How dictators watch us on the web

The internet is meant to help activists, enable democratic protest and weaken the grip of authoritarian regimes. But it doesn’t—in fact, the web is a boon for bullies
November 18, 2009

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. The country, controlled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, was once described by Condoleezza Rice as “the last outpost of tyranny in Europe.”

Its last presidential election in March 2006 was followed by a short-lived and unsuccessful revolution. The initial protests were brutally suppressed. But where public rallies couldn’t succeed, protesters turned to more creative forms of insurgency: flash mobs. In a flash mob, social media or email is used to assemble a group of people in a public place, who then perform together a brief, often surreal action. Some young Belarusians used the blogging service LiveJournal to organise a series of events in Minsk with subtle anti-government messages. In a typical flash mob, the youngsters smiled, read newspapers or ate ice-cream. There was nothing openly political but the subtext was: “It’s better to lick ice-cream than the president’s ass!” The security services made many arrests, but their actions were captured in photos that were posted on LiveJournal and on photo-sharing websites like Flickr. Western bloggers and then traditional media picked up the news, drawing attention to the harsh crackdown.

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. Belarusian flash mobs are invoked to illustrate how a new generation of decentralised protesters, armed only with technology, can oppose the state in ways unthought of in 1968 or 1989. But these digital enthusiasts rarely tell you what happened next.

Enthusiasm for the idea of digital revolution abounds. In October, I was invited to testify to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Washington DC—a hotchpotch of US congressmen, diplomats and military officials. The group was holding a hearing titled: “Twitter Against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes.” I would once have happily accepted the premise, but recently my thinking has changed. From 2006-08 I worked on western-funded internet projects in the former Soviet Union—most with a “let’s-promote-democracy-through-blogs” angle. But last year I quit. Our mission to use the internet to nudge citizens of authoritarian regimes to challenge the status quo had so many unexpected consequences that, at times, it seemed to be hurting the very causes we were trying to promote.

At the hearing, I was the lonely voice of dissent in a sea of optimism. In one speech, Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican known for his conservative Christian views, implored us to “tear down the new walls of the 21st century, the cyber-walls and electronic censorship technology used by tyrants.”

Jon Stewart, host of the satirical programme The Daily Show, recently poked fun at a similar suggestion from a congressman that the web was freeing the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran: “What, we could have liberated them over the internet? Why did we send an army when we could do it the same way we buy shoes?” Unfortunately, critical voices like his are rare. The majority of the media, so cranky when reporting the internet’s impact on their industry, keep producing tear-jerking examples of the marriage of political protest and social media. And what a list it is: Burmese monks defying an evil junta with digital cameras; Filipino teenagers using SMS to create a “textual revolution;” Egyptian activists using encryption to hide from the all-seeing-eye of the Mukhabarat; even Brazilian ecologists using Google maps to show deforestation in the Amazon delta. And did I mention Moldova, China and Iran? These cyber-dissidents, we are told, now take their struggles online, swapping leaflets for Twitter updates and ditching fax machines for iPhones.

But that isn’t what happened in Belarus. After the first flash mob, the authorities began monitoring By_mob, the LiveJournal community where the activities were announced. The police started to show up at the events, often before the flashmobbers did. Not only did they detain participants, but they too took photos. These—along with the protesters’ own online images—were used to identify troublemakers, many of whom were then interrogated by the KGB, threatened with suspension from university, or worse. This intimidation didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, only hardcore activists would show up. Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.

The Belarusian government shows no sign of being embarrassed by the fact it arrested people for eating ice-cream. Despite what digital enthusiasts tell you, the emergence of new digital spaces for dissent also lead to new ways of tracking it. Analogue activism was pretty safe: if one node in a protest network got busted, the rest of the group was probably OK. But getting access to an activist’s inbox puts all their interlocutors in the frame, too. The result is a cat-and-mouse game in which protesters try to hide from the authorities by carving out unconventional niches. In Iran, dissidents used to be active on Goodreads, an international social networking website for book-lovers. Here they quietly engaged in conversations about politics and culture, unseen by the censors—that is, until the Los Angeles Times helpfully published an article about what was going on, tipping the authorities off.

