My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Daniel Calingaert’s opening remarks on behalf of Freedom House along with my critiques:
- New media has created significant opportunities for advancing freedom in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. It has expanded the space for free expression and facilitated civic activism. But authoritarian regimes have pushed back.
- While new media plays an important role in expanding free expression and facilitating citizen engagement, it does not drive political change. New media alone cannot undermine authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and this repression extends to digital media.
Me: Absolutely, which is why I keep repeating the following point: we need to cross-fertilize the fields of digital activism and civil resistance. Lessons learned and best practices need to be exchanged. See my post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance, which I wrote back in December 2008.
- In Belarus, authorities conduct surveillance on Internet users, and they require cyber cafés to register each user’s browsing history.
- Authoritarian regimes use a variety of methods to limit online freedom of expression. The United States therefore has to respond in multiple ways.
- The Internet is a medium for communication. Its impact in authoritarian regimes ultimately depends less on the medium itself than on the messages it conveys and on the messengers who use it to drive progress towards democracy.
Me: I really wouldn’t frame the issue in such a dichotomous way. The Internet is a new and different type of medium for communication. One that is radically different from previous communication typologies of one-to-many broadcasting. The medium, message and actors are all important.
- We should not only invest in anti-censorship technology, but also support the creation and distribution of pro-democracy content and back the courageous and creative activists in repressive environments who are struggling to bring about political change.
Me: This last point is especially important and the reason why I wrote this blog post on Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance three months ago. I had been advising a large scale digital activism project and was increasingly concerned by the lack of importance placed on content.