Why promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea

Why promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea

Earlier this week I had the privilege to host my FP blogging colleague Marc Lynch at the Open Society Institute in New York. Marc painted a rather pessimistic picture  of technology”s role in changing the politics of the Middle East, zooming in on the broader consequences of internet-based activism (which, paradoxically, are often either tragic or inane). The question that looms large (at least in my head) following Lynch”s talk is why bother supporting internet activists in places like Egypt if the political benefits of their campaigns are negligible and are greatly outweighed by the risks of arrest and intimidation (particularly among online supporters of such campaigns who may have joined them unaware of the risks involved).  

It”s no secret to readers of this blog that I have been pondering many of the same questions as Marc — not just only in the context of the Middle East but also on a global level — and I am as gloomy as he is when it comes to the actual political impact of most digital activism campaigns. Now, let”s try to sort out some of this gloom.

First, it”s important to remember the distinction between professional activists and what I call “nano-activists”. Looking back to history, we”ll surely discover that there were activists and dissidents before Facebook and Twitter. They were systematically tortured, arrested, and beaten up; for most of them, activism was a very dangerous choice — and anyone in the West who felt supportive of their work and wanted to offer monetary or moral backing to their efforts was fully aware of the choices that had been made. Of course, there has always been debate about the degree to which these dissidents needed to get involved in antigovernment activities, but since it was their independent and well-considered choice, there was no need for  much soul-searching among their supporters.

Let”s not gloss over the fact that the arrival of the internet has made the work of such professional activists much more effective, if only because their internal and external communications became much cheaper and harder to monitor. Thus, it”s only natural that many Western pro-democracy organizations and agencies want to equip these activists with the best online tools and platforms. Just to give an example: switching their communications from tapped phones to Skype may actually help to save some of them from prison.

I should also point out right away that the comparison of these new tech-savvy professional activists to the Soviet-era “samizdat” — so beloved by many analysts of new media”s impact on politics and society —  is not really accurate. The “samizdat” economy operated on the notion of limited access to information; Internet censorship notwithstanding, this is no longer a problem today, when even non-sophisticated internet users can master a set of tools to bypass censorship altogether to access anything they want.

Yet, as it turns out, unfettered access to information is not enough to make people want democratic change; the case of Russia, where the government  doesn”t censor the Web but still enjoys wide popularity, proves that information alone is not enough. If anything, the cyberactivists of today, probably, bear more resemblance to movements like Solidarity that leveraged the use of technology to organize civil unrest across the communist Poland.

But professionals are only the tip of the new activism iceberg; as the field of activism has been greatly democratized, there are now many other layers of activists. Today almost anyone can be one, for the threshold is set too low: joining a Facebook group, posting to a blog, or setting up a Twitter account would count as activism – at least in the eyes of those who are tasked with beefing up pro-democracy efforts in authoritarian states. And even though the emergence of what I call “nano-activism” has caught both authoritarian governments – and their opponents in the West – by surprise, the consensus that has now emerged posits that internet technologies inherently benefit activists and thus boost chances of democratization.

There are many reasons to be excited by these developments. First, it may now suddenly be possible to transcend the rigid structures of media control erected by the authoritarian regimes; that announcements of strikes and protests can now travel via these new networked public sphere in a peer-to-peer manner – from blog to blog or from Facebook to Twitter – bypassing more traditional platforms of distribution like radio and television – was unimaginable to the older generations of professional activists. The mobilization potential of social media is undeniably redefining the balance of power between dictators and their opponents, at least in the short term, but essentially, this continues to be a competition where each side is pushed to come up with new tools: the authorities – with new tools to censor, and the opposition – with new tools to unblock the censored materials.

Second, the range of public activities that could be carried in cyberspace alone is mind-boggling: from raising money for a particular cause to accessing a wide range of uncensored educational materials to confronting subjects that are considered taboo in one”s society, Internet has definitely made it easier for the nascent civil society to get a stronger foothold in places where it was unlikely to emerge in the first place. That a group of ordinary bloggers in a country as closed as Belarus, for example, was able to fund-raise the funds to get an activist out of jail on bail – shaming much of the country”s NGOs and donors – speaks volumes about the newly acquired abilities of the virtual – and often even ad-hoc – civil society.

That said, there are probably as many reasons to be concerned about these developments. The more I think about internet-based activism, the more I realize that we have failed to subject it to any proper cost-benefit analysis to get a more sober understanding of its net impact. Of course, any comprehensive theory of cyber-activism in the international context- and we badly need one – would need to account for inherent political differences among different types of regimes.

Under this set-up, free and democratic states do gain from internet technologies, even though their impact is not most significant, as there is a limit as to how much technology could accomplish in countries that already have a vibrant civil society and well-functioning democratic institutions. To put it bluntly, there is relatively little that technology can add in North America and Western Europe on a purely political level, and most cyber-campaigns are likely to focus on fighting corruption, corporate excesses, or promoting the usual civil liberties portfolio. 

To put this in context, as much as I respect the work of the Sunlight Foundation, a pioneer in the use of technology for greater transparency, they can”t possibly make the entire political process in the US more transparent with the help of technology alone, simply because there is a limited body of documents and relationships to be digitized and analyzed; identifying corruption of the Blagojevich scale requires a non-technological toolkit (in most cases, provided by the shrinking trade of investigative journalists).

