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Mightiest for the mightiest: “The Net Delusion”

In “The Net Delusion”, Evgeny Morozov vents frustration at what he calls “cyber utopianism” in Western foreign policy. Far from being a tool to free the weak, Morozov argues, oppressive regimes are now the expert manipulators of Web 2.0. He’s certainly got a point, says John Lloyd, but he is also wrong to assume no one in the State Department shares his concerns.

John Lloyd
25 March 2011

Evgeny Morozov’s big theme is that too many, too influential Western politicians, scholars, journalists, pundits and experts have been seduced by the apparent democratic inevitability of the Net, and its attendant social media, especially Facebook, Google and Twitter. A man from Belarus, where the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko has for nearly two decades withstood everything which Google can throw at him, Morozov adopts a tone of weary exasperation with Western techno-liberals for their shallow and dangerous belief that the opening of the authoritarian society can be effected by the Net, and that the Net is good, democratic and revolutionary.

It is not, he says. It can just as soon - sooner - be mad, tyrannous and reactionary. He goes further. It is mightiest for the mightiest, not the oppressed: “in fact, as has become obvious in too many contexts, it empowers the strong and disempowers the weak”.

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This is a strong position to take, and he’s been much criticized for it – the more, since the risings in some Arab states, especially Egypt, would seem to give him the lie direct (the book was written before the current wave of revolts in the Middle East). Facebook and Twitter have been credited with playing a large role in Egypt and in Tunisia: the latter was also called the “Wikileaks” revolution, since President Ben Ali featured in one of the leaks, from the US Ambassador to Tunisia, who had written a powerfully disparaging account of the now deposed leader. The clinching fact: Wael Ghonim, the head of Middle Eastern business at Google, was a leader of the revolt. He was imprisoned for 12 days, and on his release gave a tearful interview to CNN, in which he described the revolt as “Revolution 2.0”, and said that Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook inventor and CEO, and chief protagonist of the recent film Social Network, was his hero. In a later interview, he said that “The revolution started online, this revolution started on Facebook”.

Describing Ghonim’s success, a writer for the online magazine Suite 101 said that “the fact that it took only 18 days for the wired protesters of the Egyptian Revolution to bring down a 30 year old police state government shows just how powerful Facebook can be as a political activist tool. The talents and visions of Wael Ghonim and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, even though they have never met, were a major factor in overcoming the resistance of one of the world's most repressive and corrupt governments”. 

It is this kind of thing which drives Morozov crazy. And he’s at least part right.

But let’s get him on his weak spots first. He’s a 27-year old Belarusian, with a nerve the size of a house, whose main target is the world’s most powerful woman, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton gave a speech at the beginning of 2010 extolling the potential of the Net, and the social media, to bring freedom and to break the hold repressive, authoritarian governments have on their people: the implicit aim of the speech was to promote the freedom of the Net as a major goal of US foreign policy. Morozov cannot leave the speech alone: he drenches it in caustic irony. Picking on her phrase “a new information curtain”, he argues this was “tantamount to announcing a sequel to the Cold War in 3DS. She tapped into the secret desires of many policymakers, who had been pining for an enemy they understood, someone unlike that bunch of bearded and cave-bound men from Waziristan who showed little appreciation for balance-of-power theorizing and seemed to occupy so much of the present agenda…for many members of (the) rapidly shrinking Cold War lobby, the battle for Internet freedom is their last shot at staging a major intellectual comeback. After all, whom else would the public call on but them, the tireless and self-deprecating statesmen who helped rid the world of all these other walls and curtains?”

