Media guru Clay Shirky responds to criticisms in Evgeny Morozov’s December cover story on why dictators benefit from the web. Despite pitfalls, he says, the internet remains a positive force for democracyby Clay Shirky / December 11, 2009 / Leave a comment
Now online: listen to a joint Demos/Prospect podcast, with Prospect’s Tom Chatfield interviewing Evgeny Morozov about the relationship between the internet and politics, by clicking here.
Read Evgeny Morozov’s response to Clay Shirky’s essay here
In Prospect’s December cover story, “How dictators watch us on the web”, Evgeny Morozov criticises my views on the impact of social media on political unrest. Indeed, he even says I am “the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet.” In part, I would like to agree with some of his criticisms, while partially disputing some of his assertions too.
Let me start with a basic statement of belief: because civic life is not just created by the actions of individuals, but by the actions of groups, the spread of mobile phones and internet connectivity will reshape that civic life, changing the ways members of the public interact with one another.
Though germane, this argument says little to nothing about the tempo, mode, or ultimate shape such a transformation will take. There are a number of possible scenarios for changed interaction between the public and the state, some rosy, others distinctly less so. Crucially however, Morozov’s reading is in response to a specific strain of internet utopianism—let’s call it the “just-add-internet” hypothesis. In this model, the effect of social media on the lives of citizens in authoritarian regimes will be swift, unstoppable, and positive—a kind of digitised 1989. And it will lead us to expect the prominence of social media in any society’s rapid democratisation.
While this argument is overtly simplistic, I have nonetheless helped fuel it by discussing mechanisms through which citizens can coordinate group action, while failing to note the ways that visible public action also provides new counter-moves to repressive regimes. Morozov is right to criticise me for this imbalance, and for the resulting (and undue) optimism it engenders about social media as a democratising force; I stand corrected.
Nevertheless, I want to defend the notion—which Morozov goes after in the “man most responsible for intellectual confusion” section of his essay—that social media improves political information cascades, as outlined by the political scientist Susanne Lohmann. It also represents a new dynamic within political protest, which will alter the struggle between insurrectionists and the state, even if the state wins in any given clash. Where this will lead to a net advantage for popular uprisings in authoritarian regimes is an open…