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Global Development Institute

ICTs and Social Movements under Authoritarian Regimes: An Actor-Network Perspective

Richard Heeks and Ryoung Seo-Zindy

Abstract

There has been significant recent interest in the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in social movements protesting against authoritarian regimes.  Much of the literature on this topic can be framed in terms of dualities: seeing either technology or (less often) society as the cause of impacts characterised as either liberation or repression.  This paper seeks to move beyond those dualities by using actor-network theory (ANT) to study the role of ICTs in Iran’s Green Movement; specifically by applying Callon’s moments of translation.

This analysis turns the focus from causes or impacts of social movements, to the dynamics of their trajectory.  It presents ICTs as an active actor within this social movement of protest; an actor which rapidly made this movement into a global network.  Yet ICTs also betrayed the protest.  They simultaneously worked for the Iranian regime.  And they allowed a shallowness of translation which enabled quick problematisation, interessement and enrolment, but which equally enabled quick de-enrolment, and which undermined the full mobilisation of this social movement and ultimately led to its disintegration.

Recognising the limits but also the originality of actor-network theory, the paper ends by suggesting directions for future ANT-based work on ICTs and social movements.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What are social movements?  [Section A]
  2. How can we characterise and critique the literature to date on ICTs and social movements?  [Section B]
  3. How might actor-network theory offer a different perspective on ICTs and social movements?  [Section B]
  4. What were the constituents and overall trajectory of the Iranian Green Movement actor-network?  [Section D]
  5. From an actor-network perspective, what role do ICTs play in the development of a social movement network?  [Section E]

Development questions

  1. What is your own viewpoint about the role of ICTs in social movements?  Can you find evidence to support that viewpoint?
  2. Find some additional items of literature on ICTs and social movements.  Can you classify them on the basis of Figure 1?  (If not, why not?)
  3. Identify a different and detailed social movement case study in which ICTs played a role.  Can you identify moments of translation during the development of that social movement?
  4. Can ANT really offer some new insights on ICTs and social movements, or is it just a way of describing how a social movement forms and/or fades?
  5. Why would it be preferable to undertake a case study of ICTs and social movements using longitudinal methods and primary data?
  6. Taking a broad perspective on the future, are ICTs likely to make authoritarian regimes weaker or stronger?