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The success of some twitter-inspired risings in Arab States, especially Egypt, have opened Morozov up to some obvious criticism. Photo: Jerry Jackson

This isn’t just the premature world-weariness of a Slav who’s seen what the West has to offer, and thinks it’s over-hyped, hardly worth the trouble of lowering the curtain or breaching the wall. It’s the prelude to a warning, oft repeated (Morozov doesn’t get his book to be 400-plus pages by failing to repeat his message, usually clothed in new examples and attended by a rack of quotations from a very capacious reading), that where the people of authoritarian countries take this stuff seriously, they usually get whacked for it. In Iran, he reports, within a few months of the “Twitter revolution” in the summer of 2009, the Iranian government had set up a task force which successfully tracked down, on the web and in the social media, scores of protestors and protest leaders. And, in part because the US authorities had asked Twitter to delay a periodic overhaul operation which would have taken the service off-air during the abortive revolt, the Iranians identified – not without some logic – the US as the hand behind the uprising. The Chinese, watching the Iranian events with deep interest, also concluded that this was an American-inspired event – “information technology that has brought mankind all kinds of benefits,” intoned Xinhua News Agency, “has this time become a tool for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Stirring up the enthusiastic spirits against their governments is dangerous to them: and worse, it’s based on a false premise. Tweets do not a revolution make, nor Facebook posts a regime change. Even if the Net does help people to organize, to spread the message and to diffuse the conviction that the tyrant has feet of clay and can and must be overthrown, it should be used with great care: for its use lays down a thousand traces, in a way uprisings never did before.

Tweets do not a revolution make, nor Facebook posts a regime change. Even if the Net does help people to organize, to spread the message and to diffuse the conviction that the tyrant has feet of clay and can and must be overthrown, it should be used with great care: for its use lays down a thousand traces, in a way uprisings never did before

Second mistake – to suppose that the Net is primarily, even only, the carrier of freedom. In fact, it’s also the carrier of unfreedom. The Russians, who don’t censor the Net (any more than the West does, e.g. in cases of paedophilia and criminal messages), have employed a number of clever young men and women to develop websites which are well designed, full of interest, sexy and cool – and also pro-Kremlin. The coolest guy in the virtual Kremlin corridors is Alexey Chadayev, in his early 30s, a serious intellectual of the New Left kind, who likes nothing better than to discuss the world of such writers as Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. No wonder, says Morozov, that “the Kremlin feels no strong urge to control the web. For them, it’s not just a space to be controlled but an exciting new playground for propaganda experiments”. It’s been a while since the Russians thought you could keep youth in line by enrolling them in the Pioneers, giving them a kerchief to wear and teaching them songs of praise to Lenin.  Increasingly, the Chinese, who do censor the Net, are following suit: one of their innovations is to create armies of “50c bloggers” – paid this amount for writing blogs supportive of the authorities on the issues of the day. There’s more where that came from: the Chinese came up with the idea of giving tax breaks to patriotic video games. Russia and Vietnam quickly did the same.

And it isn’t just the central authorities who take care of this: in both these large states, and in many others, the liberals may have been the first to catch on to the Net, but the ultra-nationalists, the racists, the reactionaries are up to speed now too, and produce high quality stuff on their own websites and blogs – as well as launching Distributed Denial of Service attacks on those who displease them. “The democratization of launching cyber-attacks has resulted in the democratization of censorship; this is poised to have chilling effects on freedom of expression”.

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Social networking sites such as facebook, vkontakte and odnoklassniki make public gatherings easier to organise. They also make them much easier to “police”.

Third, Morozov doesn’t think much of the web as an organizing force anyway: it encourages “slacktivism”, the ticking of boxes (“against whaling”), the sending of a bit of money (though not much: he quotes the example of a bona fide charity which launched a campaign against hunger in Africa and attracted a mere £12,000 in three years). Quoting research from Temple University in the US, he writes that “many…join Facebook groups not only or not so much because they support particular causes but because they believe it’s important to be seen by their online friends to care about such causes…today, aspirant digital revolutionaries can stay on their sofas forever”.

Fourth, revolution isn’t done on sofas. In sternly ironic mode, Morozov reminds us that “you can’t simply join a revolution any time you want, contribute a comma to a random revolutionary decree, rephrase the guillotine manual and then slack off for months. Revolutions prize centralization and require fully-committed leaders, strict discipline, absolute dedication and strong relation ships based on trust”. Thanks, Evgeny! Here was me thinking I could click my way to socialism.

