Final Paper (Draft): Diffusion of Innovations and Political Activism


Since the beginning of time, the desire to form and live within communities has been a natural instinct and a necessity for humans to seek their self-interests. In recent history, more and more people; complete strangers at times with geographical constraints, have been enabled to establish communities and mobilize in ways that previously could only be achieved through institutions with traditional organizational structures (Shirky, 2008).

Over time, communication methods as they developed empowered people with the tools to do things together, unite towards a common goal, support group conversation, and encourage spontaneous group action in ways that have impacted societies regardless of the absence of traditional theories which usually govern these sorts of behaviors (Bimber, Flangagin & Stohl, 2005). The birth and formation of these new types of groups resulted in shifting group dynamics and people’s reactions in multiple areas, where the political arena was no exception.

The eruption of political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months has turned my life on its head and 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 I am emotionally and very passionately connected to these events as they unfold and reflect history in the making for all Arabs. 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 previous political movements to see how they came about and what factors may have led to their development. Therefore, the goal of this paper is to focus merely on exploring the relationship or association between Diffusion of Innovations theory and political activism.

Diffusion of Innovations and Timeline:

First, it is important to explain what this theory entails. According to Christensen (2004), Diffusion of Innovations is a process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. It is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. In simpler terms, it is the process by which we reach a decision to adopt a new technology or not.  I will be providing a read on the historical background of these political events and contrasting it with the state of technological advancements. A good place to start would be to look at what specific innovations were available at the time and examine people’s attitudes and mindset towards adopting new innovations.  I have selected the below timeline of political events, which I believe offers a balanced time range and a variety of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to reflect on, to evaluate if and what diffusion of innovations may have occurred during those years:

  • §  Past: Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (Radio Devices)
  • §  Present: Post South African Anti-Apartheid Movement 1960-1980 (Computers)
  • §  Future: Political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt  2011 (Social Media Tools)

 Since technology is about enabling change and amplifying its message, investigating the various ICTs leveraged during these movements and understanding how technology may have contributed to mobilizing these crowds in their political activism would offer substantial insight and help establish the connection between the two. 

Past- Spanish Civil War (1936-1939):

For the purposes of providing a quick historical background, the Spanish Civil War started when a group of conservative generals conducted a coup against the republican government. The war divided the country devastatingly in half since half of the cities were with the coup and the remaining half were against it. The death toll was estimated to have reached 500,000 dead, 150,000 of whom were sadly executed after the war.

In years preceding the Spanish Civil War, radio devices were certainly beginning to gain popularity among families in the western world including Europe. The Great Depression drove down the average price of a radio sold in United States from $139 in 1929 to about $47 just four years later, disabling the brutal market forces of the early depression to stop Americans from buying radios;. By the end of the 1920s, one-third of U.S. households owned a radio and by 1933 that number climbed close to 60% (Wilson, D). 

Radio was a great entertainment value in a time when people struggled just to pay rent and put food on the table even in Europe where the impacts of the great depression were similarly felt.  By 1933, radio manufacturers had made major technological improvements that in turn allowed radio stations to reach more listeners in American and around the world (Wilson, D).

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 Civil War has been dubbed “the first media war,” given the integral role radio played in amplifying the message and the fact that several writers and journalists wrote about it as they wanted their work “to support the cause” including Orwell, Hemingway and many foreign correspondents and writers who covered the events.  

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).

Present – 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. The basis for uses and gratifications is looking at active audiences who use goal-directed media to fulfill gratifications and how they interact with technology to make sense of the varied messages (Christensen, Anthony, Roth 1994).

For the “present” mile stone, it was interesting how the availability of computers which were brought in from the US to instill oppression and racial discrimination in South Africa have played a reverse role helping the rebels in winning the struggle against the “Grand Apartheid”. According to the Computers and The Apartheid Regime in South Africa study conducted by CS students in Stanford, during the post South African Anti-Apartheid movement which ignited in 1960 and lasted well throughout the 1980s, South African governments relied heavily on computers in their federal offices, financial institutions and commercial establishments to ensure segregation between blacks and whites. It was said that all trade functions would come to a complete halt should computers exportation be blocked by Western countries. Strategists in the National Party invented apartheid as a means to cement their control over the economic and social system. Initially, aim of the apartheid was to maintain white domination while extending racial separation. Starting in the 60’s, a plan of “Grand Apartheid” was executed, emphasizing territorial separation and police repression. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required that all South Africans be racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African), or colored (of mixed decent).

