The revolution will not be tweeted

Friday, April 1, 2011

Evgeny Morozov provides a damning critique of those who believe that social-networking tools are the spark that ignited recent political uprisings.

The latest protests in Syria, like those seen previously in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, have provided ammunition for those who believe that the internet is a spark for major political events. Many commentators, most notably in the West, continue to claim that these protests are a product of the ease with which online social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook allowed protesters to find each other and communicate. Without those tools, they suggest, the protests would never have happened.

But one book stands out, offering an important counterview: The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. Its author, Evgeny Morozov, an international policy expert from Belarus, argues that technologies like Twitter or Facebook might actually do more harm than good when it comes to uprisings, because they create a false sense of hope. Instead, he contends, in the absence of a credible political opposition, the main beneficiaries of new technologies will be the regimes themselves, who have managed to use them for their own ends.

His starting point, like those he labels ‘cyber utopians’, is the Iranian Green Movement’s protests, which started in the aftermath of the disputed victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. At the time, many Western observers made bold claims that the apparent spontaneity of the protests – famously dubbed the ‘Twitter revolution’ – was due to the fact that tools like Twitter and blogs had helped build and spread momentum. But as soon as the dust settled, the Green Movement dissipated, causing many to question their original assumption that we were witnessing the formation of a significant opposition movement.

Further disappointment continued, as it became clear that many of the early instigators of the protests resided outside Iran, most notably in America and Europe. They turned out to be a small coterie of bloggers that acted as a focal point for the protesters inside Iran and, more often than not, served the interests of the Western media, who were eager to find out what was going on.

The problem, Morozov observes, is that the adoption of tools like Twitter is celebrated precisely because of the underlying de-politicised nature of many of today’s protest movements, both in the Middle East and the West. The nature of social networking means that the ease with which people can sign up to a campaign will work against its political content: ‘Aspiring digital revolutionaries can stay on their sofas forever - or until their iPad’s batteries run out - and still be seen as heroes… as long as [the cause] is easy to find, join, and interpret, that’s enough.’

“He argues that technologies like Twitter or Facebook might actually do protesters more harm than good”

Speaking more broadly of blogs, Morozov contends that they tend to be an individualised phenomenon more about narcissistically courting the approval of others than trying to build a political movement. Thus, he says sarcastically, many bloggers tend to write not for political notoriety as such, but to court fame for their role as individual dissidents.

The Green Movement’s initial promise soon petered out, revealing, sadly, that it had very little political content to cohere support around. Those social networking tools initially provided a convenient means to gather up numbers, but in doing so, they also meant that the movement could too easily avoid having to establish the political arguments needed to solidify their initial protests into a broader set of argued-out demands, and push aside Iran’s authoritarian rulers.

Even so, many Western media and technology pundits saw in those Iranian protests something they had long hoped for: the possibility of using the internet as a force to spread Western values across the world, especially in places like Iran, China and Russia.

However, these cyber-utopians, fetishising technology as an enabler of change, failed to realise that many of their targets had already begun acceding to pressure for change from within – either by making themselves more open or by succumbing to political pressure. That is not to say that they did not continue to repress or censor their citizens; of course they did and still do. But, as Morozov highlights, these regimes have become more adept at using technology to further their own ends, often by learning from their Western adversaries’ use of technology.

As Morozov argues, the West’s misplaced enthusiasm for ‘internet freedom’ also provided leaders like Barack Obama with a propaganda tool that helps to mask their broader political exhaustion. Thus, the US administration quickly became transfixed with the potential opportunities of harnessing tools like Twitter or Facebook to promote its values, even though what was being proposed was a kind of virtual intervention.

So, at the height of the Iranian protests, one official at the US State Department famously asked Twitter if it could halt its planned maintenance works so that the Green Movement’s protests could continue uninterrupted. Twitter, of course, obliged. Later, in January 2010, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made a pivotal speech signalling the administration’s renewed approach to pursuing ‘internet freedom’ across the globe. She argued for acknowledging ‘the internet’s prominent role in foreign affairs’. But her main suggestion was to unleash an army of bloggers who would undermine authoritarian rule from within, which had the effect of highlighting the further decline of US strategic power rather than suggesting revolutionary new thinking in Washington.

