I was at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD yesterday, at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, a remarkable institution that I confess I knew nothing about before accepting an invitation to speak here. For 51 years, the Academy has opened its doors to students from the other service academies, political science students from non-military institutions, and to military cadets from other countries for annual discussions about foreign policy and international affairs. The conference is organized primarily by the naval midshipmen and it’s one of the best-run academic conferences I’ve attended. I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote for the conference Tuesday morning – I’ll try to post those notes later this week – and these notes reflect my liveblogging from the audience of a very interesting conversation.
Evgeny Morozov has emerged as one of the leading critics of the idea that the internet is a useful tool for social change, suggesting in his provocative book “The Net Delusion” that the internet can be more useful for dictators than for activists. He’s found himself answering some sharp questions in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, which appear to have used social media quite productively in changing governments in Tunisia and Egypt. One of the leading commentators who’s tried to unpack what effect the internet has and hasn’t had in the Arab Spring is Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She’s been doing some of the most important work in unpacking theory around social networks and examining those theories about network effects in connection to events in Egypt and Tunisia.
Their conversation is moderated by technology journalist Brendan Greeley. Brendan now writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, and formerly wrote on technology for the Economist, the New York Times and pretty much an all-star list of US journalism outlets. Brendan suggests that theorists about political change are no longer looking to Clausewitz, but to Star Trek for their inspiration. We’re in an age of algorithmic culture – we want to know specifically how something, like the Arab Spring protests, transpired and we care about the details of which tools, which actors and which legal jurisdictions, because these details have consequences for those who’d try to use the same methods in different circumstances. He suggests that it’s not insignificant that Zeynep and Evgeny are from outside the US (he’s from Belarus, she from Turkey), because we’re seeing a shift in media from questions about what the world thinks of America to questions about what the world thinks about itself.
Evgeny opens his remarks noting that the question, “How does the Internet affect democracy?” leads to answers that are very abstract. It’s difficult to quantify democracy. The internet is bound to have different impacts on democracy in the US, versus Thailand or Kyrgyzstan.
He notes that his views on the internet and democracy are informed by his perspective as a Belarussian – calling his home nation “the last tyranny in Europe” is an understatement. His exposure to issues surrounding the internet came through the frame of democratization. He suggests that the internet is only one of many tools available to policymakers who would like to spread democratization – they could train journalists, develop political parties, nurture civil society. “I’m not trying to bash the internet for being evil or bad… I’m focused on opportunity costs.” This leads him to ask “what we can do better, but also what are ways in which the internet could make our job of promoting democracy more challenging.”
Evgeny rejects deterministic explanations, assertions that the internet will lead to a particular outcome based on a rigid, theoretical understand of design and architecture. There’s an assumption, he argues, that because the internet runs on decentralized networks and protocols, it will lead to a decentralized political culture. This argument disregards the context, the political environments, which can differ radically country to country. Russian nationalists are taking advantage of the internet to promote their views, more than the liberals. It’s the opposite in Belarus, despite the fact that the nations share a border. The political and social effects of the internet are rooted in political and social environments. Notions like internet freedom tend to disregard the specifics of local political situation and culture.
He warns that we have a tendency to disregard adaptability of authoritarian states. We’ve tended to assume that they would either need to shut down the internet and experience severe economic consequences, or open it up: the dictator’s dilemma. This model fails to consider the ways dictators can use the internet for their own ends. They won’t use it successfully in every single situation, but we need to be open to the idea that certain features of the contemporary internet make it easier for authoritarian governments to increase control of cyberspace through surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Governments can use DDoS as a tool for censorship. They can surveil traffic via social networks, and use the information users reveal to make maps of connections between activists. This isn’t to say that the dictators are bound to win – instead, his goal is to make policymakers alert to the ways in which the internet is used to surpress democracy.
Who wins – the activists or the dictators – won’t be clear for decades to come, he asserts. It’s a mistake to argue that you can’t achieve anything useful towards a democracy agenda on Facebook. There are useful things the Internet can deliver. But if we take the long-term view, we need to ask what services like Facebook are doing to our political culture. The solution to the problem of dictatorship in Belarus is not to create an online opposition that’s separate from the existing opposition. Online activists deface pictures of the president and publish them online – it can be funny, and maybe it’s building a culture of resistance. But these developments seem to be separate from the offline, mainstream political organizations working for change in Belarus. And ultimately, he believe change will come from the streets, not from online.
