Net Effect

Rethinking Internet & democracy in the context of Iran

I thought that given the huge interest in the subject area, given the events in Iran, I should point everyone’s attention to my very long piece on the impact of the Internet on democracy in authoritarian states that was published in Boston Review a few months ago. Here are some excerpts for those who have ...

I thought that given the huge interest in the subject area, given the events in Iran, I should point everyone’s attention to my very long piece on the impact of the Internet on democracy in authoritarian states that was published in Boston Review a few months ago.

Here are some excerpts for those who have not read it yet:

It is thus tempting to embrace the earlier cyber–optimism, trace the success of many political and democratic initiatives around the globe to the coming of Web 2.0, and dismiss the misgivings of the Carnegie report. Could it be that changes in the Web over the past six years—especially the rise of social networking, blogging, and video and photo sharing—represent the flowering of the Internet’s democratizing potential? This thesis seems to explain the dynamics of current Internet censorship: sites that feature user–generated content—Facebook, YouTube, Blogger—are especially unpopular with authoritarian regimes. A number of academic and popular books on the subject point to nothing short of a revolution, both in politics and information (see, for example, Antony Loewenstein’s The Blogging Revolution or Elizabeth Hanson’s The Information Revolution and World Politics, both published last year). Were the cyber–optimists right after all? Does the Internet spread freedom?

The answer to this question substantially depends on how we measure “freedom.” It is safe to say that the Internet has significantly changed the flow of information in and out of authoritarian states. While Internet censorship remains a thorny issue and, unfortunately, more widespread than it was in 2003, it is hard to ignore the wealth of digital content that has suddenly become available to millions of Chinese, Iranians, or Egyptians. If anything the speed and ease of Internet publishing have made many previous modes of samizdat obsolete; the emerging generation of dissidents may as well choose Facebook and YouTube as their headquarters and iTunes and Wikipedia as their classrooms.

… But why would authorities not pursue a two–pronged strategy, both restricting access to the most undesirable Web sites and using the Web to manipulate public opinion? This is precisely how authoritarian governments have dealt with more significant media threats in the past. The Soviets did not ban radio; they jammed certain Western stations, cracked down on dissenting broadcasters at home, and exploited the medium to promote their ideology. The Nazis took a similar approach to cinema, which became a preferred propaganda tool in the Third Reich.
A growing body of evidence from China and Russia—the two states most active in posting Web content—shows the pattern continuing on the Internet. Chinese authorities are notorious for creating and operating the so–called Fifty Cent Party, a squad of pro–government online commentators who trawl the Web in search of interesting political discussions and leave anonymous comments on blogs and forums. Similarly, the Russian government often relies on private Internet companies, such as the prominent New Media Stars, which happily advance the government’s views online. New Media Stars recently produced a patriotic movie, War 08.08.08, successfully distributed online and touted on many Russian blogs, which blames the war in South Ossetia solely on Georgia. While the new digital public spheres may be getting more democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily polluted by government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly controlled analogue public spheres.

Even if authorities are incompetent, unable, or unwilling to tar the Web with official “information,” there is little evidence that an open Internet will suddenly make the Chinese or Russians dream of democracy. We have been here before: East Germans who could not tune in to West German broadcasting had higher rates of opposition to their government than those who did. The idea that unfettered access to the Internet will bring democracy suggests one of the worst fallacies of cyber–utopianism. Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

However, outside of the prosperous and democratic countries of North America and Western Europe, digital natives are as likely to be digital captives as digital renegades, a subject that none of the recent studies address in depth. If the notion that the Internet could dampen young people’s aspirations for democracy seems counterintuitive, it is only because our media is still enthralled by the trite narrative of bloggers as a force for positive change. Recent headlines include: “Egypt’s growing blogger community pushes limit of dissent,” “From China to Iran, Web Diarists Are Challenging Censors,” “Cuba’s Blogger Crackdown,” “China’s web censors struggle to muzzle free–spirited bloggers.”

Much of the encouraging reporting may be true, if slightly overblown, but it suffers from several sources of bias. As it turns out, the secular, progressive, and pro–Western bloggers tend to write in English rather than in their native language. Consequently, they are also the ones who speak to Western reporters on a regular basis. Should the media dig a bit deeper, they might find ample material to run articles with headlines like “Iranian bloggers: major challenge to democratic change” and “Saudi Arabia: bloggers hate women’s rights.” The coverage of Egyptian blogging in the Western mainstream media focuses almost exclusively on the struggles of secular writers, with very little mention of the rapidly growing blogging faction within the Muslim Brotherhood.

Labeling a Muslim Brotherhood blog as “undemocratic” suggests duplicity. Thus Western governments, caught up in the heady cyber–utopianism of the last two decades, face a dilemma. Without their investments in blogs, blog aggregators, and video blogs in far–away but geopolitically important places, the online voices of the West’s favorite secular and democratic forces would not carry much weight. Yet, investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization. A brief look at the emerging cyber–nationalism in Russia and China provides a taste of things to come.


It’s a very long piece and there is plenty of more here

 P.S. I should also warn both  cyber-utopians and cyber-paranoics (do you think is it a good term to desribe those who think that "cyber-Katrina" is imminent?) that I have two more very long pieces coming out in the next few weeks. One – kind of a sequel to my Boston Review piece on Internet & democracy – should be out in the summer issue of Dissent. Another one – a 5,500-word essay deconstructing the overlbown "cyber-scare" narrative and debunking various myths around cyberwarfare – would appear in the summer issue of Boston Review, also out in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

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