Muzammil M. Hussain is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and Faculty Associate in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Hussain conducts research at the intersection of global communication and comparative politics. This past summer Hussain was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University’s Digital Humanities Network and Oxford University’s Program on Comparative Media Law and Policy, while conducting fieldwork in London to understand how the private sector has participated in, and been affected by, recent digitally-enabled protest cascades, and online surveillance and censorship of citizens worldwide.
Communication Studies: You just finished conducting research over the past summer. Can you give us an overview of the topic?
Muzammil Hussain: In January 2010, then-Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and now runner-up Democratic Presidential nominee launched the US-backed coalition to promote internet freedom. Since then, advanced industrialized Western democratic states from the Global North have been working to promote the Freedom Online Coalition. The international regime is currently the most organized effort by mostly democratic countries to combat risks to internet freedom, especially as internet controls are pervasive around the world, especially in authoritarian countries, but also in democratic countries. Furthermore, recent revelations that many countries, especially democratic countries, have been conducting pervasive and illegal surveillance of their own citizens, and global citizens, have complicated efforts to promote and secure internet freedom. Since 2012, after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2010-2011 and the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011-2012, I have been researching the post-protest “information war” taking place between digital rights activists and governments — both are struggling to control digital infrastructure and online communication. In 2012, my fieldwork focused on the Middle East and North Africa, investigating how digital activists used ICTs to mobilize against repressive governments; in 2013, my fieldwork focused on Western Europe and North America, investigating how policy entrepreneurs informing democratic governments were collecting and synthesizing lessons from recent political events about the utility, impacts, and risks of ICTs. My most recent, and final, period fieldwork has focused on the final piece of this unfolding puzzle: the role of the private sector and political technologists that produce the surveillance, censorship, and circumvention tools used by both governments and activists, and increasingly by journalists covering critical issues and operating in risky environments.
CS: You joined the Comm Faculty last year, what were you doing previously?
MH: Before joining the Department of Communication Studies at Michigan, I was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) in Doha, where I was doing social computing research — this area of research exploits the vast amount of analytics data collected from global populations towards addressing social issues and problems. While at QCRI, I consulted with Al Jazeera Online, the Brookings Institution, and other media and policy units, to develop new research methods to address issues relating to studying political formations and news media consumption in emerging countries. Prior to QCRI, I was a pre-doctoral fellow in Sweden at the Jonkoping International Business School and in Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where I completed research fellowships in media management and transformation, and comparative and international studies, respectively.
CS: What motivated you to pursue research in Communication Studies?
MH: My research draws from and contributes to three arenas, including international political communication, complexity and causality in comparative research, and science and technology studies. I was motivated by these areas in communication studies because ours is a cutting-edge field that draws from multi-disciplinary environments and synthesizes a variety of intellectual practices to produce inter-disciplinary results. I am a strong supporter of this discipline because it is defined by epistemological pluralism and methodological pragmatism. This means that if you are interested in studying the real world in all its complexities, this is one of the best disciplines in allowing you to develop multiple ways of thinking about critical issues and finding the best tools available to investigating them. We are an open-minded and forward-thinking discipline and it’s a very exiting space to contribute to.
CS: Was there something in particular that was attractive to you about coming to the University of Michigan?
MH: Coming to Michigan was an important and foundational choice in my career. While I was comparing tenure-track invitations from similar research and teaching intensive institutions, Michigan stood out, and this department’s culture and orientation made the conclusive mark in many ways. First, Michigan is by far one of the most important centers for social scientific research — some of the most important classical approaches, and the current cutting-edge strategies for social research are being formulated here. Second, while many departments of communication studies can be described as specializing in specific modes of inquiry or ways of thinking, ours stands out instead by organizing itself in clusters of interdisciplinary scholarship that draw from multiple ways of thinking, all contributing to the discipline of communication studies. I was encouraged to choose Michigan above other institutions because I was offered the resources and the encouragement to be creative and interdisciplinary in doing and teaching communication research.
CS: How is your research relevant today? What are the implications for today’s society?
MH: I have two major tracks of research. My first area of research centers on helping to extend the sub-discipline of political communication to inform non-democratic countries. The central research question here is, “How do ICTs and digital media enable democratization and/or authoritarianism?” This body of work helps us understand how political communication practices and structures are organized and relevant in places we tend to overlook when examining formal politics and communication. It turns out that thinking outside of the 15 percent of the world that lives in advanced industrialized Western democracies to include 85 percent of the rest of the world that lives in developing and emerging societies allows us to both extend existing political communication concepts and theories, and identify new issues in political communication that have been overlooked. My second area of research, as described earlier, revolves around the central question “How are powerful actors—like governments, activists, and technologists—building political opportunities and affordances into ICTs and digital media?” This is very relevant to both the future of authoritarian and democratic countries at large, because the experts and designers shaping the communication tools that we communicate with, and regulating these socio-technical spaces we communicate in, can have a significant impact in the quality of democratic governance and political culture created. For example, surveillance, censorship, and circumvention tools and policies shape both citizens’ and journalists’ ability to communicate about and report on the affairs of governance. In many ways, internet infrastructure at large has provided new safe spaces and opportunity structures for citizens and journalists to do the important work of reporting on and holding our governments accountable. However, we are currently watching and documenting that governments, both democratic and authoritarian, are learning and re-configuring these ICT tools and digital environments to be more closed and perhaps risky to engage in democratic activities.
