Interview: Evgeny Morozov on the web pulled over our eyes.

Part 1 – The Western delusion of Internet Freedom.

Evgeny Morozov speaking at The Watershed.

Evgeny Morozov does not believe that there was any such thing as a “Twitter Revolution” in Iran. He believes that not only was the significance of Twitter greatly inflated by the western media, but that social networks such as Facebook were used to even greater effect by the totalitarian regime in hunting down its political opponents.

A native Belarusian, Morozov is no stranger to authoritarian regimes, or the internet for that matter, having previously worked at Yahoo. One of the central theses of his book The Net Delusion is that the US underestimates the political nature of the internet. When the government aligns themselves directly with corporate enterprises such as Twitter (as they did during the 2009 protests in Iran), they make social networking a political matter. They make it known to authoritarian regimes around the world that the US seeks to facilitate these websites abroad in its quest for worldwide democracy. He calls it the ‘Google Doctrine’:

“It’s the idea that the US government stands to benefit from the fact that so much of online communications are facilitated by American companies. It’s the idea that you need to harvest the fact that America and Silicon Valley are number one in digital communications. I coined it simply because I looked at what the US state department has been doing over the last couple of years and I think they have radically underestimated the political effect, and political perception, of involving American companies in foreign policy matters.”

When asked whether he thinks it right for America to meddle in the constitutional affairs of other nations, his response was one born of the realities of living under an oppressive regime:

“I’m one of those people who are not terribly concerned with the US imposing the idea of democracy on other countries. Because, you know, if I have to choose between the American idea of democracy and the Russian idea of authoritarianism, I go for the American model. So I think there is definitely a value in having America heavily involved in democracy promotion. But, the first organising principle of this effort should be: do no harm. So I do want the US and the west to promote freedom and democracy, though it would preferably not involve invading other countries.”

Despite the improvement democracy would no doubt make to the lives of millions living under oppression; it seems there is widespread delusion over the nature of the beast that will bear us there. In 2009 Wired Italy nominated ‘the Internet’ for a Nobel Peace Prize. The moral tone that is set by this digital deification is potentially misleading:

“I think it hides the highly political nature of the internet itself, and its highly capitalist nature. I mean the fact is that you have private companies like Facebook and Google which are facilitating much of this digital push, and when we view the internet as inherently democratic you end up viewing those companies as inherently democratic. Once we do that we no longer subject them to the kind of criticism they deserve. “

One of the big problems that America in particular has with this kind of promotion of internet freedom abroad is that there are visible inconsistencies in its rhetoric. The West condemns China and much of the Middle East for its censorship, but risks being held to account for its own records of tolerance. When asked what steps western governments should be taking his answer was simple:

“To become more honest, would help. The problem is that any steps they take right now, if they only want to promote it abroad, will make the move duplicitous. So they have to really make a commitment to internet freedom in the domestic context as well. So they have to say that, ‘we believe in internet freedom, inclusive of organisations like Wikileaks.’ And so far they haven’t done it.”

 

Part 2 – The Western Delusion of Internet Revolution.

A free world and a free internet are no doubt a long way off, so in the hope of bringing the discussion closer to home I ask about what the internet can do. Morozov’s insights from Eastern Europe and the Middle East tell an illuminating story:

“My concern is that there are some cases, not everywhere and every time, but there are cases where the fact that so much protest now is moving to the virtual space may actually make a democratisation less likely because it’s happening on a level that doesn’t really matter all that much. The problem here is that many governments actually realise this, and they are happy to have the young people campaigning in virtual space as long as the protest doesn’t spill offline. My concern here really is that you have this virtual playground where young people think they’re overthrowing the government while the regime is standing round the corner and laughing at what’s happening because they know that those people are not campaigning in the real world.”

This dissipation of true influence is visible in the workings of Facebook, and played out in today’s student activism. All large scale marches are organised almost exclusively through Facebook, with people inviting their acquaintances as more of a symbol of their activism than as an act itself. The end result, though at times visually impressive, is that a few thousand protestors walk down Park Street more for the sense of occasion than for any notable ideological reasons.

As Morozov sees it, “There is this phenomenon of people engaging in online activism in part because it makes them feel good, and in part because it allows them to accomplish something very quickly. It is very easy to claim success if you just gather a million members to a Facebook group.” The issue here is whether genuine conviction is central to a subversive movement, or whether sheer numbers will do it. Incidentally, the successful march of around 2000 students in Bristol took place on a beautifully sunny day; subsequent marches were bitterly cold, and attended by no more than a few hundred.

Evgeny Morozov is not alone in his scepticism regarding the true power of social networks. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in Small Change, Why the revolution will not be tweeted, extraordinary cases of political protest tend to arise from stronger bonds than those holding social networks together. Facebook and its merry union of acquaintances simply do not have the power that more traditional forms of human interaction have. The civil rights movement in the US was formed on well organised and tightly interlocked groups of friends and church-goers, who cared about their cause and cared about each other. It also had strong leadership; people who were not afraid to be held accountable for the repercussions of their cause, and paid the ultimate price for that conviction. What it didn’t have was the frustratingly unfocused disorder of the student protests, a movement so democratic that it was entirely without leadership and coherency.

Unlike the various marches across the country the occupation of Senate House in Bristol did not rely on Facebook for its organising power. The entire operation was planned and put into action either on encoded web forums or by word of mouth. This was not the kind of action that could simply be shouted from the rooftops, or instigated through the resolutely casual mode of social networking. It was not without its flaws – it too was lacking in consistent ideology – but it was at least a proactive and undeniably provocative move. It certainly took the debate off the internet and into the heart of the University.

What social networks seem to do is spread news and ideas far and wide, but also very thin. There is some level of sincerity and seriousness that is lost as soon as a message is told to ten thousand acquaintances all at once, and in the same inboxes that receive another ten messages that day telling them they have guaranteed VIP access to some of the most unimportant places in the world. Perhaps it is one of the great ironies of our communication age: that the easier it is to reach others, the less we care about what is being communicated.

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