In the Middle East, we’re lucky that people weren’t just turning their Twitter avatars green or joining Facebook groups. We don’t need to give credit to Facebook for bringing people into the streets. Online activism can be effective, he argues, but we need to find ways to ensure it happens in conjunction with offline politics. We don’t want to turn the internet into a ghetto where the youth blow off steam, which makes the government happy, as it’s not leading to real change. Our challenge is to design policies that connect the internet to more substantive political change, bridging between these two worlds.
Brendan points out that Evgeny was one of the first thinkers to challenge the idea that the most important controls to online speech were technical. What does it mean that key blocks to discourse are social as well as technical?
Evgeny suggests that, in the Middle East, there’s very little tolerance from governments for alternative opinions expressed online. In China and Russia, there’s more of an attempt to defend and shape positions online. Bloggers in China paid by the government try to legitimate the government’s positions. In some countries, the government is trying to limit the utility of tools like Facebook by infiltrating groups used by the opposition. One tactic is to join those groups, upload pornographic content then report the group and get it banned. Attacks that make a website unavailable, even for a few days at a time, will over time break down the communities that would develop around those tools.
Brendan mentions that Evgeny considers himself a reformed cyberutopian. What was his conversion experience?
Earlier in his career, Evgeny explains, he worked for an eastern European NGO that worked for political change through the internet. His work as an internet evangelist helped him understand how well-intentioned projects can cause more harm than good. US government projects come into countries like Belarus, hired the local talent, distorted the economy and had little impact on real political change. He began systematically doubting the NGO mindset. So much attention was being paid to the Chinese firewall, and not enough attention to how governments were controlling online space through creating entertainment content to distract from political content.
Zeynep introduces herself as a former software developer, “a lifetime ago”. She paid her way through college taking care of legacy technical systems. In the 1990s in Turkey, there were a lot of technology managers who didn’t understand how these things worked. She tells the story of a boss who came to her and asked “Can it tell if I’m lying?”, pointing to the computer in the corner. She gave him the irresistible answer: “Yes.” People who look inside the black box, she explains, don’t ask these questions – people who don’t understand them do.
As a careful academic, Zeynep explains, she’s reluctant to make broad generalizations about what kind of world we might be living in one or two decades from now. But she promises to put some of that nuance aside and offer more forceful predictions than she might in a peer-reviewed paper.
The first of these predictions is that we’re now likely looking at a world where promiting other people’s democracy is no longer on the agenda – they’re promoting their own agenda. She references a tweet a friend posted from Cairo: “The people in Tahrir Square greet themselves as liberators.” The question of how best to promote democracy may be an archaic question. Instead, we may need to focus on understanding the changing media ecology and the ways in which it’s changing social relationships.
Zeynep mentions that she was reviewing a pre-released copy of Evgeny’s book in November, when Wikileaks became a dominant news story. The argument in the first half of his book about the US State Department’s enthusiasm for the internet looked less germane now that the State Department seemed to be having second thoughts about the utility of the internet when used by leakers of government documents. The second half of the book is about dictators using the internet, and then Tunisia and Egypt dominated the news agenda. She wonders whether this was the best timing an author’s ever experienced.
Responding to the core argument in Evgeny’s book, Zeynep wonders whether the analogy of the printing press is a helpful one. The first two major uses for the printing press were printing bibles and dispensations and indulgences. One might have assumed that the new technology would empower the Catholic church. But a technology that threatened the monopoly on the written word threatened those monopolists, in the long term.
She suggests that we’re seeing two major changes brought about by internet adoption. First, the shape of our connectivity networks is changing. There are two major types of networks in modern, mass-media societies. There’s a person to person social network, and the one to many network of broadcast media. What’s emerging now is many to many connectivity, which lets people talk to each other in ways that didn’t exist previously. There were some ways in the past that individuals could spread ideas to a mass of people, but they were much more difficult and much smaller in scale than the tools we’re exploring now.
