What is the Relationship between Diffussion of Innovations and Political Activism?

The eruption of political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months has captured much of the attention from media in all of its forms and outlets. As a woman who was born and raised in Damascus, Syria this period in time is history in the making, and therefore, of strong emotional connection as well as special interest to me.  In particular, the call for freedom and reform which is currently sweeping the Arab world has triggered my urge and curiosity to look back in time and reflect on some of the most major political movements and the factors leading to their development.  

As part of a larger term paper, the following few pages will focus merely on one theory pertaining to the birth of certain information technologies and will assess by examining 3 political movements around the world, how are information technologies which were available at the time used as a tool of political activism? Since technology is about enabling change and amplifying its message, a good place to start would be investigating the various Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) leveraged during these movements and analyzing people’s adoption behavior to understand how technology may have contributed to mobilizing these crowds towards a common goal. 

According to Christensen, Diffusion of Innovations is a process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system (Christensen, 2004). Diffusion of Innovations is one 3 theories I will be discussing my term paper, but for the purposes of this assignment, I have selected the below timeline of political events to evaluate if and what diffusion of innovations may have occurred during those years. In the final paper, I will bring forth additional case studies to support my argument around ICTs and political movements. The research will take us as far back in history as the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and carry us all the way to our current day today as we continue to witness the political revolts in the Arab world unfold.  

  • ·         Past: Spanish Civil War in 1936
  • ·         Present: Post South African Anti-Apartheid Movement 1960-1980
  • ·         Future:Political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt 2011

Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): In years preceding the Spanish Civil War, radio devices were certainly beginning to gain popularity among families in the western world. But in 1936, an important event occurred bringing home the importance of radio as a powerful communication medium when war correspondent Hans Von Kaltenborn became the first American reporter to broadcast live from a war zone and brought the actual sounds of a Spanish civil war battle into ordinary homes while hiding in a haystack between the two armies. Listeners in America could hear bullets hitting the hay above him while he spoke. Many historians believe that this was one of the defining moments for radio and that Kaltenborn helped establish the credibility of radio news in the public mind and helped to overcome the nation’s isolationist sensibilities (Ramos 2010).

The Spanish Government tried unsuccessfully to channel all news through Union Radio network in Madrid and Barcelona, but the collapse of republican authority caused a “chaos” environment from the very beginning in the network while the nationalists had to build a new broadcasting system from scratch. All transmitters and receivers became targets by both sides, but also real weapons used to achieve military and political objectives clearly eluding to the effectiveness of radio news and broadcast in shaping up people’s perceptions and public opinion and in recognizing the Spanish Civil War as the first war radio (Ramos 2010).

Post South African Anti-Apartheid Movement 1960-1980: New digital communication tools often fulfill a desperate need, specifically for oppressed minority such as blacks in South Africa, enabling individuals to practice a much-needed freedom of speech. After African National Congress leaders (ANC) were banned in the 1960 as part of the apartheid government’s crackdown on Black political opposition, and despite all legal and military obstacles, Operation Vula in the late 1980s brought back ANC leaders from exile. The movement said to have been a success (by non-military measures) due to a purpose-built encrypted communication system of underground network operatives which was put in place by activists using commercially available computer equipment and the international telephone system. Undoubtedly, capabilities afforded by the system changed the South African political landscape in an era of unprecedented information exchange. The Vula communication system proved powerful in that it was used to coordinate meetings and action, debate strategy as well as share military and political intelligence while leveraging powerful figures in the government to stay in touch with exiled leaders (Gerrett, 2007).

Current series of political revolts in the Arab World (2010-2011): In research terms, 2011 is considered years in the “future”, however looking at unfolding events such as the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt offers insight as to how the different ICTs were utilized during these times and how they helped amplify the people’s message. It all began on January 26th of 2011 since the same day when the young street vendor, Sidi Bouazizi’s self-immolation. As tragic as it may be, the event itself wasn’t more significant than other previous events, however, a key difference in Sidi’s case was that locals fought to get news of what was happening out, and succeeded. Protesters took to the streets with a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other, to spread word of their uprising. On December 17, Ali Bouazizi, a cousin of Sidi Bouazizi, posted a video on Facebook of a peaceful protest led by the young man’s mother outside the municipality building. That evening, the video was aired on Al Jazeera’s Mubasher channel as the footage had been picked up by the stations media team (O’Neill, 2011).

Similarly, in Egypt where Facebook played an integral role in sparking the Egyptian Revolution, when Wael Gonaim became an international figure that energized pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt after an emotional interview following 11 days of secret incarceration by Egyptian police. Gonaim was interrogated regarding his work as the administrator of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed”, which brought attention to the death of 28-year old Khaled Saeed and photos of his disfigured corpse inciting outrage over allegations that he was beaten to death by Egyptian security forces (Gigilio, 2011).

It is hard to get an accurate read this early on what might have been the role social media played. But in looking at these events through the Diffusion of Innovations lens, it can be inferred that the social network played the most significant role of any web technology used during the 2 Arab revolutions by all counts. Even though smaller sites, like Posterous, were used, Facebook became a central location for dispatching information about where protests were happening, where government snipers were located, video footage of what was going on in the streets, and plenty more (Mardigal, 2011).

In conclusion, it is apparent that the impact of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as radio at first, and later World Wide Web and Social Media, have changed how people communicate, collaborate and demonstrate. ICTs are directly connected to the emergence of social/political movements, specifically the role low-cost types uniting groups under one common cause and facilitating conversations across the field (Garrett 2006). 

This poses the very important question of whether this change was coming regardless of available technological means, or if the system itself actively changed the political situation? While it is difficult to answer such question with certainly, it does help see the important relationship between information technology and social movements (Gerrett, 2007).  Diffusion of Innovations, as theorized by Christensen, embodied in rapid incremental innovation, user practices, technical competence and organizational routines all deeply affect the ways the system influenced these political and cultural movements.


Christensen, C. M., Anthony, S. D. and Roth, E.A. (2004). Seeing what’s next. (pp. 3-27). Boston,

MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Garrett, K. R. (2006). Protest in an Information Society: A Review of Literature on Social

 Movements and New ICTs  (Vols. 9 -2, Information, Communication & Society ed.,

pp. 202-224). Tandif, UK: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Garrett, K. R., & Edwards, P. N. (2007, Spring). Revolutionary Secrets: Technology’s Role

 in the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. Social Science Computer Review, 25

(1), 13-26. doi:10.1177/0894439306289556.

Giglio, M. (2011, February 13). The Facebook Freedom Fighter. Newsweek. Retrieved May 10,

 2011, from http://www.newsweek.com/2011/02/13/the-facebook-freedom-fighter.html.

Mardigal, A. (2011, January). The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian

 Hacks. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 10, 2011, from http://www.theatlantic.com.

O’Neill, N. (2011, January 24). How Facebook Kept The Tunisian Revolution Alive. In All

Facebook: The Unofficial Facebook Resource. Retrieved May 10, 2011, from


 Ramos, V. (2011, March 5). Telecommunications Conference (HISTELCON), 2010

Second IEEE Region 8 Conference on the History of Broadcast, (pp.1-5). Madrid,

Spain. doi:10.1109/HISTELCON.2010.5735269.






  1. Excellent foundation, Ruba! Clear, focused case study approach.

  2. […] Ruba –  What is the Relationship between Diffussion of Innovations and Political Activism? (*) […]

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