Articles and Essays by Mark Engler
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The Internet as a Tool for Repression

We often hear about the revolutionary power of the Internet to take down authoritarian regimes. Less often do we consider how online technologies can provide dastardly means for repressive governments to locate, monitor, and persecute dissidents.

The geniuses over at the RSA Animate have recently posted an annotated talk by Evgeny Morozov. If you’re not familiar with RSA Animate, its method is to create videos in which a cartoonist illustrates a brief lecture by a writer or academic. The resulting animations are clever and engaging, adding an extra layer of clarity and humor to whatever topic the speaker is discussing. Some of their past hits include presentations by David Harvey and Barbara Ehrenreich.

With this one, Morozov—currently a visiting scholar at Stanford and author of a new book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom—criticizes the assumption that the Internet is necessarily helping to promote democracy.

Morozov has emerged in recent years as a leading critic of “techno-utopian” perspectives on the Internet and social networking. The talk that RSA has animated is actually one from 2009, but Morozov’s points are very pertinent to discussions of current uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

One argument he consistently makes is that while tech enthusiasts regularly highlight the benefits of new Internet innovations for activists, rarely do they consider the other side of the equation: how technology can also aid enemies of democracy and free expression. He suggests that dictators are not nearly so afraid of the Internet as we might imagine, and that in many cases they have effectively co-opted bloggers and mined social networks to promote their repressive ends. “States used to torture to get this kind of information,” he says. “Now all they have to do is go onto Facebook.”

I’ve waded into debates on the Internet as a tool for organizing on a few previous occasions. In general, I’m inclined to agree with the commonsense view that an increased flow of information hurts dictatorships, making it more difficult for them to control public opinion. So I don’t wholly buy Morozov’s contrarianism. But I am more skeptical than many of the claims of Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and I appreciate Morozov’s critical perspective. I especially enjoy seeing him picking fights, at his Foreign Policy blog, with the likes of Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman.

For those who prefer to read Morozov’s writing instead of watching the video, he lays out his views about the role of the Internet in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt at the Guardian:

Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED.

Sadly, this is the level of nuance in most popular accounts of the internet’s contribution to the recent unrest in the Middle East….

[T]oday, the role of the telegraph in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution—just like the role of the tape-recorder in the 1979 Iranian revolution and of the fax machine in the 1989 revolutions—is of interest to a handful of academics and virtually no one else. The fetishism of technology is at its strongest immediately after a revolution but tends to subside shortly afterward.

In his 1993 bestseller The Magic Lantern, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most acute observers of the 1989 revolutions, proclaimed that “in Europe at the end of the 20th century, all revolutions are telerevolutions“—but in retrospect, the role of television in those events seems like a very minor point.

Will history consign Twitter and Facebook to much the same fate 20 years down the road? In all likelihood, yes.

At New Scientist, Morozov considers how “The Internet is a Tyrant’s Friend“:

Thanks to radical improvements in technologies such as face recognition, it may become even easier for the secret police to track their opponents. Here, too, there is a cut-throat competition among western firms, who rightly smell lucrative commercial opportunities—wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those online photos of your friends could be tagged automatically? And yet you can almost guarantee that such technologies would be abused by authoritarian states.

Lastly, for the Fall 2009 issue of Dissent, Morozov wrote on the Green Revolution in Iran and the “Downside to the ‘Twitter Revolution’“:

[T]his new media eco-system is very much like the old game of “Telephone,” in which errors steadily accumulate in the transmission process, and the final message has nothing in common with the original. Judging by the flawed media coverage of the events in Tehran, the game never sounded more Iranian. Thus, to blame Andrew Sullivan for first dreaming up the “Twitter Revolution,” we have to blame a bevy of English-speaking Iranian bloggers who had shaped his opinion (many of them from the Iranian diaspora, with strong pro-Western feelings—why else blog in English?), as well as Farsi-speaking bloggers in Tehran who had shaped the opinion of the English-speaking Iranians, and so forth. Factor in various political biases, and it becomes clear that what Andrew Sullivan is “seeing” might be radically different from what is actually happening.

Morozov has his more balanced moments and inserts the necessary concessions that, yes, the Internet is a powerful tool that can be fruitfully employed by pro-democracy forces. But in a debate filled with techno-utopian assumptions, it is his penchant to debunk that rightly catches our attention.

 

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the web site www.DemocracyUprising.com.
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