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Web & Totalitarism

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How the Internet strengthens dictatorships. How dictators watch us on the web. The internet is meant to help activists, enable democratic protest and weaken the grip of authoritarian regimes.

How dictators watch us on the web

But it doesn’t—in fact, the web is a boon for bullies Read more in this debate: media guru, Clay Shirky, responds to Morozov’s criticisms and defends the web as a positive force for democracy. Morozov replies to Shirky here. Hear more: Evgeny Morozov speaks at Demos on the subject: “Is the internet really changing politics?” , and Prospect’s Tom Chatfield interviews Morozov here.

My homeland of Belarus is an unlikely place for an internet revolution. Its last presidential election in March 2006 was followed by a short-lived and unsuccessful revolution. Details of this rebellion have since been celebrated by a cadre of mostly western thinkers who believe that digital activism can help to topple authoritarian regimes.

And So what? Prospect Magazine‘s latest issue figures an excellent piece by my witty colleague Evgeny Morozov.

And So what?

Entitled “Why Dictators Love the Web,” the article is as an important contribution to the study of digital activism. As many in this field know, Evgeny is one of the lone analog voices countering the digital “Internet = Democracy” hype that pervades the mainstream media and much of digital activism. To this end, Evgeny’s latest tour de force is also invaluable for my dissertation research, in which I study the role of new media and technology in popular resistance against authoritarian regimes. I had lunch with Evgeny last week and I must say he is without doubt one of my favorite colleagues to discuss these issues with. Why? In the meantime, I thought I’d dig a few digital trenches of my own around his really enjoyable piece in *Prospect which, just to be cheeky, might well have been titled “Why Evgeny Loves It that Dictators Love the Web.” Response to the response.

Evgeny replied in style to my way-too-long response to his piece in Prospect on: “Why Dictators Love the Web.”

Response to the response

At least someone read my entire post, thanks Evgeny! As I wrote in my first response, the great thing about Evgeny is that “he’ll test your logic and poke (nay, drill) as many trenches as he can into your argument.” So if you want to see this in action, do read his concise reply. First things first, though: his piece is accessible by subscription only.

I happened to be in London and picked up a copy of Prospect at Heathrow last night, which made for pleasant reading on the flight back. Second, the following comment by Evgeny is probably the most stupefying: “For someone so obsessed with data, Patrick has produced no data at all to counter any of my arguments. Uno: Evgeny knows full well that I’m collecting data for my dissertation research to test whether access to new media and technology challenges the balance of power between repressive regimes and resistance movements. 1. Twitter and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk. I just attended a panel at Harvard University on “The Impact of Social Media in the Middle East” which is part of a 3-day conference on the Middle East and North Africa.

Twitter and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk

My colleagues Rob Faris from the Berkman Center and Evgeny Morozov now at Georgetown were both on the panel in addition to Iranian-American activist Lily Mazahery and Kuwaiti blogger Ziad Al-Duaij. The panelists engaged in rapid-fire debate on the role of Twitter in Iran after their presentations. The typical laundry list of anecdotes were thrown around to win the hearts and minds of the audience. The summary: Yes, Twitter had a significant impact; No Twitter had no significant impact. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t eaten all day, but I found this all quite annoying. If you look close enough, you’ll find that many of the debates in the “field” of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes. Why the Internet Is a Great Tool for Totalitarians. Photo: Brock Davis The Internet advances the cause of freedom more effectively than ballistic missiles and Hellfire-equipped drones; at least that’s the conventional wisdom among US diplomats and policymakers.

Why the Internet Is a Great Tool for Totalitarians

“Information freedom supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress” is how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a speech last January, her first on democracy and the Internet. George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” is out; the Twitter agenda is in. Unfortunately, this kind of technological romanticism relies on false historical analogies and sloppy thinking. The last time American leaders were this ecstatic about the power of information was at the end of the Cold War, when illicit fax machines and photocopiers and the work of broadcasters like Radio Free Europe were presumed to have been a leading cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But not all blogs are revolutionary. This isn’t just theory.