The ANC responded militarily to attacks on the rights of black South Africans, as well as calling for strikes, boycotts, and defiance. This led to a later Defiance Campaign in the 1950s, a mass movement of resistance to apartheid. The government tried to stop the ANC by banning party leaders and enacting new laws to stop the ANC, however these measures ultimately proved to be ineffective.

In 1955, the Congress of the People officially adopted the Freedom Charter, stating the core principles of the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the African National Congress and its allies the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Colored People’s Congress. The government claimed that this was a communist document, and consequently leaders of the ANC and Congress were arrested. 1960 saw the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 people were killed when police opened fire on anti-apartheid protesters (NARMIC, 1982).

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.

Future – Current series of political revolts in the Arab World (2010-2011):

The series of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa has taken on a new term in recent weeks; Arab Spring. It is difficult to confirm any findings at this point since 2011 is considered the “future” in research years, 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 may have 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. While this act in itself is not the first of its kind, it was the people’s determination to speak up and their new behavior towards leveraging social media tools to get their message across that made this event more significant than the Tunisian dictatorship could’ve imagined. 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 station’s media team; a moment that officiated for the first time the fearless stand by the people against their tyrant government (O’Neill, 2011).

Similarly, in Egypt Facebook played an integral role in sparking the Egyptian Revolution, when Wael Gonaim, an executive at Google 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 who was arrested while in an Internet café in Cairo by Egyptian Security Forces. Photos of his disfigured corpse incited 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).

What is significant about the Arab Spring is that people have displayed an adoptive/positive behavior towards utilizing and leveraging Information and Communications Technologies and readiness to use these tools to spread awareness and communicate their specific message. In 2002, Howard Rheingold detailed in his book Smart Mobs this development of this specific sort of community forming, including the formation of virtual communities.

While these technologies are far from reaching critical mass in these two countries, which means the number of individuals who must be involved in a social movement before it may “explode” into being or when a certain technology gets to a point where it is widely adopted by users to a state of “all or none”, I believe it was the quality of the engagement in this case that won over quantity (William, Strover, Grant, 1994).

I had hoped that by this time, the Syrian Revolution would have prevailed and I would be discussing the factors of its success, but unfortunately, we are not there yet. While social media tools may have helped the people engage in political activism and work together to  bring down decades of injustice and dictatorships, Syria’s situation offers a whole set of extremely challenging plots were leveraging Facebook, You Tube or Twitter alone may not have the same weight and effectiveness  as it did in Tunisia and Egypt.


In conclusion, there comes a point in time when traditional communication systems are no longer adequate to deal with the rapidly increasing demands for faster exchanges of information. Often times, these demands inspire innovations, some of which with notable impact to our social, political, and economic systems as well as our cultural identities and perspectives (Fidler, 1997).

It is apparent that the impact of new information and communication technologies (such as radio during the Spanish Civil War,  later World Wide Web in South Africa and Social Media in the Arab world), 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).  At minimum, we can conclude that the Internet, Social Media partnered with new electronic devices may have marked the ending of Media Monopoly era in these non-democratic environments (Bagdikian, 1997).

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 certainty, 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. Personally, I believe that Diffusion of Innovations alone may not have been the sole reason why these political events have broken out, but it sure did accelerate the outcome, amplify the message, and caused the events to unleash on a broader, larger and far more visible scope and scale.

Annotated Bibliography (still in the works):

Bagdikian, H.B. (1997). The media monopoly: Afterword. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Annotations: TBD

Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. J., & Stohl, C. (2005). Reconceptualizing collective action in the contemporary media environment.

Annotations: TBD

Christensen, C. M., Anthony, S. D., & Roth, E. A. (2004). Seeing what’s next: using the theories of innovation to predict industry change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

The main idea in the first chapter of this book discusses the concept of Disruptive Innovation; the event in which a certain innovation has improved a product or a service in ways the market didn’t expect by lowering costs or creating a whole new set of consumers I will be leveraging the concept of Disruptive Innovations in my argument that mobile devices and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter may have contributed to the series of revolts beginning with the Iranian Presidential Elections protests (2009) and ending with the series of uprisings we are currently witnessing in the Middle East and
North Africa (2010-2011). Christensen concludes that Disruptive Innovations such as the Internet are empowering individuals across great distances to unite under one common cause. Another aspect of his book which I wall also use in my argument the understanding Signals of Change and how certain communication technologies are reshaping cultural norms and assisting in changing the political landscape.

