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 Evgeny Morozov‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:
- I’m increasingly concerned with both how well some of the societies have themselves managed to adapt to the Internet threat and how poorly some of the digital activists, journalists and even some policymakers understand the risks of trying to promote democracy via the Internet.
Me: This is exactly the point I make in my blog posts on Digital Resistance, Human Rights and Technology and why I wrote this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. This is also why the work by groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy is so important.
- [N]ew media will power all political forces, not just the forces we like. Many of the recent Western funding and media development efforts have been aimed at creating what’s known as, new digital public spaces, on the assumption that these new digital spaces would enable the nascent actors or civil society to flourish on blogs, Twitter and social networks.
- So in a sense, promoting this new digital spaces entails similar risks to promoting free elections. It’s quite possible we may not like the guys who win.
- We have to realize that authoritarian governments themselves have developed extremely sophisticated strategies to control cyberspace and often those go beyond censorship. It’s a mistake to believe that these governments wouldn’t be able to manipulate these new public spaces with their own propaganda or use them to their own advantage.
- Many authoritarian governments are already paying bloggers and Internet commentators to spin the political discussions that they do not like. It varies from the Russian approach, where the government is cooperating with several commercial start-ups which are creating ideological, social networking and blogging sites that support the pro-Kremlin ideology.
- To the Chinese approach, where the party has created a decentralized network of what’s come to be known as 50 Cent Party, which is almost 300,000 people who are being paid to leave comments on sites and blogs that the government doesn’t like and thus, try to spin those discussions. Even the Iranian clerics have been running blogging workshops, particularly aimed at controlling religious discourse targeting women. And they’ve been doing it, actually, since 2006, much before we began talking about the Twitter revolution.
- [A]uthoritarian governments are increasingly eager to build short-term alliances with digital groups that sometimes their goals. For example, one of the reasons why Russia has emerged as the most feared player in the field of cyber warfare is because it always acts indirectly, usually by relying on numerous, nimble, underground gangs of cyber criminals.
- [W]e do not fully understand how new media affects civic engagement. And we don’t have to pretend that we do. We still assume that established unfettered access to information is going to push people to learn the truths about human rights abuses or the crimes of the governments and thus make them more likely to become dissidents.
Me: Evgeny and I discussed this very point the last time we met to discuss my dissertation research (he is one of my informal dissertation committee members). Agreed, we do not fully understand the impact of media on civic engagement, but we do understand some! There has been considerable academic research in this area. I do agree, however, that organizations like USAID, for example, still assume that full access to information will spur civil disobedience. See my blog post on this very issue here.
- Most likely, lifting the censorship lid, at least in the short term, would result in people using this opportunity to fill in other gaps in their information vacuum. Those may have to do with religion, culture, socializing and so forth but not necessarily with political dissent. Political activism and active citizenship would probably only come last in this pyramid of cyber needs, if you will.
- The creators of tools like Psyphon and Tor which do allow anonymized access to the Web, often report that many users in authoritarian states actually use those tools to download pornography and access sites which that government doesn’t want them to access – not necessarily political ones. In fact, there is a growing risk that hundreds and thousands of this digital natives in these countries would actually be sucked into this endless cycle of entertainment, rather than have their political commitment increase and full political life.
- Finally, what I should mention is that current U.S. government restrictions on the export of technology to sanctioned countries often actually thwart and impede the adoption of new media technologies. I would like to point out that the current sanctions against governments like Cuba, Iran, North Korea and several others make it significantly difficult for other ordinary citizens, as well as well established activists and NGOs, to take full advantage of the opportunities that the Internet and social media offers.
Me: Leave it to Evgeny to make that last point at a US Congressional Briefing. The point he makes, however, is really critical and spot on. US policy makers need to know that some embargoes are self-defeating vis-a-vis democratization.