Second, the speed of information diffusion has implications for the efficacy of protest movements. The recent Koran burning in Florida led, as we all know, to riots in Afghanistan. But it took four days from the burning to the riots. In part, this is because fewer than 1% of all Afghans are online. The protests didn’t break out until President Karzai condemned the Florida pastor’s actions on television.
Zeynep tells us that there’s reason to think that the rapid spread of information via social media could be changing political outcomes in the Middle East. In Tunisia in 2008, corruption around an exam designed to hire mining engineers led to a massive trade union protest. The Ben Ali government engaged in one of their favorite tactics: “Whack-A-Protest”. They surrounded the town, kicked out the journalists and arrested the trade unionists. Some women and children remained protesting, but it’s very hard to sustain a protest without attention, support or a sense that your actions could lead to change. The protest fizzled out, just as the Ben Ali regime had planned.
At that time, Zeynep reminds us, fewer that 28,000 Tunisians were on Facebook. Two years later, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi triggered protests in Sidi Bouzid and a near-identical response from the Ben Ali government. But Tunisia had 2 million Facebook users by January of 2011, and cellphone video cameras were pervasive. While no journalists were allowed into Sidi Bouzid, citizen media was able to document the protests, and disseminate their reporting to activist networks that had been working to challenge the regime. Those networks were able to disseminate the information before Whack-A-Protest was successful. States are resource-constrained actors, Zeynep continues. When protests spread rapidly through social media, they may not be able to react in time.
The effectiveness of a government crackdown has a great deal to do with whether a regime can rely on any support from citizens, or whether they are universally despised. By the end of his reign, Mubaak was so unpopular, he couldn’t even pay people to say positive things about him. It’s different in Bahrain or Syria, she posits, where regimes have more indigenous support. In a situation where there is unity against a dictator, social media may sweep away a dictator. In a polarized society, social media might lead to increased tensions. Social media doesn’t lead inexorably to democracy – it does lead to participation, which can be divisive in an already divided society.
She ends her opening remarks with a direct critique of Evgeny’s analysis, which she sees as making an unhelpful contrast between online and offline activism. “Talk to anyone who’s engaged in activism and they see one, integrated online and offline world, not separate spaces.”
Brendan acknowledges that a particular media narrative has emerged around Evgeny’s book: “It was cyberutopians versus Evgeny. Several revolutions later, Evgeny is wrong.” It’s rare that academics get a test case like the Arab Spring – what have we learned and what’s been a surprise since January 1?
Evgeny tells us that he wasn’t surprised that the internet was used by social movements. He argues that Zeynep is misinterpreting his distinction between online and offline activism. “In certain cases, we do see isolated groups of young kids who are acting online only, with no integration into social movements. This doesn’t mean social movements shouldn’t use online media.” But celebration of online media may give too much hope to people who believe change can come purely through the internet, and that would be a sad thing to do. Returning to Brendan’s question, he notes that the revolutions were surprising geopolitically, not technologically. “It’s an overly deterministic mindset to conclude that the internet favors dictators or activists.”
Brendan pushes further, asking whether Evgeny was surprised that Tunisia, which has displayed high levels of technical sophistication in censoring the internet, was unwilling or unable to control the internet in the face of protests. Evgeny argues that technological sophistication doesn’t determine political outcomes. He explains that he was surprised that Egypt’s government didn’t attack the Khaled Said Facebook group, noting that Chinese or Russian authorities might have. But his general argument is that technology is a less effective sphere of analysis than analyzing politics and economics.
Zeynep notes that she had just offered an example where similar protests in Tunisia were crushed in 2008 and succeeded in 2010. That example doesn’t deny that the revolution was a people’s movement, but it does suggest that technology was a factor. Evgeny retorts that it’s unreasonable to pick an anecdote and make the broader argument that technology was a key factor. Zeynep clarifies: she’s not arguing that technology is sufficient to lead to change, but it is a significant factor. In Egypt, activists have been developing online skills since 2005. Tunisian activists have developed great unity around the topic of anti-censorship. In both cases, we’ve seen the development of a digital public sphere that’s had an influence in recent events.