Fidler, R. (1997). Mediamorphosis: understanding new media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press

I will be mainly referencing this book to discuss the barriers facing early communication technologies such as the telegraph and radio and analyzing how those barriers may have impacted the adoption behavior by individuals during early political uprisings such as the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the South African Anti-Apartheid movement in the 1950s,
thus influencing the effectiveness (or not) of these events. The main objective in referencing this book is to leverage the historical timeline positioned in this book in looking at each of the five political events I am focusing on in evaluating the market’s situation/readiness at the time and how certain newly introduced communication technologies may have helped or halted the success of these movements.

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.

This book will help explain the framework around which political activism may have developed and that way it changed how people communicate, collaborate and demonstrate. Impact of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as cell phones, email and the World Wide Web are directly connected to the emergence of social/political movements, specifically the role low-cost ICTs played in uniting groups under one common cause and in facilitating conversations across the field. What is valuable in this book is that it pulls examples from the past such as the civil rights mobilization efforts in the 1950s and 1960s as well as more recent history events such as the World Bank Protest in 2002 demonstrating alignment across different groups and over
different points in time.

NARMIC (1982).  Automating Apartheid – U.S. Computer exports to South Africa and the Arms Embargo. Omega Press, Philadelphia, 1982. Retrieved on 05/23/2011 from

Annotations: TBD

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

Annotations: TBD

Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

I will be leveraging Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs in taking a closer look at the social and cultural implications caused by new communication technologies such as the formation of virtual communities and the strong bonds created from online relationships regardless of vast time and geographical distances. This is a crucial point to use in
support my argument on why the Iranian Presidential Elections protests in 2009
may have had a notable impact over the outcome of the elections resulting in a
political change and a shift in mindset. I will also touch on Rheingold’s breakthrough prediction that mobile and pervasive technologies will reach further into our lives by
selecting a couple of current examples (10 years after this book was written) to illustrate his accuracy and incredible insight. Indeed new media has changed the way people cooperate these days as opposed to an innate desire to exist in groups; small groups without the need for regulatory authority or coercive means for serving the public good of the whole group.

Rosen, S. (2001). The power of Tiananmen: State-society relations and the 1989 Beijing movement by Dingxin Zhao. Political Science Quarterly (March 22, 2003). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

This book consolidates the learnings and insights of interviews conducted 10 years later with witnesses who were present during the Tiananmen Square Protests in Beijing back in 1989. I will be using the findings of these interviews and the analysis it produced in arguing that the political environment/infrastructure for any given country plays a key
role in challenging cultural norms. I will also be investigating the role of communication technologies at the time (fax, other) in mobilizing the crowds and organizing the protests with the absence of normal organizational forces. A key component which I plan to touch on as well is the strategy adopted by the Chinese government in blocking foreign media access to the country and allowing only domestic and local news companies to report on the event, which I will use to address the increasingly important and effective role the media is playing in informing the public and building up world view/support.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Group. Retrieved from EBSCOhost on April 12, 2011.

Annotations: TBD

Williams, F., Strover, S. and Grant, A. E. (1994). Social aspects of new media technologies. In J. Bryant J. & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

There are 2 main concepts I would like to leverage from this book in supporting my argument around the impact new social media tools may have had in empowering individuals and forming groups. The first concept as explained by the authors is Uses and
Gratification: When a certain product or service fulfills a need for those who are seeking it encouraging them to adopt it. My proposal is that new digital communication tools such as Facebook, You Tube and Twitter have fulfilled a desperate need, specifically for citizens in less-democratic countries such as in China and the Arab world, enabling individuals to practice a much-needed freedom of speech and demand democracy. Critical Mass of email communication for example, is the second concept I will reference arguing that email technology facilitated the unmonitored information and free opinion sharing among
protestors in Muslim countries in recent years which resulted in a shift in the cultural and political landscapes.

Wilson, D. Radio in the 1930s [Date of publication not specified]. Retrieved on 05/23/2011 from

Annotations: TBD

Wright, T. (2001). The perils of protest: state repression and student activism in china and Taiwan. Political Science Quarter (March 22, 2003). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

This book to explain the outcome of two different movements; the protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing (China), and the students’ peaceful movement in Taiwan. I will be using the findings in this book specifically to shed light on the failure of political activism in less democratic and repressive political environments (china), contrasted with the success of political movements in more liberated political environments (Taiwan). I also plan to use the same logic in touching on the recent uprisings and revolts in the Middle East and
North Africa and how new communication tools may have changed the connection between a movement’s success and the political culture is exploded from.




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