Monday, March 05, 2012

How Twitter Helps Authoritarian Governments...

During last year's Arab Spring - which saw the demise of authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as mass protest movements in Bahrain, Syria, and other countries - the Western world was quick to notice the role of the Internet in fostering such uprisings. Journalist Andrew Sullivan declared, "The revolution will be Twittered". This followed a longer trend of philosophical thought that the Internet would be a democratizing force in the world against which totalitarian regimes stood little chance.

But if this is the case, how do you explain that China and Iran are as stable and repressive as ever? Is the hype about the Internet as a pro-democratic force overblown?

Evgeny Morozov answers, decidedly, yes. In his book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, he argues that we're all being naive in thinking that if we simply let the Internet run wild and unfettered, somehow authoritarian governments will be magically toppled. He points out that, on the contrary, these governments are becoming quite effective at using the Internet to suppress free speech, hone their surveillance techniques, disseminate propaganda, and pacify their populations.

In this context, the Internet is actually a helpful tool for such regimes. His term of the "Net Delusion" refers to 1) a flawed set of cyber-utopian assumptions about how online communication is emancipatory by nature, and 2) a flawed methodology - labeled Internet-centrism - which prioritizes the tool over the environment. What results is a Western world believing so much in technology as a force for positive change that it dangerously overlooks other avenues for supporting dissidents and toppling authoritarian regimes, which would ultimately be far more effective.

As Morozov says, "Tweets don't topple governments; people do".

Examples abound. Twitter's coming-of-age moment came during the Iranian Green Movement in 2009, when it was lauded for mobilizing and organizing mass protests. However, in retrospect, this was largely overhyped. Only 19,2235 Twitter accounts were registered in Iran on the eve of the Green Movement, which is exactly 0.027 percent of the population. It's quite hard to argue that Twitter was so instrumental if virtually no Iranians were using it. Instead, it's more likely that the bulk of Twitter activity at the time consisted of outsiders raising global awareness. One Al-Jazeera study could only confirm 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran at the time, and that number fell to six once the authorities began their crackdown.

Regardless of the hype, the Iranian government's response was nevertheless instructive. A high-level cybercrime team was formed, tasked with seeking out any "insults or lies" on websites, and identifying and arresting those disseminating such "false information". Meanwhile, the police began scouring social media sites like Facebook and YouTube for photos and videos of the protesters, re-publishing them on Iranian media, asking the public for help in identifying the perpetrators. Ahmadinejad's supporters also posted a few videos of their own online, demonizing the protesters. Additionally, the police went searching through Facebook profiles and email addresses of Iranians living abroad, sending them threatening messages not to support the Green Movement unless they wanted to hurt their relatives back in Iran. Finally, the government turned to text-messaging, warning Iranians to stay away from street protests...

Dear citizen, according to received information, you have been influenced by the destabilizing propaganda which the media affiliated with foreign countries have been disseminating. In case of any illegal action and contact with the foreign media, you will be charged as a criminal consistent with the Islamic Punishment Act and dealt with by the Judiciary.

Morozov is right that the value of Internet technology as a democratizing force is often over-hyped, yet it's possible that he's simultaneously under-hyping it as well. Yes, it's just a tool - one among many - for political dissidents, and real purposive change has to come from actions on the ground. However, in my opinion, he overstates its dangers. It's quite often benign on both fronts - the positive and the negative - and not exceedingly relevant as a force for either democracy or for authoritarianism.


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