Censoring cyberspace

While the western world applauds the internet as a force for empowerment, liberation and democracy, authoritarian governments in the east are working behind the scenes to manipulate the messages it conveys, says Evgeny Morozov

As thousands of young Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to protest against the results of the rigged elections, pundits were quick to zero in on the role that technology – blogging, social networking and text messaging – had played in igniting and publicising the protests. Speaking in almost perfect unison, Western observers agreed on the inevitability of a ‘Twitter revolution’ – a homage to the über-popular micro-blogging site just getting under way in Tehran.

For better or worse, this catchy label has come to symbolise the pronounced importance of the internet in bringing freedom and democracy to societies that need them most. Media and politicians alike are fascinated by the narrative of ‘information revolution’ that could redefine the world’s political map. Those who believe in the power of the internet to undermine political authority have had a good run in the past few years. From Burma to Egypt to China, blogs and social networks have allowed activists and dissidents – the Davids of this world – to take on the authoritarian Goliaths. The skilful use of new media has allowed these Davids to carve out an impressive virtual space for their activities in the otherwise rigid public life of most authoritarian regimes.

Or so we are often told. On closer examination, however, the Panglossian rhetoric of the ‘David vs Goliath’ variety, so eagerly embraced by our technology gurus, relies on some dubious assumptions. Many internet enthusiasts would like us to believe that, given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable. For them, blogs and social networks have transformed the economics of protest; therefore, sooner or later, the masses will rebel against the tyrants. But is it only the lack of adequate technology that prevents the masses in China or Iran from revolting? Such blind belief in the deterministic power of technology disregards a host of political, cultural and social factors that have often shaped world history in more profound ways than technology. That technology has made protests cheaper doesn’t mean it has also made them likelier.
A similar logic of technological determinism has underpinned the doctrine of ‘iPod liberalism’, which assumes that all Chinese and Iranians who love iPods would, by extension, also love liberal democracy. The major conceptual flaw of ‘iPod liberalism’ is that it confuses the actual with the intended uses of technology. The intended use of the radio might well be to spread gospel about democracy and human rights, but its actual use in Rwanda was to fuel genocide. While the cyber-optimists thought it would empower the activists and human rights defenders, new media has equally empowered all sorts of nationalist, anti-democratic and openly extremist forces.

These darker developments remain invisible to the general public. The ease with which we have accepted the label ‘Twitter revolution’ reveals how badly we long for a quick and easy way to promote democracy in politically complicated environments, where other diplomatic measures have failed to work. World leaders are eager to embrace this cyber-utopian vision of international politics, dreaming of a world in which a few mouse clicks could topple authoritarian regimes and prevent atrocities. Gordon Brown even claimed that the Rwandan genocide wouldn’t have been possible in the age of Twitter.

This comforting and widely accepted narrative doesn’t tally with lugubrious and largely immutable political realities on the ground, however. For all the talk about Twitter revolutions, the regimes in Iran or China are as stable and repressive as ever. Thus, before the world leaders get completely carried away with their starry-eyed theories of cyber-utopianism, it’s time to pause and ask some tough questions about the internet’s real impact on dictatorships. Does it empower dictators and their opponents in equal measure? Does it bestow some overlooked, unfair advantages upon the former? Is there something inherently liberating about the internet or will it simply follow in the footsteps of radio and television, becoming just another tool for propaganda and brainwashing in the arsenal of media-savvy dictators? Above all, if the internet is not the catalyst for social change that we thought it would be, could it be the glue that prevents authoritarian regimes from falling apart? 

Some authoritarian governments are already plotting what could only be described as ‘Twitter counter-revolutions’ – producing terabytes of online propaganda, honing their surveillance techniques and relying on strategies such as ‘data mining’ to generate the information they need to survive. Many authoritarian governments are busy building what I call the ‘spinternet’, a shady corner of the authoritarian web populated by government-friendly bloggers and commentators who are paid to spin the discussions and pretend to be the voice of the people. The Chinese authorities do it with the help of the 280,000-strong ‘50 cent’ party, whose members receive 50 cents for each pro-government comment they leave online. Iranians run blogging workshops in Qom seminaries so that online discourse about religious matters doesn’t get out of hand. Nigerian authorities have been funding what has been dubbed the anti-blogging project, which would enable the government to disburse US$5 million to sponsor the blogging of 700 sympathisers of the regime (the compensation would take the form of cyber café tickets as well as blogging allowances).

These governments are rediscovering the century-old art of propaganda because, contrary to their earlier expectations, internet censorship has proved ineffective at containing the spread of dissenting views. Thanks to blogs and Twitter, even banned materials quickly spread through thousands of online outlets. Censors have no choice but to engage (and often discredit) their online critics. The undecided moderates – those who feel ambivalent about the party line but are not too excited about the opposition, either – are often the prime targets of the spinning campaigns.

The internet may be the new opium for the masses rather than a catalyst for social changeRussia, perhaps, features one of the most advanced models of the spinternet: the government has managed to outsource its online propaganda to trusted new media start-ups run by Kremlin insiders. One such insider is 30-year-old Konstanyn Rykov, a godfather of the Russian political internet and, unusually, a product of Russia’s bizarre counterculture. In 1998, he founded fuck.ru and advertised himself as Russia’s first pornographer; he also had an artistic streak, however, and patronised many of Russia’s creative intelligentsia, including writers and film-makers. Ten years later, he is a respected deputy of the Russian Duma (one of its youngest members) and moonlights as the Kremlin’s self-appointed ‘ambassador to the internet’. Most curiously, he has also emerged as a defender of family values, arguing for a crackdown on violence and pornography in the media.