Social networking, then, has inadvertently made it easier to gather intelligence about activist networks. Even a tiny security flaw in the settings of one Facebook profile can compromise the security of many others. A study by two MIT students, reported in September, showed it is possible to predict a person’s sexual orientation by analysing their Facebook friends; bad news for those in regions where homosexuality carries the threat of beatings and prison. And many authoritarian regimes are turning to data-mining companies to help them identify troublemakers. TRS Technologies in China is one such company. It boasts that “thanks to our technology, the work of ten internet cops can now be done by just one.”


This does not mean that cyber dissent is an illusion. There are three main strands to the “democracy by tweets” theory. First, despite my caveats, the internet can if used properly give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication. Russian activists can use hard-to-tap Skype in place of insecure phone lines, for example. Dissidents can encrypt emails, distribute anti-government materials without leaving a paper trail, and use clever tools to bypass internet filters. It’s now easier to be a “one-man NGO”: with Google Docs, you can do your own printing, lowering the risk of leaks. Second, new technology makes bloody crackdowns riskier, as police are surrounded by digital cameras and pictures can quickly be sent to western news agencies. Some governments, like Burma and North Korea, don’t care about looking brutal, but many others do. Third, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest, helping to turn “fence-sitters” into protesters at critical moments. An apolitical Iranian student, for instance, might find that all her Facebook friends are protesting and decide to take part.

This third point, however, needs careful examination. The argument goes like this. Thanks to the internet, governments have lost their monopoly on controlling information, while citizens have acquired access to other sources of knowledge and the ability to organise more safely. Many people will use this access to learn more about democracy, which will unshackle them from government propaganda. They will use this new power to push the government on accountability (as has happened to a limited extent in China, where online campaigners have had corrupt local officials sacked). When the next crisis strikes—such as the flawed Iranian election in 2009, or high fuel prices in Burma in 2007—citizens will turn to the internet to see how unpopular the regime has become. Discovering others of like mind, they will see the protests and, if the regime hasn’t responded with violence, join to create a “snowball” capable of crushing the most rigid authoritarian structure.

Social scientists have named these snowballs “information cascades.” They explain why, when most citizens may believe that a revolution will not succeed, they will still pour into the streets if everyone else is protesting; so many people can’t be wrong. Perhaps the most famous example is described in a 1994 paper by UCLA political scientist Susanne Lohmann. She sought to explain the sudden appeal of the “Monday demonstrations” in the East German town of Leipzig, which began in September 1989. Lohmann argues that the East German fence-sitters watched the protests unfold and, noting the lack of government retaliation, decided to join in. In the circumstances, it was the most rational thing for them to do.

It’s not hard to see how the internet might amplify information cascades and so strengthen the position of activists. The point is made most famously by the American web guru Clay Shirky. He is a darling of the social media world, a consultant for government, corporate and philanthropic bodies, and a source for reporters seeking quotes on how the internet is changing protest. He is also the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet. Shirky adapted Lohmann’s theories for the age of MySpace in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody (2008). The major lesson he drew from Leipzig is that people should “protest in ways that the state was unlikely to interfere with, and distribute evidence of their actions widely.” Why? Protesters are in a win-win situation: “If the state didn’t react, the documentation would serve as evidence that the protesting was safe. If the state did react, then the documentation of the crackdown could be used to spur an international outcry.”

But the truth is often different. In Belarus, most fence-sitters watched the state’s response and, acting rationally, went searching for higher fences. In Iran this year, the famous photograph of Neda Agha-Soltan, murdered in the streets, went viral and became a symbol of the “green revolution.” Whether it encouraged any fence-sitters is much less obvious.

Information cascades often fail to translate into crowds, even without state fear-mongering. Last year’s anti-Farc protests in Colombia—aided by Facebook—attracted huge crowds. But this year’s anti-Chávez protests did not, although they were organised by the same group using the same methods. The aim was for 50m people to rally worldwide but only a few thousand turned up. The same has been true when people have tried to organise protests in Azerbaijan and Russia.

