Commentary

Did Trotsky Tweet?

Published just a month before Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak was deposed in an Internet-boosted revolt, The Net Delusion might seem a singularly untimely book. But for that reason, it is all the more provocative. Its author, Belarus-born American scholar Evgeny Morozov, set out to challenge the conventional wisdom about the Internet: the notion that social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are becoming agents of political change and can help topple authoritarian regimes in countries like, say, Egypt.

Not so, argues Morozov, who is skeptical that cyberspace is conducive to democracy and liberty. He dumps into the recycle bin the Friedmanite axiom — Tom, that is, not Milton — that no government will be able to crush the Internet’s libertarian spirit, an idea first enunciated by John Perry Barlow in his famous “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996. Morozov criticizes the belief that free access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, will lead to the opening of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization. He slams that notion as a form of “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-utopianism.” The oppressed masses in authoritarian states are not going to mount the barricades once they get unfettered access to Wikipedia and Twitter, he cautions.

In fact, Morozov insists that the Web can and does help autocrats like, say, Hosni Mubarak cling to power, with dictators using it not just to track down dissidents but also to dispense propaganda. Morozov points out that after noticing that Facebook had been used to publicize anti-government protests in 2008, “Egyptian authoritarians decided to embrace it as well,” with more than 50 Facebook groups springing up online to nominate Gamal Mubarak as the successor to his father.

Morozov finished writing his book in the aftermath of last year’s successful suppression in Tehran of the Green Movement protesting the rigged re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, he focuses on the role played by Twitter and other social-networking services in the emergence of the Green Movement — and the coverage of what turned out to be the Iranian non-revolution — as a case study that proves his thesis: the Web doesn’t unleash political change, people do.

Anyone who followed American coverage of the events in Iran will recall the importance that reporters attributed to the social-networking site Twitter in advancing the agenda of the Green Movement. In fact, many pundits hailed the uprising in Iran as a Revolution.” Buying into the notion that the Twitter is a liberating force, the State Department and members of Congress asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to avoid disrupting communications among the Iranian protesters.

But noting that only about 60 residents had active Twitter accounts in Tehran during the protests, Morozov suggests that while the social-networking site played a part in mobilizing tech-savvy Iranians in the West and assisting them in publicizing the anti-regime protests, it probably had very limited impact on the evolution of the Green Movement inside Iran. The revolutionary change necessary to oust powerful authoritarian regimes requires a high level of centralization among opposition groups. But the decentralized nature of the Internet may have helped split the movement into competing debate chambers. As Morozov puts it, the Green Movement may have drowned in its own tweets.

Ironically, the American media’s celebration of the Twitter Revolution and the State Department’s pressure on the company provoked the Iranian security services to crack down on Twitter and other social networks, while the information the Iranian regime was able to gather by browsing Facebook helped it to identify anti-government activists and arrest them — just the opposite of what Internet enthusiasts in Washington had hoped to achieve. The Iranian government not only succeeded in thwarting Internet communications, it also bombarded Iranian websites with its own propaganda — or “Spinternet,” as Morozov calls it — aimed at provoking the general public against the demonstrators and dividing the opposition. This online strategy has also been pursued by authoritarian regimes in China and Venezuela.

I experienced cognitive dissonance of a sort after finishing Morozov’s book in one sitting — it is so interesting and so well written that I couldn’t put it down — and then browsing the Web and discovering that Mubarak was ousted. Since then the American media has been celebrating the events in Egypt as the “Facebook Revolution” or the “Downloaded Uprising” and providing us with a narrative that seems to counter the one outlined by Morozov in The Net Delusion. Delusion? Not according to reports I’ve been reading in The New York Times and The Washington Post or the coverage I’ve been watching on CNN and Al Jazeera, all of which have created the impression that a bunch of young, cool, and very Internet-savvy Egyptians succeeded in using social media to mobilize hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. They protested against Mubarak by blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing, and Googling their way to Cairo’s Tahrir Square — and straight to freedom, liberty, and democracy.

Returning from Tunisia — “where Facebook gave young protesters the connective muscle to oust an Arab dictator, and as I watch on YouTube images of brave young Egyptians confronting the clubs and water-cannons of President Hosni Mubarak’s goons” — the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen blasted Morozov’s cyberskepticism as “dead wrong.” The freedom to connect is “a tool of liberation,” he argued, insisting that “Organization, networking, exposure to suppressed ideas and information, the habits of debate and self-empowerment in a culture of humiliation and conspiracy: These are some of the gifts social media is bestowing on overwhelmingly young populations across the Arab world.”