CS: What were some of the challenges you experienced in conducting this research? Did the research yield any unexpected results?
MH: There were some professional and personal challenges in doing this kind of research. For example, studying the kind of experts and activists working in this intersection is quite challenging — they are located around the world, and reaching them to conduct interviews and observations is very difficult. Several grants and fellowships have supported my ability visit and live in the Middle East, North Africa, Western Europe and North America to do ethnographies, observations, and interviews. Furthermore, because this research requires traveling to places that are undergoing political transformations and upheaval, there were times when personal safety has been risky. For example, some internet freedom activists work in places like Beirut, Tunis, Dubai, where researching political and social issues is challenging both for the researcher and especially for the research subjects. So this requires developing human-subjects protection compliant methods and tactics, especially when collecting data in unstable regions with sensitive populations. So far the results have been both unexpected and very exciting. I have found, contrary to early expectations, that the kind of individuals formulating internet freedom activities are quite niche and well-networked. For example, the digital activists in the Global South are connected to elite policy makers in the Global North often within less than 2-3 degrees of separation. This means that there is in fact a dense global network of digital technocrats who are designing tools and policies with close affinity and awareness of each other’s concerns, even though they are distributed over several countries across regions. At the same time, these observations are reflective of existing studies on the power of epistemic networks and communities of practice, which have found that small groups of expert individuals can have significant impacts on the world we live in.
CS: What course are you most excited to teach this winter?
MH: This winter I will be offering a graduate-level seminar on the international-political economy of global ICT Innovation. Technology and innovation is a topic covered in many social and especially applied sciences, but it’s important to recognize that communication studies has been one of the most important fields that has contributed to, and continues to do cutting-edge work in the area of global communication technologies. This course will offer graduate students the opportunity to build from the foundations of this research area in communication studies, drawing on core-communication thinkers like Wilbur Schramm and Everett Rogers, to current research in the field at the intersections of national development, communication innovation, and data citizenship. Most importantly, we will draw on the latest case studies from around the world, from the Silicon Valleys and Roundabouts of the Global North to the Silicon Savannahs and Prairies of the Global South, to unpack how significantly interrelated communication technology industries are in organizing and disrupting the efforts of international states in governing their populations.
CS: Tell us your plans for future research, teaching, or other academic opportunities.
MH: Since 2014, I have been part of the Digital Middle East Initiative at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University. This initiative has brought together a team of international experts from around the world to programmatically research the intersections of “the digital” and “the Middle East,” and this community of interlocutors at Georgetown SFS’ Center for International and Regional Studies has been foundational in defining my future research trajectory which is at the intersections of bio data and social data mergers and in the Global South. This refers to the multi-billion dollar industries centered on launching research and development startups operating in spaces like India, China, Indonesia, that alongside Silicon Valley outfits, are in the business of marrying bio-informatics with social-informatics, and applying these data and analytics practices towards governance challenges facing emerging states and their massive populations. My next multi-year project, housed in the project for “Bio-Social Data, Innovation, and Governance” (Big-DIG) at the Institute for Social Research and the International Institute, is a comparative study of “very-large countries” (countries with populations much larger than the global average of 30 million) and their high-tech data-intensive industries, and the implications of these industries for formulating and instrumentalizing new methods for managing their citizen populations. Principal fieldwork on this project is scheduled for the summers of 2016 and 2017 in East Asia, and South Asia. This project presents several upcoming opportunities for interested graduate and undergraduate students to contribute to the research by means of international travel for field research, and analysis of complex datasets to study organizations and practices in these new communication industries.
CS: After having gone through the process, do you have advice for students that are looking to pursue a doctorate program?
MH: Yes — research, especially doctoral research, requires both professional training and ongoing apprenticeship. If you are interested in undergoing doctoral training, it is never too soon to start. For undergraduate students, universities like Michigan offer amazing opportunities to learn by doing and experience the process of discovery. This department’s independent and directed research credits are a fantastic avenue for getting a taste of the research experience, as are the Honors Program and the UROP opportunities. Research-and-development is a very rewarding and enriching arena for professional and intellectual development, and communication studies is an intersecting hub for many epistemologies and methodologies. At the very least, hands-on research experiences give students the opportunities to confront course knowledge with applied practice and test out ideas. This kind of applied curiosity is very much valued by both academia and industry alike.
CS: Since you are in the Communication Studies industry, are you able to disengage from thinking critically about the media-saturated world and if so, how?
MH: It’s difficult, but absolutely necessary. It’s difficult because it’s incredibly enriching to be in the profession that is also your chosen hobby: I get paid to think critically about international media industries and global politics and teach about it all to my students. The poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible,” and I can’t think of a more enjoyable profession to work in. But it’s necessary to take breaks from doing this because it’s easy to over-indulge, and a well-lived life is a balancing act – my favorite methods for doing what I’m passionate about and being balanced are by disconnecting to travel and enjoying the wilderness, or to cook (sometimes terribly!) for family and friends over b-level sci-fi and 90s action cinema.
Conducting fieldwork in London.
More fieldwork in London.