Amid the torrent of words praising social media’s role in helping to overthrow governments, Evgeny Morozov has a different take.
Morozov, who speaks in Portland Wednesday, April 6, contrasts reports of Egyptian activists coalescing around a Facebook page or tweets from protesters in Iran by saying oppressive regimes are using those same technologies to spy on and stamp out democratic movements. In 2011, Morozov published The Net Delusion, a book critical of what he sees as our technophilic culture’s desire to view new media as an inherently liberating democratic force. From Google to the Kremlin, Morozov instead chronicles the shaky ground on which we have built what he calls our “cyber-utopianism.”
A 26-year-old native of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, Morozov is a visiting scholar at Stanford. He comes to his stance as skeptic about new media as a tool for social change after becoming disillusioned following two years working at Transitions Online, a Western non-governmental organization using social media to strengthen journalism in the former Soviet Union. WW corresponded with Morozov through email.
WW: We tend to think of technology as an inherently liberating democratic force. Your book turns this premise on its head.
Evgeny Morozov: There is nothing about the architecture, culture or political economy of today’s Internet that makes it an unambiguous force of liberation. Dictators (and their proxies such as various pro-government youth groups like Russia’s Nashi) have made ample use of the Internet to oppress, intimidate or distract populations. This doesn’t mean the Internet cannot be used to promote democracy—I think it can be—but we also need to remember that the situation may easily get even worse. The way Facebook and Google choose to treat the privacy of their users will determine the ways in which the Iranian secret police track dissidents.
Your book mentions the “Spinternet.” What’s that?
One of the ways in which authoritarian governments have co-opted the Web is by creating their own legions of commentators who turn up at various anti-government forums and blogs in order to spread pro-government talking points. This tactic is particularly popular in Russia and China—hence I argue that their Internets are slowly turning into Spinternets, dominated by spin rather than by rational debate. Often, this is happening because Internet censorship is not as effective as it used to be: The cost of publishing has been falling (thanks to the advent of blogging and micro-blogging), so even if the government manages to force a blogger to delete something off the Web (or they simply block access to the page), this content is likely to resurface on hundreds of other blogs. To avoid such embarrassing situations that show the government’s impotence, the censors prefer to spin the critical posts and accuse the publisher of being a CIA or Mossad agent—or smear them in other ways.
Didn’t the recent revolution in Egypt revolve at least partially around a Facebook page?
It’s too early to tell. That Facebook page existed for a long time—it didn’t just appear overnight. Yet the protests didn’t happen [previously], which means that some other political and social conditions changed and created an opening. Generally speaking, I’d say social media helped to mobilize people to go out. Whether such mobilization would be effective in the future is something I’m not yet sure about. So far other dictators seem to have learned their lessons from Egypt and Tunisia and now spend a lot of resources on monitoring Facebook and nipping any potential protests in the bud before they spill into the streets.
How are social media, as you write, a double-edged sword for activists?
On the one hand, it makes activism easier, as millions of people can simply join a campaign by clicking a button. On the other hand, it also makes activism more trivial, as activists don’t have to contribute much to a campaign: They can just change their avatar or join a Facebook group. It’s nice when activists are prepared to take steps to act in the real life—as was the case in Egypt and Tunisia—but often online activism is limited to the blogosphere only.
If totalitarian governments can use the Internet against their citizens, what about potentially countervailing forces like “hacktivism” or groups like WikiLeaks?
Well, these groups matter and I wish them well. But their work won’t be enough—we need to get the first principles right. Instead of forcing everyone to use tools like Tor—which do provide a modicum of anonymity online—we need to make sure that NSA is not reading your every tweet or email.
You tweet. Do you also have a Facebook page?
No, I’m lucky to be completely off Facebook. Twitter is a superb resource for obtaining and sharing information. Facebook—I don’t really have much need for it.
GO: Morozov’s speech, sponsored by the World Affairs Council, begins at 7 pm at the Cleaners at Ace Hotel (403 SW 10th Ave.). $35 for book and lecture, $10 lecture only. Prepaid registration required. 306-5252, worldoregon.org/events/registration/evgeny_morozov.php.