How did this transformation happen? The answer is simple: in the intervening years, Rykov has built a successful internet propaganda empire. His company, New Media Stars, has been catering to the Kremlin’s internet needs, producing projects such as zaputina.ru (‘For Putin!’), russia.ru (a leading Russian internet service) and vz.ru (a popular internet newspaper) – all of which relay pro-Kremlin messages to Russia’s internet masses. The highlight of Rykov’s career was a viral online documentary called War 08.08.08, produced after last year’s war with Georgia and made using footage from cell phones supposedly confiscated from Georgian soldiers. The film has become a viral sensation and has helped to promote the Kremlin’s version of events.

Sometimes, however, even the efforts of internet heavyweights such as Rykov are not enough to contain online dissent, so the governments have to identify more effective means of engaging with their online critics. The recent ‘elude the cat’ incident from China offers a classic case study of how this should be done. Li Qiaoming was a 24-year-old peasant living near Yuxi City, one of the major hubs of China’s southwestern Yunnan province. On 29 January 2009, he and four others were arrested for illegal logging. Two weeks later, his parents were shocked to receive a phone call ordering them to pick up his corpse from the police station. According to authorities, he died while playing the game of blind man’s buff (known as ‘elude the cat’ in China). Li’s death immediately became a cause célèbre in the Chinese blogosophere, with numerous prominent bloggers accusing the Yunnan police of a nasty and very obvious cover-up. One popular Chinese site, qq.com, attracted more than 35,000 comments on the issue. The authorities didn’t censor any of these comments; instead, they reached out to bloggers and invited them to become ‘netizen investigators’, who would be offered a chance to inspect the prison in question and blog about their experiences. Five hundred applied; four were selected. Soon tensions were diffused and the incident was quickly forgotten. 

The Chinese government is hardly unique here, as other authoritarian governments are beginning to heed (or at least pretending to heed) the advice of their online critics. Political scientists call this climate of fake openness ‘authoritarian deliberation’; it is often advanced through prodigious social events such as consultative meetings, public hearings or deliberative polls, which occur without triggering any regime-wide democratisation. The internet is playing a key role in  facilitating this.

There are several reasons why dictators may encourage such an approach. First, it generates information about emerging threats that face their regime but are otherwise hidden by fearful low-level apparatchiks. Second, it helps shift the blame for failed policies from bureaucrats to the public. Third, as members of the public develop an illusion of control and autonomy, it only adds to the legitimacy of the regimes. 

Much to the surprise of cyber-utopians, the internet has allowed authoritarian governments to advance further in their embrace of controlled deliberation. It’s cheaper to organise a national group discussion online than in a physical location, particularly in giant countries such as China and Russia, where such pan-national deliberation – usually in the form of annual congresses – is prohibitively expensive. The anonymity of cyberspace, mired in spin, helps to present fake deliberative mechanisms as genuine, and tools such as blog aggregators and wikis make it easy to mine and analyse the information that these regimes desperately need to survive. In other words, dictators may have learned as much from the Wikipedia experience as their opponents.

Not all discontent can be successfully channelled into useless deliberation, however. Wouldn’t young people – who have not been subject to decades of propaganda – be able to see through all this and rebel? Cyber-utopians may have relied on another fallacy by thinking that ‘digital natives’ – young people who have grown up surrounded by information technology – would grow up to be democracy-hungry cosmopolitans. They have never seriously considered the possibility that the internet may be the new opium for the masses rather than a catalyst for social change.

Thus, for every digital renegade revolting in the streets of Tehran or Chisinau, there are probably 10 digital captives who prefer to revolt in Second Life or World of Warcraft. And this behaviour is entirely rational. The kind of social freedoms and opportunities that the internet has opened up for young people in China or Russia or Iran were never available to their parents or grandparents. They can download any movie or book within seconds. They can transcend centuries-old social barriers and discover their sexuality or spirituality on their own terms, without any meddling by the government. This explains why, in a recent survey, 32 percent of Chinese teens said that the internet broadens their sex life, compared with 11 percent of Americans (furthermore, 80 percent of respondents said that digital technology is an essential part of how they live, compared with 68 percent of American respondents).

So it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to risk their comfortable existence – punctuated by large doses of digital entertainment and social networking – for the dubious chance of being locked in a solitary cell, weaned off their internet addiction. But it’s also difficult to deny that this digital cornucopia may have eroded civic engagement. Thus, it is probably naïve to expect that by installing an internet connection in a remote Chinese, Russian or Iranian village, people will suddenly aspire to browse the websites of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Chances are that most of them will actually be busy downloading pornography.

There is, in fact, quite a steep ladder, full of secret pleasures and distractions, that they need to climb before they become the digital renegades we expect them to be. The scenario in which they would one day wake up and say “hey, I think I’ve watched enough online porn; it’s time to catch up on human rights reports” is unrealistic. It’s only going to happen if the dissidents, independent journalists, NGOs and other key players of the civil society succeed in educating the public about the value of democracy over dictatorship. Their work on this front will be decisive and needs our support, particularly when their critical messages drown in spin produced by the government (not to mention the ubiquitous cyber-attacks). We simply cannot afford to sit back and wait until all of China or Iran goes online because, by then, their governments will be fully adept at using the internet to bolster their own authoritarianism.

Evgeny Morozov is a 2009-2010 Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University