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An Accelerated Grimace: On Cyber-Utopianism | The Nation

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An Accelerated Grimace: On Cyber-Utopianism

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In The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov, we finally have a long-overdue market correction to cyber-utopianism, which Morozov defines as “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.” Morozov, a Belarussian web activist who works with the New America Foundation, sizes up the social media web for what it is—a powerful tool for communication, which like most such tools in modern history is subject to grievous distortion and manipulation by antidemocratic regimes.

Cognitive Surplus
Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
By Clay Shirky.
Buy this book

The Net Delusion
The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.
By Evgeny Morozov.
Buy this book

About the Author

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehmann, an editor at The Baffler and Bookforum, is at work on a book about American religion and the culture of...

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Since the remarkable popular protests that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power in February, Shirky’s cyber-utopian vision of crowdsourced social virtue has gone viral. US media have devoted extensive coverage to Egypt’s so-called Facebook and Twitter generation, the young anti-Mubarak activists who have been praised for using social media and cellphones to organize protesters in Tahrir Square and topple a tyrant. One activist ideally suited to this story line was 30-year-old Wael Ghonim, a Google executive detained by the Egyptian police for twelve days for acting as the anonymous administrator of a Facebook page that was facilitating the protests. Sure enough, the American media promptly adopted Ghonim as the face of Egypt’s revolt shortly after his release from detention.

Social networking mattered in Egypt, but the root causes of the uprising were scarcity, official corruption and social conflict, none of which fit the cyber-utopian narrative or flatter America’s technological vanity. The original scheduled protests of January 25 arose out of a past effort to organize an anti-Mubarak general strike, and it was the spread of the protests to the less wired workers in Egypt’s long-pinched labor economy that helped furnish the telling last blows to the Mubarak order. According to many reports from Cairo, the protests continued to gain momentum not from tweets or Facebook posts but instead from the direct spectacle of the populace congregating, We the People style, in Tahrir Square. Most Egyptians were following events on state television, which was parroting the official propaganda approved by the Mubarak regime, holding that the protests were the handiwork of foreign agitators. Not being regular blog readers, ordinary Egyptians went into the streets and saw that the state media were lying, that the protesters were their neighbors, their family members, their co-workers. The effort to coax a new political order into being grew from the power of popular witness, filtered through the evidence of citizens’ own eyes and ears.

Western cyber-utopian exuberance was disastrously projected onto the global stage during the 2009 protests over Iran’s stolen presidential election. Shirky pronounced the Twitter-aided revolt “the big one…. the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.” Morozov patiently unpacks the ways that Shirky and other American Twitter champions overestimated the technology’s impact. Just over 19,000 Twitter accounts were registered in Iran before the uprising, he notes—meaning that roughly 0.027 percent of Iran’s population could have plugged into the Twitterfied protests. Many of the accounts reported on by the media belonged to sympathizers and Iranian diaspora, such as the blogger oxfordgirl, who supplied indispensable updates and aggregated news roundups on the protests from her perch in the British countryside.

Tapping into a digitally mediated experience of events in Iran felt extremely significant to Western Twitter clients, so much so that an Obama administration State Department official named Jared Cohen wrote to the social media company’s executives requesting that they postpone a scheduled suspension in service for site maintenance so as to keep Iranian dissidents online at a critical juncture in the Tehran demonstrations. Leaders in rival authoritarian states didn’t need to hear anything else in order to justify their own crackdowns on social media: Twitter may not have launched the anti-Ahmadinejad rebellion, but in one fell diplomatic swoop the world’s dictators saw cause to repudiate Twitter as a tool of a meddling Obama White House. This, Morozov writes, was “globalization at its worst.”

A simple email based on the premise that Twitter mattered in Iran, sent by an American diplomat in Washington to an American company in San Francisco, triggered a worldwide Internet panic and politicized all online activity, painting it in bright revolutionary colors, and threatening to tighten online spaces and opportunities that were previously unregulated…. The pundits were right: Iran’s Twitter Revolution did have global repercussions. Those were, however, extremely ambiguous, and they often strengthened rather than undermined the authoritarian rule.

The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs “the Google Doctrine”—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.

Nevertheless, the Google Doctrine remains central to American policy-making. Last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a feverishly touted speech on the largely empty topic of “Internet freedom.” Like cold war–era pronouncements touting Western virtues for global consumption, Clinton’s broad-brush celebration of the Net’s innate democratizing thrust alternated between the vacuous—“we stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas”—and the hypocritical, with Clinton touting cyber-enabled popular revolts in Iran and Moldova while remaining conspicuously silent about a web censorship measure enacted the week before in Jordan, a vital US ally in the Middle East. As Morozov observes, “translated into policies, the very concept of Internet freedom, much like ‘the war on terror’ before it, leads to intellectual mush in the heads of its promoters and breeds excessive paranoia in the heads of their adversaries.”

Morozov’s dogged reporting on how authoritarian regimes have nimbly adapted to the Internet age underlines what an empty gesture it is to treat “Internet” and “freedom” as synonyms. Much as US policy thinkers have clung to the naïve cold war faith in data transmission as revolution by other means, they have also propped up the outmoded image of the authoritarian state as a lumbering, clueless mass bureaucracy, easily toppled or terrified into submission before a well-timed hacker attack or a heroic blog post. Instead, today’s strongmen are just as apt to be on the delivering as the receiving end of blog outbursts and denials of service.

