Texting Toward Utopia
Does the Internet spread democracy?
Mar 1, 2009
17 Min read time
In 1989 Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”; later, Bill Clinton compared Internet censorship to “trying to nail Jell–O to the wall”; and in 1999 George W. Bush (not John Lennon) asked us to “imagine if the Internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.”
Such starry–eyed cyber–optimism suggested a new form of technological determinism according to which the Internet would be the hammer to nail all global problems, from economic development in Africa to threats of transnational terrorism in the Middle East. Even so shrewd an operator as Rupert Murdoch yielded to the digital temptation: “Advances in the technology of telecommunications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere,” he claimed. Soon after, Murdoch bowed down to the Chinese authorities, who threatened his regional satellite TV business in response to this headline–grabbing statement.
Some analysts did not jump on the bandwagon. The restrained tone of one 2003 report stood in marked contrast to prevailing cyber–optimism. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s, “Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule,” warned: “Rather than sounding the death knell for authoritarianism, the global diffusion of the Internet presents both opportunity and challenge for authoritarian regimes.” Surveying diverse regimes from Singapore to Cuba, the report concluded that the political impact of the Internet would vary with a country’s social and economic circumstances, its political culture, and the peculiarities of its national Internet infrastructure.
Carnegie’s report appeared in the pre–YouTube, –Facebook, –MySpace darkness, so it was easy to overlook the rapidly falling costs of self–publishing and coordination and the implications for online interaction and collaboration, from political networking to Wikipedia. Still harder was to predict the potential effect of the Internet and mobile technology on economic development in the world’s poorest regions, where they currently provide much–needed banking infrastructure (for example, by using unspent air credit on mobile phones as currency), create new markets, introduce educational opportunities, and help to spread information about prevention and treatment of diseases. And hopes remain that the fruits of faster economic development, born of new information technologies, might also be good for democracy.
It is thus tempting to embrace the earlier cyber–optimism, trace the success of many political and democratic initiatives around the globe to the coming of Web 2.0, and dismiss the misgivings of the Carnegie report. Could it be that changes in the Web over the past six years—especially the rise of social networking, blogging, and video and photo sharing—represent the flowering of the Internet’s democratizing potential? This thesis seems to explain the dynamics of current Internet censorship: sites that feature user–generated content—Facebook, YouTube, Blogger—are especially unpopular with authoritarian regimes. A number of academic and popular books on the subject point to nothing short of a revolution, both in politics and information (see, for example, Antony Loewenstein’s The Blogging Revolution or Elizabeth Hanson’s The Information Revolution and World Politics, both published last year). Were the cyber–optimists right after all? Does the Internet spread freedom?
The answer to this question substantially depends on how we measure “freedom.” It is safe to say that the Internet has significantly changed the flow of information in and out of authoritarian states. While Internet censorship remains a thorny issue and, unfortunately, more widespread than it was in 2003, it is hard to ignore the wealth of digital content that has suddenly become available to millions of Chinese, Iranians, or Egyptians. If anything the speed and ease of Internet publishing have made many previous modes of samizdat obsolete; the emerging generation of dissidents may as well choose Facebook and YouTube as their headquarters and iTunes and Wikipedia as their classrooms.
Many such dissenters have, indeed, made great use of the Web. In Ukraine young activists relied on new–media technologies to mobilize supporters during the Orange Revolution. Colombian protesters used Facebook to organize massive rallies against FARC, the leftist guerrillas. The shocking and powerful pictures that surfaced from Burma during the 2007 anti–government protests—many of them shot by local bloggers with cell phones—quickly traveled around the globe. Democratic activists in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe used the Web to track vote rigging in last year’s elections and used mobile phones to take photos of election results that were temporarily displayed outside the voting booths (later, a useful proof of the irregularities). Plenty of other examples—from Iran, Egypt, Russia, Belarus, and, above all, China—attest to the growing importance of technology in facilitating dissent.
Regime change by text messaging may seem realistic in cyberspace, but no dictators have been toppled via Second Life.
