The Political Web: two views on cyber activism

Two conflicting talks about the political use of the internet.

First up was a video of Clay Shirky at TEDxTuttle about social media and democracy. You may have seen the video: starting with the impact of social media on Obama’s campaign for the Democratic candidate for US president and then in his presidential campaign itself, and moving on to the citizen campaigns around the Szechuan earthquake (and the subsequent realisation that building codes were violated) and the Iranian elections, Shirky posits that the rise of social interaction enabled by the internet is a tool for delivering power to citizens. Providing people with the tools means letting the genie out of the bottle, and you can’t put it back: when consumers become producers, governments’ effort to control the media won’t work because their basic assumptions are flawed: the “many-to-many” model of the internet means that the systems governments use ot control and constrain won’t work: as Shirky put it, the firewalls are pointing in the wrong direction.

Clearly, the internet can be a power for good: removing people from the yoke of big government, shining a light on opaque practices, and making governments accountable.

And then… Evgeny Morozov at the RSA on how governments can use the internet to censor and control citizens and opinion. Morozov was partly playing devil’s advocate, I think – pointing out at least three ways in which oppressive regimes can use the web:

  • ”spinternet” – using the internet to distribute progpaganda and misinformation: Morozov gave examples of how Russia, China, and Iran are harnessing the internet to put their side of the story across; in the west, he said that the UK government are training pro-west Islamic groups to use the web effectively. Israel has developed a desktop utility called the “megaphone” to help people manage and influence internet news flows. Of course, companies and NGOs are probavly doing this too – using services like Usocial to buy friends, followers and Digg votes will increase. Where censorship and control fail, Morozov said, governments and others will spin

  • by allowing a certain degree of freedom, comments by citizens actually inform governments where the issues are – what Morozov called “authoritarian deliberation”. Governments can track dissent to find hotspots, and placate citizens by showing that they are taking some action. In this way, governments can brand themselves and through this, increase their legitimacy. The activity following the Szechuan earthquake – when those who had lost children in schools which had collapsed – prompted action against the violators of building codes. In Saudi Arabia, Morozov said that the government encouraged its citizens to identify videos on YouTube which violated their belief systems so that they could co-ordinate campaigns to have them taken down. (The amount of double-think there is pretty convoluted!) In Iran, following the protests at the elections in June, the government is using the wide coverage generated by protesters to identify and target people in the crowd
  • erode civil engagement: despite enabling civil activism and being a catalyst for change, Morozov reckoned that the internet was the ultimate “opium of the masses”: cyber hedonism way, way outweighs cyber activism. Surprisingly, the populations of those eastern countries likely to power the world economy in the future are more hedonistic on the internet than their western peers [opens in PDF]. Governments may not need to control their citizens: we seem to be doing a pretty good job of that ourselves

Morozov finished off by saying that perhaps we need to redraw Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the internet age. At the bottom of the hierarchy, Morozov put entertainment – the hedonistic internet world of porn, illegal entertainment downloads and gambling; above that he placed communciation through instant messaging and email, and then sharing, through social media sites; near the top he placed learning, facilitated through websites such as TED and Wikipedia. Only then, right at the top, do you get activism and campaigning – and, he reckoned, few people cared about that.

Of course, both Shirky and Morozov are right: the internet can used as a tool to democratise and to manipulate and control. One person’s democratisation is another person’s spin.

Through both talks, I had the underlying thought that these are still early, early days. The people at both events were those who find this stuff interesting: we were self-selected, the early adopters who think it is important. Despite the easy access, and governments desire to increase internet access, internet use is still pretty concentrated. (I’m sure someone can give me figures that prove – or disprove! – this…) Most people don’t care – but they do like the way the internet let’s them write to their representatives or access public services in the UK. Maybe even providing these relatively small amounts of control – albeit through “authoritarian deliberation” – will make governments of all shades more accountable.

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