As the furor of public protest continues to sweep across the Arab world – first in Egypt and Tunisia, and now in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain – it has become almost trite to begin another discussion about what the Internet can and cannot do when it comes to revolutions. The debate has seemed to tire itself out; any declarations of “The revolution will be Twittered!” almost inevitably are followed by “Well, social media is useful, but it didn’t cause the revolution” and then, “Well, nobody said it caused the revolution, but it facilitated it,” and so forth.
Some have gone as far as to proclaim that “the Twitter revolution debate is dead,” and it does seem to be so. No one can deny that the Internet and social media have had an impact on the speed and scope of social mobilization within these authoritarian societies, but the specific degree of its influence is something that is difficult to measure. And in the short history of social networking, it’s nearly impossible to predict what kind of lasting impact this technology will have.
Instead, what seems to be emerging is a broader, more pragmatic conversation about the global Internet freedom agenda, the murky relationship between governments and technology companies, and the Internet’s dual role as a tool for the oppressed and for the oppressor. The shift in conversation dovetails nicely with the central arguments laid out in “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” written by Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine.
“The Net Delusion” explores the pitfalls of what Morozov calls “cyber-utopianism” and the myriad ways that authoritarian governments have used the digital landscape to monitor the actions of their citizens and quash rumblings of democratic activism. Cyber-utopianism, Morozov explains in his book, refers to the school of thought that views the Internet as an inherently liberating and democratizing tool. Its proponents believe that all that is needed to transform an authoritarian society into a democracy is to invite the free flow of information through an uninhibited digital sphere — like “Radio Free Europe on steroids.” As his classic example of cyber-utopianism in the highest echelons of U.S. policymaking, he cites Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s January 2010 speech on promoting Internet freedom globally. “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world,” she declared. “And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.”
This type of Soviet-era rhetoric, Morozov says, embodies the core of cyber-utopianism today – and not only is it wrongheaded, but dangerous as well. Authoritarian governments may block online access when public protests begin to swell, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to use the Internet for their own purposes.
“I don’t think we see smart authoritarian governments falling behind,” Morozov said in a recent interview with Need to Know. “If anything, they’re probably one step ahead of the protesters in many cases.” In his book, he painstakingly describes the various ways in which governments worldwide have used the Internet to root out activist networks, monitor correspondence and disseminate their own propaganda. Hugo Chavez has learned to embrace Twitter; Chinese Internet cafes are lined with surveillance cameras; trusted online political sources are hit with government spyware; and Belarusian KGB officers find opposition sympathizers through Russian social networking sites.
“There are definitely a lot of tools and workarounds that activists can use,” Morozov admitted. “But ultimately, much boils down to who controls the underlying communication structure – and it’s the governments.”
Moreover, he points out, using the Internet for less-than-democratic purposes is not restricted to authoritarian governments. The U.S., for all its talk of global Internet freedom, also engages in social media monitoring and surveillance of activists within its borders. Need to Know contributor G.W. Schulz describes how law enforcement routinely requests users’ personal information from Facebook and Twitter, and how the Department of Homeland Security has been tracking Twitter accounts of protesters, “friending” Facebook users applying for citizenship, and tracking networks through keyword searches.
Providing a social networking service alone is not enough to enact social change, Morozov said. “You need not only to design tools, you also need to exert pressure on companies that provide many of the services that make activism possible.”
As blogs and social media networks continue to proliferate across the globe, the future of the Internet in closed societies looks far more complicated than simply opening the floodgates to a freer, more democratic marketplace of ideas. Companies like Facebook are already struggling to walk the fine line between supporting the wave of protests happening in the Middle East and shying away from associations with political activism to protect future opportunities. And even if executives remain tight-lipped on political matters, authoritarian regimes are likely to opt for more easily controlled local social networks instead.
While “The Net Delusion” is a fascinating read, it is easy to get caught up in example after example of the Internet’s “dark side” (i.e., government surveillance, tracking, government-issued propaganda and network infiltration). Nor are all the arguments perfect: In trying to demonstrate that the wealth of entertainment offered by the Internet breeds complacency, Morozov refers to a 2007 incident in which a group of Westerners lent their bandwidth to strangers abroad with restricted Internet access, only to find that they spent most of that bandwidth searching for nude photos of Gwen Stefani. (But, one can’t help but think that political activists usually start as minority groups – and surely even the most politically engaged person isn’t exempt from enjoying a LOLcat once in a while?)
But unlike Malcolm Gladwell (arguably the new pariah of the social media world), Morozov comes across not as an Internet naysayer, but as a pragmatist and a staunch defender of carefully crafted policy in promoting democracy. The point, he says, is not to focus on the technology alone. “I’m advocating that policymakers should stop treating technology as either a tool for oppressors or a tool for the oppressed. Often it’s both,” he said. “Which side is winning – you can only understand that by looking far closer to the local and political environment on the ground and not to the internal qualities of technology.”
While the debate over just how much Twitter and Facebook affected the events in the Middle East still abound, Graham Webster, a graduate student writing in to James Fallows’ column at The Atlantic, heralded the way to go:
Cyber-pragmatism is the perspective that should guide U.S. policy on the Internet … Policymakers and thinkers should not be seduced by fantastic stories of tech-driven reform, or by one-sided stories of tech-enabled suppression. Only careful consideration and debate will show the way, and if we leave the Twitter revolution debate behind, we just might get there.
And Morozov does believe that the debate, at least in policy circles, is inching away from the cyber-utopian rhetoric pervading the discussion just one year ago. Hillary Clinton’s most recent speech on Internet freedom last week eschewed references to blogs and viral videos as the modern-day samizdat, calling instead for “ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm.”
“All the utopian features are still there,” Morozov said. “But judging by the speeches, it’s far more measured.”