But drawing conclusions about the democratizing nature of the Internet may still be premature. The major challenge in understanding the relationship between democracy and the Internet— aside from developing good measures of democratic improvement—has been to distinguish cause and effect. That is always hard, but it is especially difficult in this case because the grandiose promise of technological determinism—the idealistic belief in the Internet’s transformative power—has often blinded even the most sober analysts.
Consider the arguments that ascribe Barack Obama’s electoral success, in part, to his team’s mastery of databases, online fundraising, and social networking. Obama’s use of new media is bound to be the subject of many articles and books. But to claim the primacy of technology over politics would be to disregard Obama’s larger–than–life charisma, the legacy of the stunningly unpopular Bush administration, the ramifications of the global financial crisis, and John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. Despite the campaign’s considerable Web savvy, one cannot grant much legitimacy to the argument that it earned Obama his victory.
Yet, we are seemingly willing to resort to such technological determinism in the international context. For example, discussions of the Orange Revolution have assigned a particularly important role to text messaging. This is how a 2007 research paper, “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution,” by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society described the impact of text messaging, or SMS:
By September 2004, Pora [the opposition’s youth movement] had created a series of stable political networks throughout the country, including 150 mobile groups responsible for spreading information and coordinating election monitoring, with 72 regional centers and over 30,000 registered participants. Mobile phones played an important role for this mobile fleet of activists. Pora’s post–election report states, ‘a system of immediate dissemination of information by SMS was put in place and proved to be important.’
Such mobilization may indeed have been important in the final effort. But it is misleading to imply, as some recent studies by Berkman staff have, that the Orange Revolution was the work of as a “smart mob”—a term introduced by the critic Howard Rheingold to describe self–structuring and emerging social organization facilitated by technology. To focus so singularly on the technology is to gloss over the brutal attempts to falsify the results of the presidential elections that triggered the protests, the two weeks that protesters spent standing in the freezing November air, or the millions of dollars pumped into the Ukrainan democratic forces to make those protests happen in the first place. Regime change by text messaging may seem realistic in cyberspace, but no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be president.
To be sure, technology has a role in global causes. In addition to the tools of direct communication and collaboration now available, the proliferation of geospatial data and cheap and accessible satellite imagery, along with the arrival of user–friendly browsers like Google Earth, has fundamentally transformed the work of specialized NGOs; helped to start many new ones; and allowed, for example, real–life tracking of deforestation and illegal logging. Even indigenous populations previously shut off from technological innovations have taken advantage of online tools.
More importantly, the tectonic shifts in the economics of activism have allowed large numbers of unaffiliated individual activists (some of them toiling part–time or even freelancing) to contribute to numerous efforts. As Clay Shirky argues in Here Comes Everybody: Organizing Without Organizations, the new generation of protests is much more ad–hoc, spontaneous, and instantaneous (another allusion to Rheingold’s “smart mobs”). Technology enables groups to capitalize on different levels of engagement among activists. Operating on Wikipedia’s every–comma–counts ethos, it has finally become possible to harvest the energy of both active and passive contributors. Now, even a forwarded email counts. Such “nano–activism” matters in the aggregate.
So the Internet is making group and individual action cheaper, faster, leaner. But logistics are not the only determinant of civic engagement. What is the impact of the Internet on our incentives to act? This question is particularly important in the context of authoritarian states, where elections and opportunities for spontaneous, collective action are rare. The answer depends, to a large extent, on whether the Internet fosters an eagerness to act on newly acquired information. Whether the Internet augments or dampens this eagerness is both critical and undetermined.
The Internet makes it easier for us to find and join groups that we already agree with, which might, in turn, make our views even more extreme.
Some argue that citizen access to public documents that might reveal corruption and fraud (SEC filings, tax returns of elected officials, disclosures about major campaign contributions, etc.) will spur citizen action. The chief proponents of such radical transparency are technology pioneers like public.resource.org’s Carl Malamud in the United States and mySociety’s Tom Steinberg in the United Kingdom. Similar logic—that open data helps to expose abuses of power or, as Justice Brandeis said, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”—guides the work of the Sunlight Foundation in the United States and smaller outfits elsewhere, including Mzalendo, a Web site and voting database tracking Kenyan Ministers of Parliament, and FairPlay Alliance, a comparable site in Slovakia.
