Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

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?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

Morozov overlooks the suggestion made in our study of the Burma conflict that the high internet visibility of the crackdown had a strong correlations to the number of monks murdered by the military when compared to similar uprisings in the past (pg. 15). In this sense, the glare of global attention, facilitated by the internet, had a plausible effect on the degree of impunity the military was willing to engage in.

Other encouraging signs exist in almost all of the countries Morozov singles out as undemocratic and leery of the web. In Iran, the rich Farsi language blogosphere, some 60,000 blogs strong, is too large and varied to effectively silence. This trend can only continue, even if the Iranian Parliament goes through with its disturbing decision to making seditious blogs a capitol offense. So long as average Iranians can access blocked dissident ex-pats with proxy servers and blog anonymously with Tor, Iranian authorities must either put up with the speech or, like Burma, take down the internet. The latter is too unpopular a route. Both dissidents and teenagers watching James Bond would have reason to be incensed, and it is in this way I see the internet slowly wedging open censorship regimes.

It’s true, many Iranian blogs are by theological conservatives or astro-turf blogs by the Iranian military apparatus. And yet, the very existence of a broad spectrum of opinion, facilitated by an open and difficult to chokehold medium like the web, represents the basic building blocks of democratic civil society.

Morozov mentions Antony Loewenstein as a solider in the cyber-optimist camp. When Loewenstein came by Berkman last fall to discuss The Blogging Revolution (see my coverage here), I remember him mentioning a fascinating trend inside the internal blogosphere of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Moderate factions, which still counted themselves as Islamists, used the open, de-centralized platform of blogging to openly criticize their more fanatic elders in the movement. Blogging, as with all Web 2.0 media, is inimical to top-down organization and control.

This leads me to the tentative conclusion that there is something structural about blogging which emulates public reason. An authority challenged by a blog is compelled to either enforce “might makes right” from above or give a public reason for its position. Fundamentalists are famously bad at the latter.

Thus, though not all bloggers in third-world countries are in substance agitating for Western style secularism, there is perhaps something inherent in the way blogs work which militates against closed patriarchal thinking, the very rubric by which totalitarian regimes operate. As Loewenstein put it, there were plenty of traditional Muslim bloggers in Egypt who were as upset listening to irrationally angry Wahabbists as they were by Western colonial creep. Much of this worry was hashed out in free speech on the internet.

Morozov is right to zing the West for its too earnest faith in the internet, but one feels he sometimes overstates his case. Change might be slow, even imperceptible, but the intoxicating openness and freedom of internet speech (that includes the freedom to be a-political) will only continue to infect millions of users worldwide. Perhaps the world’s petty dictators will slow its spread, but I doubt they can forever stall the flood.

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