Government Surveillance and Cyberspace Activism

Political Monitoring in Cyberspace

Reviewed by Robert Baldwin
April 15, 2014

In “Political Monitoring in Cyberspace,” Yunjing Li examines the relationship between government surveillance and social activism. Social media has become a dominant platform for political mobilization over the past few years. The Arab Spring, protests in China, and the popular fixation on Edward Snowden showcase the relevance and importance of the issue. Both democratic and autocratic governments alike have massively increased surveillance efforts, with the stated goals of protecting political authority and the public good. Due to the recent nature of these events, there is a dearth of literature about the empirical success of government surveillance efforts.

Li’s paper asks two specific questions. First, do increased levels of government monitoring, by decreasing digital activism, bolster ‘offline’ political activism? Second, do increased levels of government monitoring decrease the likelihood that the demands of digital activism will be satisfied? Independent, comprehensive datasets are used for each of the variables, which are the level of government monitoring, offline mobilization, and final outcome.

The author finds no statistically significant relationship for either hypothesis. Although it is possible there is no relationship between the two, Li conjectures that the complexity of the issue and simplicity of the variables obscures any possible relationship.

Hoping to find an explanation for the success of digital activism in certain countries, Li next considers the type of government. After classifying countries as authoritarian, transitional, emerging democracy, or democracy, a few interesting findings emerged. Countries with transitional governments, rather than democracies, had digital activism campaigns with both the highest offline mobilization rate and rates of success. Since transitional states lack stability, citizens perceive them as weaker and more vulnerable to digital activism. Li concludes that the type of government, rather than the particular monitoring policies, has a more dominant effect on the success of digital activism.

The paper concludes by expressing new trends in this field of research. Monitoring of social media, Li argues, is no longer only a political issue, but rather is a increasingly a commercial issue. Social media is used in apolitical contexts, and much of the monitoring is now either mediated through or done by corporations.

See the full article here!


2 thoughts on “Government Surveillance and Cyberspace Activism”

  1. Like you said, the digital social media empire is where a lot of the political monitoring goes on. Because there is so much information that the different social media accounts can acquire on you, they can develop an idea of who you are. Because of that, the government can use all of that information to be able to find out more information about trends and who to target for certain things.

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