Hence, if you buy the arguments made by Cohen and the majority of pundits in Washington, you must dismiss Morozov and the skepticism of other anti-cyberutopians, including Malcolm Gladwell, author of a much discussed New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” The Egyptian Revolution was tweeted. Or was it?

Is it possible that Cohen and other critics of Morozov just don’t get it? Morozov makes it clear in The Net Delusion that each new technology of information and communication — from papyrus through the printing press to the telegraph and, yes, the Internet — provides new tools for empowering political actors, including revolutionary movements and other opponents of the status quo. But each new technology plays a role only in the context of wider political, economic, and cultural development. Technology by itself cannot transform the existing balance of power, it can only assist those players who are already confronting the status quo — or, for that matter, help those who are attempting to preserve the old order.

The printing press wasn’t responsible for the rise of the Reformation. But it certainly helped Martin Luther and others to spread the message. Eventually the printing press also allowed the Catholic Church and other forces to counter the influence of the Reformation. Similarly, while fax machines and the samizdat press, as well as the broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, were valuable components in the struggle against the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the collapse of those regimes ultimately came about as a result of the structural, political, and economic problems that led the apparatchiks in Moscow, Warsaw, and East Berlin to conclude they wouldn’t be able to maintain their hold on power.

That Morozov even downplays the role that the Catholic Church in Poland and human-rights dissidents in the Soviet Union played in the developments leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall reflects his “realist” approach to foreign policy. He adopts a materialist and conservative view of history that rejects the optimism expressed by Cohen and other “idealists” about the power of a vision of progress — whether it is embodied in new information technologies or in international institutions and legal mechanisms — to make over our political and economic realities. “Technology changes all the time; human nature hardly ever,” he argues.

Indeed, according to Morozov, the Washington consensus over America’s obligation to advance an Internet Freedom Agenda echoes a myth cultivated by U.S. policymakers and intellectuals in the aftermath of the Cold War — namely, that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a direct result of the American victory in a War of Ideas, made possible through an effective strategy in disseminating information into the Soviet Bloc and empowering the dissidents there. From that myth has flowed the current view in Washington that the spreading of information through the liberating technologies of the Internet into Iran, China, and other countries controlled by autocrats will help bring down those regimes. Morozov quotes a speech by Secretary of State Clinton that included telltale Cold War metaphors, including references to the “information curtain [that] is descending upon much of the world,” the Berlin Wall being replaced by “virtual walls,” and “viral videos and blog posts [that] are becoming the samizdat of our day.”

But such an ambitious strategy, based on Cold War myths, progressive fantasies, and a lot of wishful thinking, could prove ineffective and even run contrary to U.S. interests. The idea that the U.S. government should cooperate with Google and Twitter to bring down the regimes in Tehran and Beijing only encourages those governments to impose restrictions on the operation of these companies while using the same technology to post their own Spinternet and hunt down pro-democracy activists.

And there is also an interesting paradox: the spread of information through the Web to China and Russia, where most users tend to visit entertainment, gossip, sport and sex sites — not search for political information — has the effect of depoliticizing the population. Instead of energizing users in those countries to seek out political news on the Web and take part in pro-democracy campaigns, the technology often encourages them to search for the latest news about the breakup of two Hollywood stars or for new pornographic sites. This results in a more apathetic citizenry — which seems to fit very much with the long-term interests of the Chinese and Russian governments.

Moreover, Morozov demonstrates that the Internet Freedom Agenda, not unlike George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, breaks down under the pressure of its internal contradictions. After all, it was American financial and military support that made it possible for Mubarak and other Arab autocrats to remain in power for decades. If in the name of promoting democracy Americans want to bring those leaders down, they should just stop supporting them. It doesn’t make of lot of sense to use American resources to strengthen these autocrats’ hold on power while at the same time trying to implement an Internet strategy that aims at doing just the opposite.

These are the kinds of contradictions that were displayed during the unrest in Egypt. The government shut down the country’s Internet service providers for several days, and it could have continued doing so indefinitely. But diplomatic pressure brought by the U.S. government — based on Realpolitik considerations that indicated it was time to bid farewell to Mubarak — forced the regime to reverse its decision.

And American democracy-promoters should also recognize that the Internet can end up empowering ultranationalist movements and radical religious groups whose values are antithetical to the Western liberal-democratic agenda. Indeed, as Morozov recounts, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, “an Islamist organization that is surprisingly comfortable with modern technology, unveiled a Wikileaks-like site where anyone can help chart the movement’s history and its key ideas. The Mubarak regime tried to shut down the site but couldn’t do it. The reason: The site is hosted on a server in the United States.” Much as the outcome of the Middle East’s upheavals remains uncertain, it is far from clear who will hold power at the end of the communications revolution.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.