Will the revolution be Tweeted?

This evening I attended a talk given by Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, presented by the Seattle World Affairs Council.   Here’s a brief write-up. 

Much has been made of the role of the Internet and social networking sites in the wave of revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.  Technology optimists see this as evidence of the democratizing influence of the Internet.   Similar hopeful sentiments were expressed during the so-called “Twitter revolution” of 2009 in Iran. 

Into this discussion steps Evgeny Morozov to throw cold water on the optimistic view.   

At the core of Morozov’s argument is his statement that,

“there is nothing inherent about Internet technology that guarantees certain political or social outcomes.”

In other words, these technologies can be used by both sides. 

He goes on to outline how dictatorial governments have adapted to the Internet.   In 2005, while working for a pro-democracy NGO in his native Belarus, Morozov noticed how the government began blocking opposition Web sites by putting pressure on local hosting companies.  Later they launched DOS attacks.  Since then totalitarian governments around the world have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of the Internet. 

  • They mine social networking sites for surveillance and relationship data.
  • These days, governments know they can’t expect to “delete” content from the Internet due to replication at many sites often outside their countries.  Instead, taking a leaf from Western marketing and PR techniques, they post blog comments and articles attacking the character of the protesters and spreading disinformation. 
  • Some countries, notably Russia and China, are moving to develop local platforms to reduce their dependence on mainly US technology and service providers. 
  • In some cases, central governments even encourage blogging and other publication that bring to light corruption out in the hinterlands,

Morozov clearly revels in his role as a contrarian, at one point referring to himself as “Mr. Flipside.”  However, his point isn’t really all that controversial.  Oppressive governments have always leveraged all available tools to retain power.  The Internet is just the latest example.

While I agree with Morozov that it’s hard to attribute cause-and-effect to specific current events, I think the Internet does a couple of things that in the long run do have democratizing impact: 

  1. It creates space for political discourse that is not completely controlled by the government.  Morozov’s own example of governments encouraging blogging to expose corruption illustrates this. 
  2. It helps in the creation and maintenance of relationships between people and civil society groups.  This is important in countering the atomization of society that characterizes so many totalitarian regimes. 

Call me a technology optimist. 

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