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 bulliesby Evgeny Morozov / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…