Fifth, even where the Net seems to help provide something that no other medium can, it can be an illusion. At his most curmudgeonly, Morozov gives the example of gay Christians in Nigeria, who meet online to avoid the discrimination and violence they have met in churches. Good for them? Not at all: it breeds quietism. “Sometimes the best way to launch an effective social movement is to put an oppressed group into a corner that leaves no other option but civil disobedience. The danger is that the temporary false comfort of the digital world may result in that group never quite feeling that corner as forcefully”.

Morozov warns against “slacktivism”. Revolutions prize centralization and require fully-committed leaders, strict discipline, absolute dedication and strong relation ships based on trust”. Thanks, Evgeny! Here was me thinking I could click my way to socialism

Sixth, how can the West extol its own commitment to freedom via the Net and criticize authoritarian governments so readily when the US and other Western democratic states themselves censor and seek their enemies through the Net trails? Especially in the security communities in the US – now huge – senior officials are anxious to use the full capacities of the Net to identify threats, and individuals, who might be a danger to the US. One measure now being urged is “deep packet inspection”, an exhaustive search of web messages which can reveal identities that are otherwise undetectable: writes Morozov – “the public may decide that it wants more deep packet inspections to address the threats posed by cyber crime of terrorism; they’ll just need to remember that it will have rather chilling effects on the business of promoting democracy abroad”.

There’s much more of this, in great detail: but it’s only two pages from the end of the book when, hurriedly and cursorily, he shifts into a curt normative mode and says what the West – especially the US – should do. These measures include:

  • shifting responsibility for Net policy to diplomats and officials on post, where it can serve already existing goals, be a tool in a toolbox rather than the Tool of tools;
  • making a dispassionate assessment of how far the Net can help or hinder current policies;
  • eschewing the view that Net solutions are available to political problems;
  • not thinking that the bright young things in Silicon Valley know what they’re talking about when they emerge from their labs and look about a distressingly imperfect world.

At a talk Morozov did earlier this year at St Anthony’s College Oxford, I was tasked with responding to him. I objected, mildly enough, that though he was right about the Russians and their use of talented Kremlinites, he had ignored the growing power and authority of the Net, containing as it does some of the sharpest political criticism and otherwise buried information available. The New York Times writer Roger Cohen, who was in the audience, was much angrier, harshly criticizing Morozov for not seeing that in the Iranian demonstrations (which Cohen had covered extensively), the use of Twitter and Facebook had greatly assisted the organization and the broadcasting of the revolts to a world audience.

The book has a central idea: that cyber-utopianism is mistaken, on a variety of counts. It’s not a bad idea, at times: to be sure, some of the silliest things said recently have been about the power of Facebook and Twitter to sweep away all before them. Moreover, we saw, in the coverage given to the Barrack Obama presidential campaign, a fetishisation of his Net strategy as presaging a new era of politics: an approach which got an icy shower when Obama reached the White House, and had to govern a complex, divided country with politics, not with websites.

He’s right that revolutions, protests and revolts take what they have always taken: courage, and the willingness to put one’s own freedom, or even life, on the line to take on the oppressor. People may learn of protests through their Facebook page: they do not bring down the tyrant in that way, still less do they build a better society if and when he is brought low. The easy anarchism of the techie rebels ignores completely, sometimes denies explicitly, the need for any society to have a well-functioning government and a strong civil society: the Net can help in both these areas, but help is the word, not create.

But if there is much silliness on this, there are few serious people who wouldn’t concede the points he so insistently presses. That includes Clinton: a reading of her 2010 speech – and that which she gave in February of this year, after the book’s publication – shows her to be alive to the downsides of the Net, and to be far from the utopianism which Morozov ascribes to her. And to accuse her and others of hypocrisy because officials in the West want to use the Net to discover terrorists is grossly misplaced: tracing terrorists, or censoring paedophilia, is a long way from tracking down dissidents. As Morozov argues elsewhere, the Net needs regulation: but regulation isn’t sweeping up your own citizens to prison and torture.

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, by Evgeny Morozov; Allen Lane; 408pp; £14.99.

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