The “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova, dissident bloggers in Iran, revolution in Egypt organized by social media—democracy activists around the world use social media to gain supporters and to coordinate action. So, however, do authoritarian governments. Evgeny Morozov, a New America Foundation fellow and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, spoke with Rick Docksai, a staff editor of THE FUTURIST, about how the Internet can both help and harm global struggles for human rights and political freedom.
Rick Docksai: Populist revolts against authoritarian leaderships have been unfolding throughout the Middle East over the last few months. How optimistic are you that actual democracy is going to unfold in some of the affected countries? And what role, if any, would you expect social media to play in shaping it?
Evgeny Morozov: I don’t think the Internet will play much of a role in shaping them, compared to other factors. The things to watch for are how they shape the new constitutions and how they deal with the elements of the previous regimes. All those things are way more important than what happens online. I wouldn’t bet that the Internet will be a great help.
As for the extent to which they become democracies—it’s a wild guess for anyone, me included. They have a chance, but how it turns out will have so many factors, including internal policies and external conflicts. I don’t buy in to the cultural notion of Arabs not being ready for democracy. Democracy in the Middle East may succeed. But it will depend on how they work with the existing challenges.
Rick Docksai: As for the revolts themselves, it was said that the organizers use blogs, Twitter, and other social media. So they use the Internet. But that does not mean that they revolted because they had the Internet. How likely is it that these revolts would be taking place now if the Internet had never been invented?
Evgeny Morozov: They would be taking a different shape, and they may have happened three to six months later. The revolts were driven by people having economic grievances and being aggrieved with political oppression. They turned to the Internet to publicize their grievances and their resistance. The fact that new media and blogs were present probably set a different tempo to the revolts. If the Internet wasn’t around, the regime might be tempted to crack down in a much more brutal way.
It’s hypothetical to say how it would have happened without the Internet, but revolutions throughout history are driven by cultural factors. I think the events probably would have happened differently and would have turned out differently. We have to entertain the possibility that these events could have turned out much more violent and taken much more time if they hadn’t had the publicity that they had thanks to the Internet.
Rick Docksai: So the Internet could make regimes more cautious in how they deal with protesters?
Evgeny Morozov: It depends on the regime, not on the Internet. From that perspective, a mild authoritarian regime like Egypt, yes. A regime like Libya, no. Just because people can twitter and blog doesn’t stop the Libyan government from instituting a violent crackdown.
It's hard to generalize based on the future of the Internet. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to every country. We adapt our policies for each country. That’s how foreign policy works. But in the case of the Internet, we have a tendency to generalize that this must be how it works everywhere, even though that isn’t the case.
Rick Docksai: Xinhuanet had a Jan. 2, 2011, feature on the Chinese government’s formation of Web sites where citizens can file complaints about corrupt local leaders. Actual firings, demotions, and criminal prosecutions of police, judges, and local officials have resulted. (URL). Perhaps the Internet cannot bring China democracy, but it can bring China a government that is more accountable to its people. What do you think? How realistic an outcome is that? And how satisfied should we be with it?
Evgeny Morozov: You have to look at regime legitimacy. Normally a regime that fights its own corruption has more legitimacy with its own people. From that perspective, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Internet is making the Chinese government more accountable, but I would say that it is making local officials more responsible.
The government may be eliminating corruption in the provinces, making the people happier, but that doesn’t mean that they’re eliminating corruption at the top. So the distribution of corruption might be changing. But I do think government might use the Internet to solicit more citizen input. That won't undermine the government. It will bolster its legitimacy.
Rick Docksai: It sounds paradoxical. China’s government is authoritarian, but it solicits its people’s opinions.
Evgeny Morozov: It’s not paradoxical. The fact that the government is soliciting their opinions does not mean that the government is listening to them. It wants to give the people the impression that it is listening to them. In some sense, it creates a semblance of democratic institutions. It's all about creating a veneer of legitimacy.
Rick Docksai: The Internet does not always inspire democratic activism. Your book cited cases of people in authoritarian countries who gained Internet access for the first time and used it not to watch news, but to watch pop films and browse pornography. This is especially common in Russia, according to your book; you say, in fact, that the Russian government actually mass-distributes online entertainment precisely to distract people from reading news and becoming politically active.
I wonder why the Internet might bolster reform movements in Egypt and China but not in Russia. What makes Russia different? What would it take for a strong Russian reform movement to finally emerge?
Evgeny Morozov: I don’t think there is anything unique about Russia per se. It's just their government is smarter than the Egyptian government about how to use the Internet. The Egyptian government didn’t do anything online. They didn't engage in propaganda, didn’t deploy bloggers, didn’t launch cyber-attacks. They missed the train.
The Chinese have access to the same pirated films and pornography that the Russians do. I don’t think that there’s anything that makes Russian unique. I think the difference is that the people who built up the Russian Internet ended up working for the government. The Egyptian government’s approach to the Internet was very shallow, and it had to pay the price, eventually.
Rick Docksai: Even if people in an authoritarian country receive news from democratic countries via the Internet, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are learning about democracy. They are not necessarily getting educations on how a democratic government works and how to set one up. They will need that education, though, if they are ever to make their country democratic. What role can the Internet and social media play in giving aspiring democratic leaders the necessary education and training?
Evgeny Morozov: I think the question you just asked assumes that there is a mass movement of people that are new to politics. The people who were instrumental in making the Egyptian revolution happen weren’t new to politics. Almost all of them were part of existing political and social forces. They had had plenty of training and organization by various Western foundations and governments.
I don’t think the view of this as being a spontaneous revolution was true. I myself have been to several democracy workshops in Egypt. I wouldn’t necessarily view these people as atomized individuals. They have been trained offline.
Rick Docksai: That’s an interesting point about democracy workshops. The U.S. government and U.S. foundations have been sponsoring educational programs on democratic governance for decades, some of which bring foreign students here, and some of which send U.S. instructors to the countries themselves. You wouldn’t hear much about them, though, compared with all the buzz over social media. But maybe this in-person education over time was a more critical factor in spurring today’s revolutions?
Evgeny Morozov: Of course it was, but the problem is you wouldn't have heard as much about it. Who's paying for those workshops? It’s the U.S. government and U.S. foundations. In this sense, Facebook and Twitter are much better cover, because it looks spontaneous. I think it will be very misleading to suggest that that all the connections forged by these activists are virtual. It's a lot more about building human networks.
Rick Docksai: You state in your book that whether a reform movement will succeed depends more on the country’s internal conditions than on any new communications technology. The Soviet Bloc fell because the communist governments were weak, not because the protesters had photocopiers. Many observers say that North Korea’s government is very feeble right now. What use—if any—might Internet media serve in hastening its final collapse?
Evgeny Morozov: At this point, I wouldn’t have much hope in the Internet, since North Korea is a country with some of the fewest Internet connections in the world. And you have to understand, those people have been brainwashed to such an extent that you have serious psychological challenges that you can’t overcome just by using blogs and Twitter.
North Korea would be one country where I would expect the least change to come about through the Internet. It would be much harder than a country like Belarus, where one third of the country is online. Mobile phones might play a role in getting more information out. But it’s unlikely that Facebook or Twitter will play much of a role.