Philip N. Howard is a sociologist and communication researcher who studies the impact of information technologies on democracy and social inequality. He is a faculty member of the Department of Communication, the Jackson School for International Studies, and the Information School at the University of Washington. He took up the professorship in Internet Studies at the University of Oxford's Oxford Internet Institute on 1 July 2016.
Howard has been a Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington D.C., the London School of Economics' Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research, Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. In 2013 he moved to Budapest, Hungary where he helped to found a new School of Public Policy at Central European University.
His research has demonstrated that the diffusion of digital media has long-term, often positive, implications for democratic institutions. Through information infrastructure, some young democracies have become more entrenched and durable; some authoritarian regimes have made significant transitions towards democratic institutions and practices; and others have become less authoritarian and hybrid where information technologies support the work of particular actors such as state, political parties, journalists, or civil society groups.
Howard was one of the first to investigate the impact of digital media on political campaigning in advanced democracies, and he was the first political scientist to define and study "astroturf" political movements as the managed perception of grassroots support through astroturfing in his research on the Gore and Bush presidential campaigns. New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen (2005) is about how politicians and lobbyists in the United States use the internet to manipulate the public and violate privacy. His research on technology and social change has been prescient.
Howard wrote presciently about the role of the internet in transforming Political Islam, and is the author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2010) which argues that how states respond to new information technologies has become a defining feature of both democracy and authoritarianism. Howard demonstrated that the internet was having an important impact on political Islam. The book was published before the Arab Spring, and shows how new social movements in North Africa and the Middle East were using social media to outmaneuver some of the region's dictators, partly because these regimes lacked effective responses to online evidence of their abuses. Using Charles Ragin's method of "qualitative comparative analysis" Howard investigated technology diffusion and political Islam and explained trends in many countries, with the exception of Tunisia and Egypt. But very shortly the trends in social activism and political Islam he had identified appeared in those two countries as well in the "Arab Spring."
Democracy's Fourth Wave? (2013), with Muzammil M. Hussain, suggests that turning off the Internet, as the Mubarak regime did on January 28, 2011, actually strengthened the revolution by forcing people into the streets to seek information. It sees events like the Arab Spring as "early signs of the next big wave of democratization. But this time, it will be wrestled into life in the digital living room of the global community." His research and commentary is regularly featured in the media, including recent contributions about media politics in the US, Hungary and around the world the New York Times and Washington Post.
In Pax Technica (2015) he argues that the Internet of Things will be the most important tool of political communication we have ever built. He advocates for more public input in its design and more civic engagement with how this information infrastructure gets used.
In 2014 he hypothesized that political elites in democracies would soon be using algorithms over social media to manipulate public opinion, a process he called "computational propaganda." His research on political redlining, astroturf campaigns and fake news inspired a decade of work and became particularly relevant during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign. His research has exposed the global impact of bots and trolls on public opinion.
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