Yet even if the internet doesn’t always bring people out onto the streets, its adherents have another, subtler argument. For democracy to succeed, they say, you need civil movements to help make protests more intense, frequent and well-attended. A vibrant civil society can challenge those in power by documenting corruption or uncovering activities like the murder of political enemies. In democracies, this function is mostly performed by the media, NGOs or opposition parties. In authoritarian states—or so the story goes—it is largely up to lone individuals, who often get locked up as a result. Yet if citizens can form ad-hoc groups, gain access to unbiased information and connect with each other, challenges to the state become more likely. And social theorists like Robert Putnam argue that the emergence of such groups increases social capital and trust among citizens.

It is true that the internet is building what I call “digital civic infrastructure”—new ways to access data and networks to distribute it. This logic underlies many western efforts to reshape cyberspace in authoritarian states. The British foreign secretary David Miliband has enthused about the potential of the communications revolution to “fuel the drive for social justice.” “If it’s true that there are more bloggers per head of population in Iran than in any other country, this makes me optimistic,” he has also said. In early November, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced Civil Society 2.0, a project to help grassroots organisations around the world use digital technology, which will include tuition in online campaigning and how to leverage social networks.

But the emergence of this seemingly benign infrastructure can backfire on western governments. The first snag is that turning the internet into a new platform for civic participation requires certainty that only pro-western and pro-democracy forces will participate. Most authoritarian societies, however, defy easy classification into the “good guys vs bad guys” paradigms of the Bush era. In Egypt, for example, the extremist Muslim Brotherhood is a political force—albeit mostly missing from the Egyptian parliament—that can teach Hosni Mubarak a lesson about civic participation. It has an enviable digital presence and a sophisticated internet strategy: for example, campaigning online to get activists released from prison. Western governments shouldn’t be surprised when groups like this become the loudest voices in new digital spaces: they are hugely popular and are commonly denied a place in the heavily policed traditional public sphere.

Similarly, the smartest and most active user of new media in Lebanon is not the western-backed government of Saad Hariri, but the fundamentalist troublemakers of Hizbullah, whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel. In Russia, the internet has given a boost to extreme right-wing groups like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which has been using Google Maps to visualise the location of ethnic minorities in Russian cities and encouraging its members to hound them out. Criminal gangs in Mexico are fond of YouTube, where they flaunt their power by uploading videos of their graphic killings. Generally, in the absence of strong democratic norms and institutions, the internet has fuelled a drive for vigilante justice rather than the social variety Miliband was expecting.

And it gets worse. Ultra-loyalist groups supporting Thailand’s monarchy were active during both the September 2006 coup and more recent street protests, finding anti-monarchy material that needed to be censored via a website called In this, they are essentially doing the job usually reserved for the secret police. In much the same way, the Iranian revolutionary guards posted online photos of the most ardent protesters at the June 2009 rallies, asking pro-Ahmadinejad Iranians to identify them. And in August 2009 religious fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia launched a campaign to identify YouTube videos they found offensive and pressure the company to delete them—a form of digital “hacktivism” which must be delighting the official censors.

And it doesn’t help that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can launch a cyber-attack on a sovereign nation. Last year I took part in one—purely for the sake of experiment—on the websites of the Georgian government. As the Russian tanks were marching into South Ossetia, I was sitting in a cafe in Berlin with a laptop and instructions culled from Russian nationalist blogs. All I had to do was to input the targets provided—the URLs of hostile Georgian institutions (curiously, the British embassy in Tbilisi was on that list)—click “Start” and sit back. I did it out of curiosity; thousands of Russians did it out of patriotism. And the Russian government turned a blind eye. The results of the attack were unclear. For a brief period some government emails and a few dozen websites were either slow or unavailable; some Georgian banks couldn’t offer online services for a short period.

Yet while the internet may take the power away from an authoritarian (or any other) state or institution, that power is not necessarily transferred to pro-democracy groups. Instead it often flows to groups who, if anything, are nastier than the regime. Social media’s greatest assets—anonymity, “virality,” interconnectedness—are also its main weaknesses.


