Internet Weakens Democracy?

Check out this provocative and fascinating piece by Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute. The central question it raises, whether the Internet is really a force for democratic change, is as complex as it is necessary to ask. Cyber-savvy young voters (see also our coverage of “Born Digital”), kindled by Obama, may have heralded a civic reawakening for America, but as Morozov rightly points out, one should be cautious about overstating the internet’s power as a catalyst for an activist citizenry, especially in authoritarian countries. As Morozov sadly notes:

The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place.

The role of the internet in democratization is sometimes ambivalent or contradictory. The Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma turned on this question. Why was the internet, so crucial in organizing and publicizing protests, not ultimately effective in overthrowing Burma’s repressive military junta?

Morozov provocatively points to the web’s endless stream of entertainment as a possible explanation for the malaise of democratic movements. The internet is a sirensong of cheap thrills and escapism, foreign movies and sex. It is slowly transforming “digital renegades” and potential activists into “digital captives” of Hollywood distraction. As Antony Loewenstein, author of a book about blogging in repressive regimes, remarked at a recent Berkman luncheon, far more bloggers want to meet girls than agitate for reform.

Having said all that, Morozov’s conclusion — that young people in repressive regimes prefer Paris Hilton clips to freedom — strikes me as too cynical. Though no quick fix panacea, the internet has contributed to greater participation and group association. Strong correlations between increased internet capability and democratization, though not ultimately conclusive, surely reinforce this belief.

Perhaps the changes have less to do with formal democratic movements than the immense proliferation of speech on the web. This is what makes the Iranian blogosphere so vibrant, the Chinese one so resilient and the Burmese one so dedicated, despite varying levels of autocratic control. The web has broken the authoritarian choke-hold over information, even if what is flooding in from the outside is imperfect or censored. Web 2.0 technology is clearly one source of this altered dynamic; it’s easier to gag a newspaper than censor a thousand blogs.

The more impossible internet output becomes to contain, the more plausible I think it is that censorship regimes will crack, even ones as massive as the Chinese firewall. This may not be democratic activism of the most visible form, but perhaps it gives more radical democratizing movements a chance to succeed.

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3 Responses to “Internet Weakens Democracy?”

  1. Matthew Steven Carlos Says:

    There is a prior question, infrequently asked: ‘Is democracy good’. It was seriously considered by the Framers of the American constitution, whom along with theorists from Plato to Thomas Hobbes and Jose Ortega y Gasset answered ‘no’. Fareed Zakaria is among the few today who are examining this important question, and a weak version of the argument against democracy is found in his book ‘The Future of Freedom’ (New York: W.W.Norton, 2003). His rendition of the case pivots upon the distinction of constitutional liberty versus democracy – and he concludes that democracy is dangerous, especially for emerging political entities. Based upon historical examples, from the Roman Empire through Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution the lesson is drawn that democracy and liberty are independent of one another – and that liberty is more vital to successful, prosperous and peaceful society. Democracy ends up undermining liberty, and reduces civilisation to mere fulfilment of desire. It is an analysis Alain Badiou (emeritus chair of the philosophy department at the Ecole Normale Superieure) echoed in the preface to the 2005 English translation of his book ‘Being and Event’: “On the one hand, domination public opinion, one had ‘democracy’- in its entirely corrupt representative and electoral form …”.

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