There are also sites like Wikileaks, which host all sorts of controversial materials, from a list of Web sites censored by the Thai government to a copy of the Human Terrain Team Handbook of the U.S. military. Once such documents have been leaked, these sites contend, it makes more sense to open them to public view than leave their publication to chance. (Wikileaks also seems to have acquired lethal powers: the CEO of Julius Baer, a Swiss bank that was implicated in corruption thanks to documents hosted on Wikileaks, has recently died of mysterious causes, most probably suicide.) The premise that providing access to information and fostering the norm of transparency could speed up democratization underpins their work. Here is how Wikileaks describes its mission:
All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly—in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances—the internet, [sic] and cryptography—the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.
One could applaud the organizers of Wikileaks for their perseverance alone (they claim to have received more than 1.2 million documents from dissident and anonymous sources). Yet the success of such campaigns—both in democracies and authoritarian states—might be limited. The existence of documentation does not ensure a particular outcome. As the Madoff saga has revealed, even publicly available filings with the SEC might expose less than we think. And making sense of 1.2 million documents uploaded to Wikileaks will take time, effort, and a large contingent of investigative journalists.
Furthermore, not all crimes are documented in ways that can be categorized, digitized, and put online. As Misha Glenny argues in his brilliant new book McMafia, modern crime is so globalized, entangled, and hard to document and contain within national borders, that identifying co–conspirators might be impossible. For example, it is hard to imagine that the Sudanese government retains extensive bookkeeping on its possibly illegal arms purchases. But even if they do—and these documents suddenly become public—what are the chances that they will ignite serious protest? Judging by the uneventful publication of much harder evidence, including sightings of unchartered ships carrying real weapons, an outcry is unlikely, and the reasons have less to do with Twitter or Facebook than the fact that people can have lots of information and very little power to act on it.
Others argue that the Internet exposes the otherwise brainwashed citizens of authoritarian governments to competing and dissenting views about their governments. This helps them develop a different worldview and, potentially, aspirations for democratic change. This is possible, even though it might be hard to find a country—save, perhaps, for North Korea or Turkmenistan—where citizens have not yet heard why their governments are bad: this is, after all, what old men discuss in pubs. We also cannot assume that people will seek out information they do not agree with or simply do not know about.
Moreover, counting on the Internet to perform this function risks what Cass Sunstein, recently appointed head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, dubbed “enclave extremism.” The Internet makes it easier for us to find and join groups that we already agree with, which might, in turn, make our views even more extreme. According to Sunstein, avoiding this problem in the pre–Internet age was easier, as the front page of the major national newspaper provided the shared collective experience as well as a healthy dose of serendipity, exposing us to views and news that we may never encounter otherwise.
Sunstein’s “front page” model, of course, does not work well in societies with controlled media. It would be disingenuous to compare blogs and online communities to the front page of the major national newspaper in, say, Uzbekistan, where the type is probably set by the government rather than free–acting editors. Not much serendipity there; in fact, one might be better off reading a handful of independent blogs. Thus, it is possible that the Internet—and blogs in particular—do play an important role in building a more democratic public sphere in authoritarian states. This would be a significant improvement over tightly controlled state media. Some early evidence suggests that this is true at least in some countries. Research by Columbia University’s John Kelly confirms that Iranian blogs are diverse, representing both conservative and liberal voices, with an array of other forces thrown in the mix. There is no dominant faction among them.
The value that readers place in blogs hinges on the perception that their authors are “independent,” free from manipulation by the state or other third–parties. So how independent are they? Cyber–utopians’ biggest conceptual mistake is treating cyberspace as some kind of anarchist zone, which the authorities dare not enter except to shut things down. Media reports encourage this view of authoritarian governments as technophobic Internet censors.
Why assume that Chinese Internet users will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?
But why would authorities not pursue a two–pronged strategy, both restricting access to the most undesirable Web sites and using the Web to manipulate public opinion? This is precisely how authoritarian governments have dealt with more significant media threats in the past. The Soviets did not ban radio; they jammed certain Western stations, cracked down on dissenting broadcasters at home, and exploited the medium to promote their ideology. The Nazis took a similar approach to cinema, which became a preferred propaganda tool in the Third Reich.