On the other hand, mixed regimes – those that are not outright authoritarian and have respect for some basic human rights (Singapore comes to mind as an example) – might stand to lose most from the proliferation of internet technologies, simply because the online mobilization benefits bestowed upon their nascent civil society could not be met by the equal degree of repression of activists – at least, not without the country losing its “mixed” status and becoming a dictatorship (which, in most cases, would also carry prohibitive economic costs).  It”s in countries in transition that technology could, perhaps, play the biggest role by arming civil society and activists with tools and resources to take on the government, call for greater transparency, and push for meaningful change.

Authoritarian regimes present the most interesting theoretical challenge here. Could it be that technology”s impact  actually helps bolster existing authoritarianism? Even though it seems extremely counter-intuitive at first, let”s try to see why this might be the case. Mobilization for mobilization”s sake is not a worthy objective and its effectiveness decreases over time. Existing political structures have not been shaken (or even threatened) by any of the recent protests facilitated by technology; on the contrary, such governments have not only withstood these protests, they have also adapted very fast (think, for example, of authoritarian governments turning off mobile phone coverage or tinkering with their ISPs during sensitive political events). The most sophisticated regimes – like China and Russia, for example – have even gone beyond mere defensive strategies and are actively experimenting with offensive strategies like spinning the Web to advance their own political ideologies by hiring paid internet commentators, for example.

On top of this, Facebook activism could also easily backfire for it has one inherent flaw: it allows authorities to quickly and easily identify all dissenters – even those who were willing to lend only their virtual support to the campaigns – and put them on their “to be watched closely” list (and then to actually rely on technology to carry out their surveillance). As Marc Lynch has pointed out, this may be one of the biggest (and most dubious) moral challenges to emerge from the democratization of activism; in an environment where anyone could become an activist through a few almost random mouth clicks, do we expect non-professional activists to accept full responsibility for the consequences of their actions (much in the same ways that their older “analogue” activists did)?

While joining an anti-government Facebook group may not seem as serious as distributing printed pro-democracy leaflets to passers-by, it doesn”t mean that authorities would not want to punish it as harshly. Given how little genuine impact most such cyber-campaigns really have on the political structures of authoritarian states AND given how harsh and unpleasant the political consequences of such cyber-campaigns might be, encouraging young people to participate in more cyber-campaigns seems to be naive at best and immoral at worst.

From this perspective, much of the international media (not to mention the NGO circuit) are making the situation only worse by creating and then propagating the myth of “digital renegades” taking on their governments via Facebook and Twitter (as I myself have painfully discovered while commenting on the recent unrest in Moldova, there is a huge appetite for the “Twitter revolution in country X” narrative – and any sophistication one is trying to attach to the situation is likely to get lost in the broken telephone that today”s sensational reporting on technology has become). From this perspective, for all its metaphorical power, the “digital renegades” myth only hurts the “nano-activists”, for the authoritarian governments suddenly start treating them as a threat and are quick to make arrests or intimidate them in other ways. So, faced with the prospect of identifying the next digital Che Guevaras by name, Western reporters and human rights organizations should think twice about the harm they may inflict on the person in question – as well as everyone in their social graph.

I should also point out that there are many cyber-campaigns that authoritarian governments would actually like to encourage, particularly those that deal with identifying and punishing corrupt low-level officials. The Chinese government would be all the happier if its netizens could help identify bribe-taking officials – and this is what”s actually fueling the work of the notorious “human flesh search engines” in the country. I place this phenomenon within a much broader practice of “authoritarian deliberation”, where the gradual opening up of the public debate (however, not followed by any regime-wide democratization) is increasingly favored by authoritarian states as a long-term survival strategy.

There is, of course, a danger of missing the forest for the trees here: what if technology”s impact on political organization and activism per se doesn”t really matter here. What if instead we need to look at is its impact on internet users themselves? The assumption here is that blogging and social media in general are helping to produce more well-rounded individuals, with new “political competencies, expectations and relationships”. This is another point which Marc Lynch has made in his talk and his later blog post, offering very good examples from the Middle East to back his point (the fact that bloggers from the Muslim Brotherhood would express solidarity with the arrested secularist bloggers in Egypt, for example, the assumption being that when both of them stand up to lead their respective movements in a decade or two, they would also bring some modernist tendencies and techniques with them).

Frankly, I find this line of reasoning rooted in even more cyber-utopianism than the assumption about the inherent benefits of Internet-based mobilization. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

As much as I”d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies. For every case of solidarity between secular and Islamist bloggers, we can probably cite several cases of outright rancor.

All in all, the world of international digital activism is much more complex that it appears on first sight. As much as I”d like hope that we are already long past the point where most Western governments, agencies, and NGOs operate on the assumption that “Internet=democracy”, I think that the field is still dominated by cyberutopians who do not see the inherent dangers of many cyberactivist campaigns; nor do they see how these campaigns may actually strengthen the governments they were supposed to challenge.

This essay is adopted from a speech I gave at a digital activism panel held at Georgetown”s School of Foreign Service on April 23rd, 2009.

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