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Global Development Institute

Internet Usage Under Authoritarian Regimes: Conviviality, Community, Blogging and Online Campaigning in Iran

Aghil Ameripour, Brian Nicholson, Michael Newman

Abstract

The Internet is increasingly used throughout all countries, including those with authoritarian and oppressive regimes.  What will be the outcome of this intersection?  The academic literature is replete with debates on the Internet as an authoritarian or democratic device and whether it provides a revolutionary tool for freedom of speech or is a menace to society. Most of these studies focus on social theory or technical studies of the Internet to fall within one of the polarised utopian or dystopian categories.

Rather than focussing on the interplay of social forces, or narrowing down on the technology as the sole determining factor, this study pays significant attention to both the characteristics of technical objects and the socio-political forces. To address this, Illich’s theory of ‘conviviality of tools’ is drawn upon. This theory is used to examine the basic argument that the Internet is a convivial tool that promotes conviviality in Internet communities.

Our examination draws field evidence from case studies of two online campaigns in Iran – one on women’s rights; one on stoning. These show that bloggers can develop strong campaigns under authoritarian regimes. However, the state is increasingly fighting back. And it is the state – by mediating the relation between virtual and real social spaces – that will significantly determine the transferability of conviviality between the two.

We build from this to create a final conceptual framework that provides a model for analysing authoritarianism and the Internet in other countries.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. How might writings on information systems/society and developing countries be characterised?  [Part A]
  2. Describe the components of Ivan Illich’s view of conviviality.  [Part B]
  3. Explain the background to the research.  [Part C]
  4. What role was played by Internet usage in the two case studies?  [Part D]
  5. From the case studies and critique, what conclusions can we draw about Internet-based social networks, conviviality and developing countries?  [Part E]

Development questions

  1. Does the addition of ideas from Ivan Illich add anything to the argument of the paper?
  2. The case studies show that Internet-based social networks had some impact – what was this? What were the limitations of the capacity of the networks to inculcate change? What constrained the effects?
  3. Does the paper seek to extrapolate from the Iran fieldwork to other developing countries?  How legitimate would such extrapolation be?
  4. Imagine you are involved in Internet policymaking in a developing country.  What priorities and actions might the notion of conviviality suggest to you?