She explains that her surprise in 2011 is that people continue to refer to Iran’s Green Revolution as a failure. For people in the middle east, she argues, the Green Revolution was an “aha” moment. People could portray their dissent to the rest of the world. The movement was crushed, but it continues to be an inspiration.
Brendan suggests that the debate has shifted from whether the internet can have an effect on democracy to whether we can generalize those effects or whether we have to consider each country as a separate case. Are there generalizations that are safe to make?
Evgeny argues that we can generalize that there’s a reduced cost of access to information and reduced coordination costs. But this doesn’t inherently lead to democratization. States are getting better at creating “a semi-governed digital public sphere.” In these states, the “independent media” is state controlled, NGOs are really GONGOs (Government-owned NGOs). It’s not unreasonable to believe that they’ll be able to extend the concept of a “sovereign managed democracy”, a phrase used in Russia, using a variety of techniques, some borrowed from western advertising agencies, “to control the post-Habermas public sphere.”
Zeynep suggests that we can generalize that the internet increases participation, but not necessarily democracy. The values people bring to the table govern whether that participation is democratic or not. She suggests that control of democratic institutions via advertising and media doesn’t just happen in China – it happens in the US as well. China is able to get away with controlling a public sphere because it can stand on amazing economic growth and on passionate nationalism. “If those faltered, I think they will find level of censorship is not sustainable in the face of collective action.”
The dictator’s dilemma, she argues, is about the intensity and the unity of dissent. In a divided society with some legitimacy to a government, you can get away with some silencing of dissent, even if it causes damage to some commercial interests. In an autocracy that’s almost in complete opposition to the populus, it’s much harder to get away with. The era of the autocrat who is almost universally despised is over, she says, perhaps not today but in the near future. This has real implications for US foreign policy. The US has had a corrupt bargain with autocrats. It’s brought us neither democracy or stability, and we won’t be able to return to that bargain/
Evgeny suggests that Zeynep’s view is internet-centric. He agrees that the era of the dictator is over, but suggests that this isn’t due to technology, but due to discourses of human rights, the rise of globalization and other factors. He suggests her example of the printing press – talking about the printing press and not about Martin Luther – was technocentric.
“There were two workshops to train bloggers in Cairo in 2009, one supported by the US government.” Perhaps they deserve some of the credit for the Egyptian revolution. We need to pay attention to these training efforts, not just to the technology. And we need to recognize activists who don’t use technology. He offers the story of Alaa Abdel Fatteh, a celebrated young activist who’s active both online and offline. Evgeny notes that his parents are seasoned Egyptian dissidents. “Alaa spent five weeks in jail, his father spent five years,” but Alaa got more attention because he’s a blogger. “This doesn’t mean that cyberactivism is not important, but that we tend to fetishize it.”
At this point, I had to duck out and join a conference call – I’m sorry to have missed questions from the audience.
I was grateful for the chance to hear these two thinkers engage in a debate, though I feel like the points of disagreement in this discussion were harder to identify than in Zeynep’s review of Evgeny’s book. I think Evgeny’s presentation of his arguments has become softer and more careful in the wake of recent events than it was in his book. While I don’t think the Arab Spring invalidates all of Evgeny’s points – I agree strongly with his critique of technocentrism – I think it’s harder to make the case that technology is likely to favor dictators over activists. Evgeny has wisely shifted and now argues that technology doesn’t necessarily favor dictators or democrats and that we need to consider both options. That’s a wiser stance, in my opinion, but perhaps one less likely to draw the widespread attention some of his more confident assertions have garnered.
I thought Zeynep’s analysis regarding participation was extremely helpful. In a case like Egypt, where there was little support (at least in online circles) for Mubarak, a participatory space quickly became an activist space. In Bahrain, where there’s support and opposition to the government online, participation may be increasing polarization and conflict. I’ll be fascinated to see whether her argument that “speed is different” holds up – will governments be able to catch up and play Whack-a-Mole against new, network enabled protests? The Arab Spring may give us one set of test cases, and recent Chinese crackdowns on online dissent, another set.
One way or another, it was great to see three smart folks onstage trying to work through these issues. Thanks to NAFAC for making it happen.