So how do repressive governments use the internet? As we have seen, the security services can turn technology against the logistics of protest. But the advent of blogging and social networking has also made it easier for the state to plant and promote its own messages, spinning and neutralising online discussions before they translate into offline action. The “great firewall of China,” which supposedly keeps the Chinese in the dark, is legendary. In truth, such methods of internet censorship no longer work. They might stop the man on the street, but a half determined activist can find a way round. And more often than not, official attempts to delete a post by an anti-government blogger will backfire, as the blogger’s allies take on the task of distributing it through their own networks. Governments have long lost absolute control over how the information spreads online, and extirpating it from blogs is no longer a viable option. Instead, they fight back. It is no trouble to dispatch commentators to accuse a dissident of being an infidel, a sexual deviant, a criminal, or worst of all a CIA stooge (see box p38).

Moreover, the distracting noise of the internet—the gossip, pornography, and conspiracy theories—can act as a de-politicising factor. Providing unfettered access to information is not by itself going to push citizens of authoritarian states to learn about their government’s crimes. Political scientists talk about the preference for non-political information as “rational ignorance.” It’s a fancy way of saying that most people, whether in democracies or not, prefer to read about trivia and what’s useful in daily life—restaurant and film reviews and so on—than about the tedious business of governance.

One study from early 2007, by a Saudi academic, showed that 70 per cent of all content swapped by Saudi teenagers via Bluetooth was pornographic. Authoritarian governments know that the internet could be a new opium for the masses. They are tolerant of rampant internet piracy, as in China. In many cases, they push the cyber-hedonistic pursuits of their youth. Government-controlled internet providers in Belarus, for example, run dedicated servers full of pirated digital goodies for their clients to download for free. Under this new social contract, internet users are allowed plenty of autonomy online—just so long as they don’t venture into politics.


We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Nobody knows how to create sustainable digital public spheres capable of promoting democracy. Western interventions can even thwart the natural development of such spaces. Governments usually give cash to a favoured NGO—often based outside the authoritarian state in question—which has the job of creating new social media infrastructure: group blogs, social networks, search engines and other services that we take for granted in the west. The NGOs then hire local talent to work on a Belarusian Twitter or an Egyptian version of the blog-search platform Technorati.

Yet these services work because they are born in entrepreneurial cultures where they can be speedily built and adapted to local needs. The stodgy form-filling process of angling for the next juicy grant, which in truth drives nearly all NGOs, is a world away from a freewheeling Palo Alto start-up. The result is a clumsy arrangement in which NGOs toil away on lengthy, expensive and unnecessary projects instead of ditching them when it becomes apparent they won’t work and moving on to the next idea. Despite millions of dollars poured into the former Soviet Union, NGO-funded new media projects that are alive and kicking a year after the original grant has ended can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So should we stop funding projects that use the internet to promote democracy? Of course not. Even a sceptic like me can see the upside. Western governments and NGOs shouldn’t abandon their digital democracy push, they should just improve it. One way would be to invest in tools that help make digital civic spaces less susceptible to government spin. There are some interesting prototypes—particularly based around Wikipedia edits—that supply readers with visual hints that some contributors may not be trustworthy. As Twitter and Facebook emerge as platforms for cyber-activism in authoritarian states, it is essential they are aware of their new global obligations, including the need to protect the data entrusted to them by activists. Elsewhere, cyber-attacks on NGOs are poised to intensify. We in the west should be prepared to step in and help the dissenting voices, providing free and prompt assistance to get back online as soon as possible.

Some consistency in dealing with cyber-attacks is also needed. If we treat cyber-attacks that Russian nationalists launch on Estonian or Georgian targets as crimes, we cannot approve when our own “hacktivists” launch similar attacks on Iranian government websites. And western governments should refrain from confirming paranoid autocrats’ theories about a Twitter revolution, thus necessitating a crackdown. During the Iran protests this year, the US state department called Twitter executives and asked them to delay maintenance of the site so Iranians could continue using it to protest. There was no better way to confirm Iranian suspicions that the US government was somehow behind the protest.

One final idea. Let us in future be a bit more sceptical about the need to recreate the protest wheel. In almost all countries run by authoritarian regimes there is an untapped mass of activists, dissidents, and anti-government intellectuals who have barely heard of Facebook. Reaching out to these offline but effective networks will yield more value than trying to badger bloggers to take up political activities. Western embassies working on the ground in authoritarian states often excel at identifying and empowering such networks and new media literacy should become part of diplomatic training. After all, these old-school types are the people who brought democracy to central and eastern Europe. And it will probably be them who win freedom for China and Iran too.