Finally a panel at the Politics 2.0 conference that brings the state back in: “Surveillance, Censorship and Democracy.” The panel included three papers, two on Singapore and one on Russia. This was for me the best panel of the conference thus far as it was more balanced. The presenters were also very well informed about the ability of the state to control the social web. In addition, the arguments presented by the respective panelists were intellectually satisfying as they were not limited to simply scratching the surface of Web 2.0.
Sarah Oates from the University of Glasgow presented her paper on the Internet and Democracy in Russia. Sarah is an expert scholar on Russia and speaks the language fluently. Her wealth of knowledge about the country was readily apparent in the quality of her presentation. Sarah was very clear that the Russian state is using the blogosphere as another method of media influence, control and co option. In fact, in the run up to the most recent elections, a widespread number of pro-government messages appeared on numerous blogs. She concluded her presentation with the following comment:
The Internet is not changing Russian politics; rather, Russian politicians are subverting the Web for their own interests, which parallels the state’s influence on traditional media in Russia. The Web is not colonizing Russian politics but rather the other way around.
The two presentations on Singapore were also superb, critical and well-informed. Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University made compelling arguments to demonstrate that governments like Singapore were more effective in their control of information by using calibrated coercion. By that, Cherian means employing a strategic self-restrained use of force, which is a crucial factor in consolidating authoritarian rule. He noted that the means of state coercion vis-a-vis the control of information has become less visible over time.
While physical force and state control of the media have been the traditional means by which repressive regimes have sought to maintain a grip on the information revolution, today’s tactics are predominantly focuses on technological fixes such as filtering and also on economic incentives. Cherian gave a fascinating example of the latter tactic as used in Singapore. The government has demonstrated that a state does not necessarily need to own, or directly control, the media. Instead, the government of Singapore simply ensured that media companies were publicly listed and had a large number of shareholders. This in effect forces company directors or CEOs to focus on profits as opposed to editorial content. “A newspaper that focuses on profit is by definition a conservative newspaper,” Cherian argued. His paper is available here.
The third presentation was on the blogosphere in Singapore. As I have already blogged on the application of social network analysis by internet and democracy scholars here and here, I’ll leave it at that.