Morozov probes Internet’s role in new democracies

Dec. 2, 2011, 2:45 a.m.

 

Evgeny Morozov, visiting scholar in the Program on Liberation Technology at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), delivered a talk on Thursday evening on the role of the Internet in the democracy debate in regards to the Arab Spring.

 

CDDRL Director Larry Diamond introduced Morozov by quoting The New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of 2011, in which Morozov’s book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” is described as “challenging and often contrarian.”

 

“There are probably very few people writing about the Internet today who are more widely read, more widely discussed…and provoke more controversy, and constructively so in my opinion, than Evgeny Morozov,” Diamond said.

 

The talk weighed heavily on the theoretical aspects of the debate and was part of the weekly speaker series held by the CS 546/POLISCI 337S Seminar on Liberation Technologies. Morozov began by introducing two perspectives on technology and social change: instrumentalist and ecological.

He summarized the “not particularly intellectually exciting” instrumentalist argument saying, “It all depends on the people. Technology has no impact in itself and it all depends on the human actors.”

In this perspective, the Internet is a neutral tool, an instrument and an amplifier. Morozov used the examples of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, journalist Malcolm Gladwell and New York University professor Clay Shirky to illustrate this position, posing theoretical questions arguing against the instrumentalist position.

Morozov then moved to describe the ecological position, a position he feels is more accurate.

“I’m much closer towards the ecological camp,” he said. “I think of technology tools as having impact and effects that transcend simple usage.”

“The idea is that [the Internet] is more than a tool: It transforms both the environment where politics is made, those who participate in politics and many other keywords in the vocabulary that we use to think about protest and political change,” he added.

The ecological position, in Morozov’s argument, looks at the long-term impacts of the Internet in a certain arena. He held that academia and the media often “gets the balance wrong” when engaging in discussion about the Internet, arguing for the importance of comparative assessment.

“If you don’t look beyond Twitter, how do you know it’s important?” he questioned, citing a working paper by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam that claimed social media had a “central role” in the Arab Spring and that Twitter was a “key tool.”

“All they looked at was social media and the Internet more broadly,” Morozov argued. “It’s central between what and what? We don’t know. For this statement to make sense you need some comparative perspective which is missing from such studies.”

He also cited a FirstPost article on a hashtag that trended on Twitter following the detainment of Egyptian-American journalist Mona El Tahawy in the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The article’s headline claimed that #FreeMona resulted in El Tahawy’s release, but Morozov quoted a line from his book to raise concerns with this view.

“If a tree falls in the forest and everyone tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that moved it,” he joked, going on to explain. “The fact that everyone tweets about it does not mean it was Twitter or a hashtag that resulted in that particular outcome. Certainly it was part of the story; but how important it was is something to be studied, not something to be assumed.”

“The Internet is loaded with so many cultural assumptions that it’s very hard to disentangle all the culture from what’s actually happening,” Morozov said, discussing the problem of making assumptions about the usefulness of the Internet.

The “cost” of holding the perspective that the Internet is neutral tool or that it inevitably leads to democracy has “dire” implications on policy, Morozov argued, entering a discussion on the faults of this argument and reforming the U.S. State Department’s Internet freedom agenda.

He first addressed the argument that the Internet is facilitating the emergence of decentralized and leaderless political structures, citing Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wrote on the benefits of social media in organizing and inspiring the masses in the NATO Review.

“Assuming that’s actually happening, how do we know it’s a good thing?” asked Morozov, using the example of Egyptian revolutionaries who have failed to centralize the movement into political parties since Mubarak’s abdication in February.

“New, decentralized movements do have a rather naïve utopian view of how politics could be made and they do underestimate the role of centralization and party building and rigid, strong policy institutions,” he said, claiming decentralized movements in Egypt have “wasted up to 10 months.”

Morozov also touched on ways in which governments adapt technology for interests that may counter citizens’ usage, including censorship, propaganda, surveillance, control of resources and use of technology during protests to outsmart the protesters.

He stressed that U.S. policy must acknowledge these adaptation strategies.

“I would challenge you to tell me how, exactly, plans to make the Internet more secure will result in more Internet freedom,” he said.

“The U.S. will always prioritize its other interests before the Internet,” he added.

“On the one hand they say, ‘Bloggers, here are the tools, here is your training, go revolt but if you end up in prison or tear-gassed by tear gas we also happen to ship to your country, then we can’t really do much about that,’” he said.

The new Internet freedom agenda, Morozov argued, must abandon assumptions about the Internet, delegate thinking to regional experts, not “overpromise and under-deliver” on foreign policy and take a long-term view with respect to soft power and public sphere debates.

“We need to think about the changes the Internet makes to the public sphere in a longer term, not what it has done in January 2011 but what it has done from 2001 to 2011,” he said.

The talk was followed by a Q&A session. An audience member posed a question on the necessity of the divide between the instrumentalist and ecological positions, to which Morozov responded, “You have to separate them, because one of them is fundamentally wrong.”

“I really enjoyed that he was skeptical and critical of other academics and the media because I think a lot of people are quick to make judgments about the power of social media without much evidence,” said audience member Zach O’Keeffe ’13.

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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