Its wrong to think of free speech as an absolute which underpins democracy. Its really a contested event which ebbs and flows, even in stable western countries.
For the last decade, the internet and in particular social media, were seen as advancing free speech and in doing so, threatening authoritarian regimes. But Evgeny Morozov argues that authoritarian governments have quickly adapted to dash what he calls naive democratic hopes.
Morozov claimed “cyber-utopians” saw the internet as like “Radio Free Europe on steroids”.
Much of the present excitement about the Internet, particularly the high hopes that are pinned on it in terms of opening up closed societies, stems from … selective, and at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system. (Morozov 2011 pxii)
In Iran, the government formed a twelve member cyber crime team to identify “insults and lies” on Iranian websites. Iranian police then combed the net for images of protestors, “ubiquitous thanks to social media”, so that they could be arrested. Expatriate dissidents, identified with Facebook accounts, received messages threatening their relatives back in Iran.
The more connections between activists it can identify, the better for the government, while the more trust users have in blogs and social networks, the easier it is to use those networks to promote carefully disguised government messages and boost the propaganda apparatus.
Modern censorship went beyond just blocking access and often aimed at eroding and destroying online communities instead. Community groups were also becoming involved in supressing other opinions. Morozov cited the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JID) , which he claimed identified and infiltrated anti Israel Facebook sites, ultimately disabling them. The JIDF which described itself as a “grassroots effort for change”, promulgated “direct action both to eradicate the problems we face online and to create the publicity that will cause those with the power to take action (companies like Facebook and Google) to do the right thing”.
Throughout history, new technologies have almost always empowered and dis-empowered particular political and social groups, sometimes simultaneously…
In what was a largely negative book, Morozov appeared to contradict himself by approvingly citing Global Voices founder, Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s essay, “Internet Freedom Beyond Circumvention” optimistically advocated a series of theories of how the internet might counter censorship.
- The suppressed information theory: if we can provide certain suppressed information to people in closed societies, they’ll rise up and challenge their leaders and usher in a different government.
- The Twitter revolution theory: if citizens in closed societies can use the powerful communications tools made possible by the Internet, they can unite and overthrow their oppressors.
- The public sphere theory: Communication tools may not lead to revolution immediately, but they provide a new rhetorical space where a new generation of leaders can think and speak freely.
While conceding that these theories had some intellectual merit, Morozov then dismissed them as the pursuit of “an internet nirvana”; a cheap shot at Zuckerman’s unfortunate haircut. Sadly, Morozov was long on catchy phrases but short on answers.
In the last pages, he called for “cyber-realists” who wouldn’t get “dragged into the highly abstract and high pitched debates about whether the internet undermines or strenghtens democracy”; questions he spent many chapters exploring himself.
Above all, cyber realists would believe that a world made of bytes may defy the law of gravity, but absolutely nothing dictates that it should also defy the law of reason.
- The limits of citizen journalism (alanknight.wordpress.com)
- The Web Is Turning Us Into Narrow-Minded Drones (slate.com)