As the eyes of the world turn to the events sweeping across the Middle East, the role of new media is coming under scrutiny. Can social media forces be usurped by authoritarian regimes as easily as they have motivated burgeoning democracies?
According to Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, the answer is yes.
Instead of a hand looming over the red button for a nuclear weapon launch, imagine it’s an Internet kill switch, said Morozov, who spoke at the Actors’ Gang in Culver City. The romanticized notion of an “open” network for the people may be at its end. The reality is that manipulating social media for political repression and propaganda is on the rise.
Assumptions about Social Media
“As you probably could guess from my name and accent I come from Eastern Europe. I was born in Belarus,” Morozov began. Given the nature of the region, “the question of democracy and freedom has always been very near to my heart,” he said.
In 2005, said Morozov, “there was still a lot of hope in terms of how blogging and new media in general could change politics.” When Morozov became the Director of New Media at Transitions Online, he spent three years traveling all over the Soviet bloc, promoting social networking. “I got to know people in Washington who were actually funding a lot of work” in the region, he said. There was a common assumption that the public was using social media for democracy, and the dictators “were more or less doomed,” he reflected.
Morozov found this view “very naive and short sighted” and noted that the funders and decision makers didn’t have “a good intellectual paradigm” for how the Internet was truly taking hold in the authoritarian countries. “I had to dig a little bit deeper,” he said.
“It’s not just propaganda that governments are experimenting with, it’s also online surveillance and new forms of censorship,” Morozov claimed. Governments are using mobile technology to track people. “It’s easy to obtain because your mobile phones have to connect to mobile towers.”
Morozov believes the revolution in Egypt was successful because the government lacked the sophistication of other authoritarian regimes. They didn’t have a “strong online propaganda strategy,” like China, Russia and Tehran, Morozov said.
Egypt’s flawed methodology was to intimidate bloggers and beat them up in jail. Morozov contends that this tactic backfired, making the bloggers “well known public figures” who became instrumental in the movement, such as Google executive Wael Ghonim. The fatal police beating of 28-year-old Khaled Said (or Saeed) at an Internet cafe and the release of photos showing his disfigured face in 2010 were ignited the uprising.
China’s response to a similar incident of police brutality and corruption was far more effective. In 2009, a peasant named Li Qiaoming was arrested for allegedly felling trees illegally and was beaten to death in his cell. “This created an outcry–80,000 comments in one blogosophere in 24 hours,” Morozov said.
But the Chinese government “did something very smart.” The deputy of propaganda made a statement online calling netizens to help create change. They took applications for an investigative commission and it dragged on for weeks. Although the promise of a serious investigation was a sham (the 15 people chosen to work on the commission had all worked for the state media) the public response was quelled, even positive.
“Not only do [the Chinese] try to act aggressively; they also train bloggers,” Morozov said. They have a “Fifty Cent Army.” (“They have nothing to do with the rap singer, they’re just paid 50 cents for every comment that they make online,” Morozov noted.) They train those bloggers, they pay them, and, instead of using the strong arm, they use spin to delegitimize dissidents, like linking them to the CIA or Mossad.
The disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked massive protests in Iran. According to Morozov, journalists mistakenly gave too much credence to the role of social media in the uprising. Al Jazeera could identify only 60 Twitter users, and that went down to 6 when the Iranian government stepped in.
Moreover, thanks in part to the hype, the Iranian government became attuned to social media as a mobilizing force. “The Iranian government began seeing [social media] as one of the biggest threats,” Morozov said.
After the street protests settled down, the government looked at Twitter, Facebook and Google and started to crack down in disturbing ways. The government collected photos on Flickr, circled people’s faces in red, and published them with agencies to seek out the individuals and arrest them. Iranian Americans were screened at airports and their Facebook friends were added to lists.
They wanted absolute control, Morozov explained. When you look at Twitter use today in Tehran, “you actually see many more pro-government messages.” Morozov said this is partly because people think the government now has a staff that goes online to “spoil” online conversations.
“My fear is that we’ll end up in a situation where more and more governments will try to cultivate their own social networks,” Morozov said. Vietnam, for example, has banned Facebook and has its own social networking site. That way, if something goes wrong, they can simply turn it off.
America’s Conflicting Image and Interests
Many American companies are complicit in authoritarian efforts, Morozov claimed. The Egyptian government was able to monitor its opponents because of technologies created by American companies. “This is something we need to be aware of,” Morozov said. Once governments create this climate of fear, Morozov cautioned, “companies become more conservative.”
Social networking sites also have their own business interests in marketing and expansion. “Even if you look to Twitter, Facebook and Google, I think you’ll see that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia succeed not because of them, but in spite of them,” Morozov said. For example, companies don’t allow activists to create pseudonyms and maintain anonymity.
America is also contradictory in its policies. While touting Internet freedom, the FBI wants to “build secret backdoors” into software like Skype. The U.S. also wants to shut down websites that trade in counterfeit material. Morozov called the response to Wikileaks less then inspiring. And why couldn’t we foresee Egypt’s uprising? At a hearing in Washington a few days ago, the government concluded: “The CIA was not spending enough time on Facebook.”
*Photos by Aaron Salcido