip Howard proves his amazing knowledge of the Muslim world and the vast differences between countries, regions, sects and peoples.
  • These differences make it incredibly difficult for Howard to draw airtight conclusions.  The pace of change of social media and the number of people living in Muslim countries and communities made that difficult.
  • I would view the book with a historical perspective.  It provides a wealth of information for a reader who is passionate about understanding more about the Muslim world.  And going back to my initial point, a good read for any American who is not knowledgeable about this powerful force on our planet.
  • I would encourage Philip Howard to pen an epilogue to his book where he examines the tsunami-like changes in the Muslim world since early 2011.  I would be eager to get his thoughts and perspectives.


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  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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