A growing body of evidence from China and Russia—the two states most active in posting Web content—shows the pattern continuing on the Internet. Chinese authorities are notorious for creating and operating the so–called Fifty Cent Party, a squad of pro–government online commentators who trawl the Web in search of interesting political discussions and leave anonymous comments on blogs and forums. Similarly, the Russian government often relies on private Internet companies, such as the prominent New Media Stars, which happily advance the government’s views online. New Media Stars recently produced a patriotic movie, War 08.08.08, successfully distributed online and touted on many Russian blogs, which blames the war in South Ossetia solely on Georgia. While the new digital public spheres may be getting more democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily polluted by government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly controlled analogue public spheres.
Even if authorities are incompetent, unable, or unwilling to tar the Web with official “information,” there is little evidence that an open Internet will suddenly make the Chinese or Russians dream of democracy. We have been here before: East Germans who could not tune in to West German broadcasting had higher rates of opposition to their government than those who did. The idea that unfettered access to the Internet will bring democracy suggests one of the worst fallacies of cyber–utopianism. 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?
Thus, the question of whether the Internet will nudge the Chinese or the Russians towards demanding a more democratic and free society boils down to which path—the outward– or the inward–looking one—their youths choose to follow. Predictably, most cyber–utopians nurture a deep–seated belief in an inherent cosmopolitanism of the Internet. They imagine that “digital natives”—those who have grown up surrounded by technology and the Internet—will choose the outward path and become harbingers of democracy, American–style. This logic has permeated virtually all major institutions tasked with promoting democracy abroad, including the State Department, whose Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Condoleezza Rice, James Glassman, said: “We feel that around the world, young people are using the Internet to push back against violence in a new way, using social networking, convening large groups to have conversations, basically, to share information.”
Such enthusiastic assessments also grace the rapidly growing body of academic and popular literature on digital natives in the United States and Western Europe. Books such as Born Digital by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott, iBrain by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, and The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason, as well as a recent three–year study on digital youth by the MacArthur Foundation, come to mind. In these already–democratic societies, optimism about the Internet’s impact on the civic engagement of young people—even the notion of “digital citizenship”—is a justified, if not particularly new, intellectual thread.
However, outside of the prosperous and democratic countries of North America and Western Europe, digital natives are as likely to be digital captives as digital renegades, a subject that none of the recent studies address in depth. If the notion that the Internet could dampen young people’s aspirations for democracy seems counterintuitive, it is only because our media is still enthralled by the trite narrative of bloggers as a force for positive change. Recent headlines include: “Egypt’s growing blogger community pushes limit of dissent,” “From China to Iran, Web Diarists Are Challenging Censors,” “Cuba’s Blogger Crackdown,” “China’s web censors struggle to muzzle free–spirited bloggers.”
Much of the encouraging reporting may be true, if slightly overblown, but it suffers from several sources of bias. As it turns out, the secular, progressive, and pro–Western bloggers tend to write in English rather than in their native language. Consequently, they are also the ones who speak to Western reporters on a regular basis. Should the media dig a bit deeper, they might find ample material to run articles with headlines like “Iranian bloggers: major challenge to democratic change” and “Saudi Arabia: bloggers hate women’s rights.” The coverage of Egyptian blogging in the Western mainstream media focuses almost exclusively on the struggles of secular writers, with very little mention of the rapidly growing blogging faction within the Muslim Brotherhood.
Labeling a Muslim Brotherhood blog as “undemocratic” suggests duplicity. Thus Western governments, caught up in the heady cyber–utopianism of the last two decades, face a dilemma. Without their investments in blogs, blog aggregators, and video blogs in far–away but geopolitically important places, the online voices of the West’s favorite secular and democratic forces would not carry much weight. Yet, investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization. A brief look at the emerging cyber–nationalism in Russia and China provides a taste of things to come.
The problem with building public spheres from above, online or offline, is much like that of building Frankenstein’s monsters: we may not like the end product. This does not mean we should give up on the Internet as a force for democratization, only that we should ditch the blinding ideology of technological determinism and focus on practical tasks. Figuring out how the Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations—very few of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web—would not be a bad place to start.
March 01, 2009
17 Min read time