The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World

Henry Farrell is glad to see the web's democratic credentials tested, even if the case is overstated

February 10, 2011

If debates about the politics of the internet are heated, it's because most of their volume is made up of hot air. Sweeping arguments about the power of technology to smash tyranny contend with the claims of a few embattled traditionalists, who argue that state-based politics will prevail.

The standard of debate has been particularly horrid in Washington DC, where internet triumphalism dominates thanks to a combination of jingoism (the ubiquity of the internet is seen as a tribute to US values), semi-digested libertarianism and old-fashioned stupidity. Democrat and Republican politicians are at one in believing that the spread of the internet promotes democracy and US interests (which are, of course, one and the same). When credulous journalists and policymakers are the main buyers in the marketplace of ideas, the quality suffers.

In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov seeks to puncture this self-congratulatory narrative, and at least in part succeeds. Not only is there is no good evidence that the internet promotes democracy, but dictators as well as democrats can use it to further their goals. Reading the better sections of this book, one can almost hear the flatulent hiss of gas escaping.

However, Morozov's preferred alternative argument - that the internet may favour dictatorships rather than democracies - is scarcely more convincing. It is presumably rather inconvenient for Morozov that he is trying to publicise this book at a moment when social media and al-Jazeera are working together to disseminate revolution from Tunisia to Egypt and perhaps elsewhere.

Morozov adeptly points to the dissonance between pleasing political myth and less felicitous reality. The most pressing problem for democratic activists working via the internet may have less to do with government censorship than public indifference. Arguably, LOLcats are now the opiate of the masses - most people in non-democratic regimes are more interested in pop culture than in worthy reports about human rights and elections.

This means that freedom of information in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes is no guarantee of healthy political debate. There is relatively little active internet censorship in Russia. Instead, the Russian government has been quite effective in co-opting and creating major internet figures and encouraging them to push a mix of crass popular entertainment (the self-explanatory Tits Show) and belligerent nationalism. Alternative political voices find it hard to get even a look-in.

Efforts to use the internet as a means of mass mobilisation have been far less successful than advertised. Twitter did not play a significant role in the so-called "Twitter Revolution" in Iran in 2009. Nor, for that matter, was there an actual revolution. Many Facebook political campaigns involve nothing more than "slacktivism" - cheap expressions of solidarity that do nothing to further the cause. It is easy to sign up to a Facebook campaign to Save the Children of Africa. However, unless it is accompanied by concrete action, it is unlikely to do much more than to tell your Facebook friends that you "care" (Morozov reports that the Save the Children of Africa campaign has raised an average of less than one-hundredth of a penny for each Facebook "friend").

As Morozov argues, the political mythology of freedom and the internet is reminiscent of an earlier set of myths about how Western broadcasting led to political unrest in Cold War-era Eastern Europe. But those myths too are suspect. East Germans with access to West German stations often assumed that Western news programmes were entirely propaganda, and they much preferred soap operas to politically relevant information.

All of this is good and to the point. As Morozov says, we have no very good evidence that the internet promotes freedom and democracy as a general matter. Indeed, as he notes at several points, we have no very good evidence at all about what the relationship between the internet and politics might be. We are only beginning to gather data that could be used even to establish what the likely mechanisms are that connect the internet to political outcomes.

Not all of the book, however, is this good. Indeed, The Net Delusion is two books in one. The first, which is excellent, shows how flimsy the arguments of Washington policymakers are. The second, which is far from excellent, makes some rather flimsy arguments of its own. When Morozov argues against the grandiose claims of US policymakers, he is eager to tell us how little we know. When, in contrast, he is arguing on behalf of his own theories, he is prone to suggesting that we know rather more than we do.

His pet theories are the reverse of the Washington mythologies that he wants to knock down. He argues repeatedly that the internet, far from being a natural ally of democracies, may in fact be a natural tool for dictators. He suggests that social networking technologies make it much easier for authoritarian regimes to monitor and track down their opponents. This may be so, but the evidence that he provides is rather shaky.

For example, when he suggests that dictatorships could develop accurate ways to use demographic information to censor likely dissidents predictively, he is indulging in fantasy. The technologies that allow advertising companies to identify online prospects are by nature incapable of providing the required level of fine-tuning. Nor - for fundamental reasons of information theory - will it ever be possible to separate and identify the voice of an individual dissident from a crowd of thousands. When Morozov argues that the internet is helping the Muslim Brotherhood, and that this is necessarily a bad thing, he overlooks how blogs have sometimes helped reformists within the movement, as documented by political scientist Marc Lynch.

Ironically, Morozov sometimes exaggerates US influence just as much as his opponents. When he tells us that a State Department request that Twitter keep its service going during the Iranian revolution alerted authoritarian regimes around the world to the revolutionary power of tweets, he is assuming both that these regimes would not know about Twitter if the US had not alerted them, and that Twitter does indeed have revolutionary consequences. This sits rather awkwardly with his repeated suggestion that these technologies may do as much harm as good to dissident movements. Twitter cannot at the same time be a force for global liberation and a trap for dissidents.

Finally, understanding the political consequences of the internet will not only require better argument, but real engagement with people with whom Morozov disagrees. Sections of the book are marred by Morozov's vendettas against Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman, both of whom have made sophisticated and interesting arguments for the political benefits of the internet.

The Net Delusion is a good book, but it would have been a better book had it taken its own dictums seriously throughout. We do not know very much about the political consequences of the internet, for good or ill.

Perhaps this is because we are asking the wrong kinds of questions. While Morozov shows that authoritarians as well as democrats can make use of the internet, the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt suggest that information technology can sometimes help undermine unpleasant regimes. Even more interestingly, it can (together with other media) help disseminate revolution from one country to another. The challenge is trying to figure out when and how new communications technologies have specific consequences for politics. Morozov's book helps clear the way by deflating the bubble of nonsense in Washington. Even if it tries to substitute this received wisdom with some nonsense of its own, it makes a useful contribution.

The author

At 17, Evgeny Morozov left his native Belarus on a scholarship from George Soros' Open Society Institute that took him to the American University in Bulgaria, where he gained a bachelor's degree in economics and business administration in 2005. Enrolling in a nine-month humanities programme at the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, Morozov worked with Transitions Online, a non-profit organisation focused on developing independent journalism in the former Eastern bloc. He ran their Belarus blog, and eventually covered the entire former Soviet region.

A further one-year Open Society Institute fellowship drew Morozov to New York City. Finding it "too rough and hectic", he moved to the Bay Area and then to a fellowship at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is now visiting scholar in the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University.

An avid traveller, he has visited over 50 countries, citing Lebanon, Brazil, Thailand and Turkey as his favourites. Were he to live anywhere outside the US, he would choose Berlin. A year in the city is a must, he says, for every young person.

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World

By Evgeny Morozov

Allen Lane, 432pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781846143533

Published 6 January 2011

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