Authoritarian Governments Have Immensely Benefited From The Web

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 22, 2011

Evgeny Morozov, a noted specialist on the use of new communications technologies to promote democratic values, has a new book titled "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side Of Internet Freedom." In it, he argues that hype about "Twitter revolutions" and the enormous potential of the Internet to promote open societies and roll back authoritarianism is naive and overblown.

What's more, Morozov warns, authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran have adapted quickly to devise new ways -- often modeled on commercial Internet-monitoring tools used by Western corporations -- to track and neutralize Internet activism.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Morozov by telephone from London and asked him about the potential and the dangers that new information technologies present for democracy-promotion efforts around the world.

Morozov is a blogger, contributing editor to "Foreign Policy" and "Boston Review," and fellow at the New America Foundation.

RFE/RL: At the risk of asking you to tweet your book, what is the most important thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

Evgeny Morozov: I wrote it mostly with policymakers in mind. So I really hope that people who are shaping foreign policy will get to read the book. And the main message that it contains for them, I think, is that the Internet is political, that everything done with regard to Internet policy has political consequences, and that many of the assumptions that policymakers, intellectuals, and journalists operate with when they think about the political power of the Internet are naive and need to be updated.

RFE/RL: One of your chapters is called "Why The KGB Wants You To Join Facebook." Why does the KGB want us to join Facebook?

Morozov: Evgeny MorozovPart of the argument I'm making in the book is that authoritarian governments have immensely benefited from the web, and I point to three features. One of them is propaganda; one of them is new ways of censorship; and one of them is increased surveillance, more sophisticated surveillance.

The reason why the KGB wants you to join Facebook is because it allows them to, first of all, learn more about you from afar. I mean, they don't have to come and interrogate you, and obviously you disclose quite a bit. It allows them to identify certain social graphs and social connections between activists. Many of these relationships are now self-disclosed by activists, by joining various groups. You can actually go and see which causes are more popular than others.

But also, it is possible to start identifying trends on the macro level. You can actually go and, using data posted to social-media sites (not just Facebook -- I'm talking here more broadly about blogs and about tweets), you can actually start identifying which way social sentiment in a country is going. And that way you may get ahead of real developments.

If the Tunisian government had a sophisticated system of data-mining and analyzing everything that is happening in the country on social media, I bet they would have been much better prepared for what followed. Much of that outrage has been growing on Facebook early on and it was possible to go and check how angry people really were.

And I think many of these tools have already been developed by Western companies mostly, to do brand analysis. So there are a lot of interesting tools already to track consumer sentiment toward goods, and they can very easily be redeployed to study political sentiment. So this is one of the things which I think drives interest from governments in social media.

And not just authoritarian countries, but in the West as well. We have something called In-Q-Tel, which is the venture fund of the CIA, which has been investing in such social-media tracking and monitoring tools for several years now. It is definitely something that is attractive to all governments -- not just authoritarian ones.

Opiate Of The Masses

RFE/RL: You argue that the new information technologies can weaken opposition to authoritarian regimes through the numbing or distracting effect of the entertainment opportunities they offer and by fragmenting the information space, making it difficult for movements to coalesce or leaders to emerge. Does the Internet present similar dangers to established Western democracies?

Morozov: Sure. There is no question about that. I think that one danger here is to focus too much on the Internet itself as opposed to the kind of broader social, cultural, and political changes in capitalism, more or less. And I think this is also how you need to understand what is happening in authoritarian states, at least in some of them.

In places like Russia and China especially, which are undergoing a major transition to capitalism. Especially China, which is more or less almost a fully capitalistic state but without the democratic mind-set. And, of course, the media and the Internet especially are playing a similar role to the one they are playing in other capitalist countries.

I mean, here we do really need to look at how the public sphere is being reshaped in each of them -- both democratic and authoritarian ones. And if you look at what is happening in democratic public spheres, people are concerned with growing disengagement and the inability to accomplish anything and the growing apathy. All of those features have been identified by social theorists in the West, even before the Internet made a strong appearance.

I think this is definitely running in parallel and we are -- by "we," I mean the analysts following these trends -- much better at identifying these effects actually in the Western context than we are in the authoritarian context. And if you look at the Western discourse about the power of the Internet and even if you listen to speeches by politicians such as [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton or [U.S. President] Barack Obama, when they address domestic audiences they speak about the risks and threats that the Internet presents to citizenship and education and whatnot, much more often than they do when they speak to foreign audiences, when they only highlight the positive.

It is definitely present in the Western context as well and we are much better aware of it -- and I think we need to be as aware of it when we look to the context of authoritarian states.

Learning The Right Lessons From History

RFE/RL: You warn against being too facile in drawing lessons from the Cold War, but there's one I was wondering about. You say that the largely nonviolent change in Central Europe and the Soviet Union became possible largely because of the changed attitudes in the Kremlin. By implication, would you argue that undoing the rise of authoritarianism in the post-Soviet space over the last decade is likely only to happen if and when the leaders in Russia want it to happen, regardless of technology or the actions of oppositionists?

Morozov: It would also be a very misleading use of history in this particular case to think that the situation in Russia now is similar to the situation in Russia in 1985 or 1986. I don't think that actually I highlight the role of leaders as the driving force. I mean, yes, they played a role in 1985, the new leadership.

But, again, they were constrained by a number of social factors, be it the oil price or the state of the Soviet economy or the growing debt that was accumulating or the inability to compete with NATO. And there are many other factors which determined how the Soviet leadership would or would not behave. All of them -- [Mikhail] Gorbachev or [Eduard] Shevardnadze -- were of a certain age and background, which also determin

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