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A Cyberskeptics Handbook

July 18, 2012

Although it does not address the Egyptian uprisings directly, this book offers cautionary tales and correctives for those with a tendency to ascribe revolutionary agency to technologies themselves.

The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East continue to be largely characterized by their use of digital media, and the debate remains heavily binary, between cyberutopians and cyberskeptics. As a “media anthropologist” who has done more than ten years fieldwork on-and-off in Egypt, one of the things I want to know are the role(s) new media played in the Egyptian uprisings, so I thought it might be useful to review some of the scholarly literature on the subject..

So it was with interest that I read through Evgeny Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. This book is definitely in the cyberskeptic camp, and marshals considerable evidence to support its thesis that while Western media, NGOs and government institutions love stories about people empowered to resist statist oppression by social media, social media are also used by the state to strengthen their power, and to put activists under surveillance. Social media is also used by extreme nationalists, terrorists and racists to organize, mobilize and spread their values.

If cyberskeptics need a handbook, here it is.

Morozov is (as a political scientist who blogs for Foreign Policy and does work for the New America Foundation) especially concerned that policymakers not be sucked into what he sees as two great contemporary illusions:

  1. cyberutopianism (a celebratory attitude toward the emancipatory capacities of the Internet that cloud one’s capacities to recognize its darker side); and
  2. Internet-centrism (the growing propensity to view all political and social change through the prism of the Internet, diminishing one’s attention to more traditional social mobilization efforts )

The book opens with a demystification of Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution in 2009. Morozov points out that very few Iranians were actually tweeting about the protest, and the state used the very social media that was supposed to be empowering activists to identify them, track them down and arrest them. (Among other things, state security officials posted photos and videos on web sites and invited loyal citizens to turn these folks in–which many of them apparently did).

In Chapter Two, Morozov argues that Internet-centrism leads people to erroneously equate the fight for freedom of information–an uncensored Internet–with political democratization.  He is particularly critical of the wyas people use Cold War metaphors and analogies to describe efforts by activists to achieve Internet freedom. In their accounts of the Cold War, he writes, many analysts fall  into the trap of technological determinism by prioritizing the roles of information technologies and dissidents, while downplaying the many other structural and historical elements that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Chapter three argues that because the Internet offers cheap and easily available entertainment, one of its functions is to distract and dampen antigovernment sentiments, serving as a “safety valve” against popular antigovernment sentiment (the circus part of the old “bread and circuses” thesis).

Chapter four focuses on issues of internet censorship. Chapters Five focuses on ways authoritarian regimes have effectively incorporated new media into their propaganda effort, while Chapter Six offers examples of how regimes use new media for surveillance of dissident groups and individuals.

Chapter Seven the usefulness for activists of forming online groups for activism and questions their impacts on established offline activism. This is perhaps the only argument to which empirical evidence from the Egyptian revolution has important things to say in complicating Morozov’s contentions.

In Chapters Eight and Nine the author complicates the notion of “internet freedom” and what exactly this means. One of his most important points is the danger of  conflating US private internet companies’ profit-making motives with a commitment to human rights, freedom and democracy. First, he says, they are they unreliable, a point I make in my blog post about how Piggipedia was “censored” by Flickr following its standard policies of ascertaining photo “ownership.”

But Morozov points out that the politicization of Internet services like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the rest can also create the impression in authoritarian states that these are American instruments for interfering with other countries’ internal affairs, resulting in increasing internet control and crackdowns, which can make life even more challenging for political activists using social media.

Chapters Ten and Eleven summarize and recapitulate Morozov’s central argument that the Internet has no inherent democratic effects. On the contrary, he adopts the reasonable stance that these are evolving technologies whose outcomes are contingent upon local sociocultural contexts and therefore highly unpredictable. Journalists, NGOs, policymakers and others must therefore beware of turning modern technologies into “silver bullets” that can solve social problems without requiring agencies to dal with the root causes of those problems.

Morozov’s argument is interesting in an anthropological sense in that it also brings to light a fundamental cultural assumptions that many Americans take for granted: the notion that there is a technological fix for any problem–more specificallyourtechnology, which tends to be high-tech, electronic, and expensive, can be used to solve any and all problems even in societies organized very differently than ours; and

Our technological optimism is often fostered by media portrayals that highlight a handful of outspoken activists who appear to have been empowered by the internet but may well be “extremely unrepresentative parts for the whole.”

One commentator of the Amazon web page for this book wrote in a burst of cyberutopian enthusiasm that the Arab revolutions had disproved Morozov’s entire thesis.

Would that it were so. As other scholars have recently argued, much of the work of building a real understanding of how new media works in social and political change involves clearing the thicket of cyberutopian fantasies–but also of extreme cyberskeptical reactions. Social media played real and important roles in the Egyptian uprisings; describing and analyzing those roles in the context of broader revolutionary and counterrevolutionary practices is an ongoing project.

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