Tomaar, a Saudi website promoting philosophical inquiry outside the confines of Muslim orthodoxy, attracted a mass following soon after it was launched, especially as its discussion boards expanded to include the question of politics and culture in the Arab world. In short order, though, the Saudi government denied access to the site on all servers used by its citizens. When Tomaar’s webmasters devised a straightforward workaround via a third-party Internet connection, that stopped working as well—and the US-based service provider abruptly canceled the site’s contract, condemning it to a series of improvised connectivity patches. Even so, it still suffers regular denial-of-service attacks—the same tools that have been used to disable the site for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks operation. Nothing in the battery of attacks on Tomaar points directly back to the Saudi government—another sign, in all likelihood, that authoritarian webmasters have grown as adept in covering their tracks as they are in disrupting web service. As Morozov notes, “cases like Tomaar’s are increasingly common, especially among activist and human rights organizations. Burma’s exiled media—Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and the Democratic Voice of Burma—all experienced major cyber-attacks…; ditto the Belarussian oppositional site Charter97, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta (the one that employed the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya), the Kazakh oppositional newspaper Respublika, and even various local branches of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.”

* * *

It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.

As the Tomaar episode also shows, American Net companies—hailed in State Department speeches as the vanguard of the freedom revolution—are often fleet of foot when political controversy threatens to roil their plans for overseas market expansion. It’s not hard to see why that should be the case: their shareholders expect them to be profitable, and in many stops along the global marketplace, freedom and democratization stand directly athwart that prime directive. To take just one example, last year Facebook pulled the plug on a group maintained by an activist in Morocco named Kacem El Ghazzali, which promoted discussion about secular education in the theocratic country. When El Ghazzali e-mailed Facebook engineers in Palo Alto requesting an explanation, they deleted his profile on the site for good measure. Eventually, Facebook relented and restored the education site, once the episode got press attention in the West, but El Ghazzali was left to rebuild his Facebook profile on his own. In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Facebook shut down Wael Ghonim’s page because he had violated the company’s terms of service by using a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the page’s administrators. Hence, as Morozov observes, “contrary to the expectations of many Western policymakers, Facebook is hardly ideal for promoting democracy; its own logic, driven by profits or ignorance of the increasingly global context in which it operates, is, at times, extremely antidemocratic.”

This trend, too, runs counter to common wisdom on digital globalization, which has long held that authoritarian governments can’t afford to crack down on Net freedom, because the collateral loss in trade and commerce would be prohibitive. That argument is also an extension of the classic “dollar diplomacy” that, during the cold war, was supposed to force the hands of strongmen who otherwise lacked enthusiasm for Western anticommunist initiatives. With Western companies beating a hasty retreat to the sidelines, foreign dictators can now be confident that the battle over free online expression will never be fully joined.

Meanwhile, plenty of equally unsavory nonstate actors have also adapted to the new networked web—most notoriously in the cellphone-enabled Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which jihadists used Google maps to identify their targets. Mexican crime gangs have used Facebook to compile lists of kidnapping targets, while Indonesians can use a Craigslist-style service to arrange the sale of children’s organs. While Kenya has played host to a vital and influential site called Ushahidi, which helped modernize accurate citizen reporting of violence during the disputed 2007 elections, in that same episode ethnic leaders on both sides of the dispute used text messaging to spread violent attacks on their enemies. “The blood of innocent Kykuyus will cease to flow! We will massacre them right here in the capital,” one such message read. “In the name of justice put down the names of all the Luos and Kaleos you know from work, your property, anywhere in Nairobi, not forgetting where and how their children go to school. We will give you a number on where to text these messages.”

Morozov contends that the work of Ushahidi, while enormously valuable in certain ways, is decidedly ambiguous in others. While crowdsourcing is an indispensable good in responses to natural disasters, Ushahidi’s tracking of political violence and election monitoring inevitably involves data that, in the absence of third-party oversight, is “impossible to verify and easy to manipulate,” via false reports or rumors designed to foment panic in one camp or another. False reports are especially damaging to the documentation of human rights abuses, because just one falsifiable report can more or less permanently discredit an entire human rights operation. In addition, he writes, some details about such attacks should not be available online because, for example, “in many countries, there is still a significant social stigma associated with rape,” and small but telling details about an attack’s location “may reveal the victims, making their lives even more unbearable.” Ushahidi figures into Cognitive Surplus, but scrubbed of any ambiguity or unintended consequences. “Like all good stories,” Shirky chirps in a Gladwellian key, “the story of Ushahidi holds several different lessons: People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help when they are invited to. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things.”

Because Morozov is not an American web-booster, he’s especially attuned to the plank-in-the-eye hypocrisies of US Net evangelists. When Hillary Clinton was still in the Senate, she co-sponsored legislation with fellow culture scold Sam Brownback to fund government research on how Internet use could stupefy and endanger America’s youth. Such concerns never seem to arise in approving Net freedom for indiscriminate foreigners, though; as Morozov archly notes, “Chinese and Russian parents would never worry about such a thing! Or ask their governments to do something about it!” This contradiction, he adds, amounts to nothing less than Orientalism, and harms US critical thinking as much as it damages the Internet’s image abroad. “While many in the West concede that the Internet has not solved and may have only aggravated many negative aspects of political culture,” as is the case with James O’Keefe’s gotcha YouTube videos, “they are the first to proclaim that when it comes to authoritarian states, the Internet enables their citizens to see through the propaganda. Why so many of their own fellow citizens—living in a free country with no controls on freedom of expression—still believe extremely simplistic and misleading narratives when all the facts are just a Google search away is a question that Western observers should be asking more often.”

Morozov isn’t a Luddite. In his activist career in Belarus, he has witnessed the dramatic gains that democratic movements can make online. But he’s also seen—and chronicled, in this indispensable book—the many ways that the digital world mirrors the inequities, perverse outcomes and unintended consequences that dog all human endeavors in nondigital human history. If only we had spent the past two decades reading books like The Net Delusion instead of embracing the Clay Shirkys of the world as serious public intellectuals, we could have a far more coherent view of our new media revolution—and probably a much saner set of policy options in the bargain.

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