“Bloggers can just as easily preach pro-government content, too ”

But the lasting effect of all this, as Morozov goes to great lengths to point out, is simply to promote bloggers or even to host them out of harm’s way in the West. This has, in reality (certainly in the case of the Iranians), ‘often strengthened rather than undermined authoritarian rule’. Now the authorities had an even clearer idea of who was saying what, with dissident voices being outed in public.

Western states have long been significant exporters of technology hardware and services to authoritarian states, but they have also provided these regimes with numerous other ideas on how to censor and control their publics. Many Western countries, such as the UK, have become expert at using CCTV to track our every movement and at using internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off anyone caught downloading illegal content such as pirated music.

The West has even provided states like Saudi Arabia with more subtle lessons in how to benefit from using trendy techniques like ‘crowd-sourcing’ decision-making to keep people in check. When Saudi Arabia wanted to filter out anti-government content online, they asked anyone coming across anything offensive to report it. They apparently receive 1,200 daily links submitted to the Communications & Information Technology Commission. Who needs ‘spooks’ when loyal members of your population will do the work for you?

Consequently, as Morozov points out, even an increase in the numbers of bloggers in places like Iran or China doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in democratic tendencies. ‘This is where many analysts fall into the trap of equating liberalisation with democratisation; the latter, unlike the former, is a process with a clear end result.’ There is no reason to believe that all bloggers will spout democratic content: they can just as easily preach pro-government content, too.

Morozov shows that the ‘dictator’s dilemma’ – that is, pressure placed on regimes to open themselves up to uncensored information sources in the hope that they will eventually succumb to reform – had the opposite of the intended effect, providing those regimes with better-quality intelligence, such as through eavesdropping on social networking sites. Indeed, he suggests, while the West is exporting technological knowhow to attempt to destabilise regimes it disapproves of, these regimes in turn seem even more adept at using such technologies for their own gain.

In conclusion, Morozov presents himself as a firm believer in restraint. For him, where he can see no positive outcome or potential in introducing technology, he argues for the regulation of ‘internet freedom’ by the West. ‘While the internet by itself may not be liberating those living in authoritarian states, Western governments should not be making it easier to use in suppressing dissent.’ His conclusion is that putting technology in the wrong hands is a reckless act. ‘Smart regulation, if anything, is a first sign that society is serious about the technology in question and believes that it is here to stay.’

“While he opposes the opportunism of the West’s internet-freedom project, he is pro-interventionist”

In reality then, Morozov ends up on the same side as those Western policymakers who also believe that any internal opposition in authoritarian states will be too weak to bring about a revolution unless aided by Western technology-led intervention. He simply believes that technology is not enough and more determined intervention is required. ‘For the internet to play a constructive role in ridding the world of prejudice and hatred, it needs to be accompanied by an extremely ambitious set of social and political reforms.’

While he opposes the opportunism of the West’s naive internet-freedom project, he is at the same time pro-interventionist, albeit in the name of ‘safeguarding’ those people who live under authoritarian rule and who are allegedly unable to bring about change because they are too weak. Hence he can only offer an ultimately pessimistic note of caution: ‘If the hidden costs of digital activism include the loss of coherence, morality, or even sustainability of the opposition movement, it may not be a solution worth pursuing.’

Of course, while he is right to criticise as false prophets those cyber-utopians who believe the internet is heralding a new era of serious activism, the long-term effect of making new tools and technologies available will depend on the resourcefulness of those who use them. As events in the Middle East have shown, power can shift very quickly. So to deny reformers and revolutionaries access to such technology would invariably hold them back in their goals.

However, while we must not certainly overplay the current effect of those who choose to engage with technology, at the same time it is up to those ‘on the ground’ to make best use of it. The real problem today is that there is little or no clear and coherent struggle to speak of, which is why those who fetishise technology are the only ones to be heard.