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the net delusion?

I’ve been reading Evgeny Morozov’s provocative book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and it, combined with the recent uprisings in the Middle East, have got me thinking a lot about the role of the internet in mobilizing activists and social reformers. Morozov, like Malcolm Gladwell, is not optimistic about the power of the internet to mobilize people and spur social change. I haven’t yet finished the book and so I’m sure there is more to his argument, but he rejects the idea that the internet is basically democratizing. It can be just as easily used by monopolistic and authoritarian forces as it can by activist consumers or democratic freedom fighters. People use the internet more for mind-numbing entertainment than they do for political reform or social change. The internet can be a powerful tool for dictators who want to appease their resistors.

But Morozov wrote this in 2010. He might be whistling a different tune had he seen the uprising in Egypt or the civil war in Libya. Or he might simply say that these movements would have happened anyway – the internet played no role in pushing these changes. I suppose it’s possible that Twitter, Facebook, other social media, and cell phone texts may have played no functional role in spurring these changes. We know that the Egyptian government tried to thwart reformers’ efforts by blocking access to social media sites, and yet the revolution carried on anyway. But does that mean that activists just found a way to get around the firewalls? Was their use of social media one step ahead of the government? Or was the movement to unseat Muburak simply a function of people looking out the window and seeing the smoke in the air and rushing to join their comrades in the streets?

Morozov’s book should make us skeptical of net-utopian thinkers who believe that the internet has freed the world from anti-democratic powers. Information alone isn’t the source of authoritarians’ power. Obviously, there are other structural forces at play here that reinforce power relations. However, I also don’t want to discount the role of social media and internet technology in promoting social change. As I’ve said before, the real power of the internet in facilitating activism may be in its ability to create new audiences and common knowledge, bringing local atrocities or problems to a global stage. Inasmuch as the larger public becomes aware of local grievances and puts pressure on power-holders, local activists increase their leverage in promoting change. We shouldn’t ignore this important function of social media given that most protests seem to generate power by activating the larger public interest (does a protest that doesn’t get media coverage really exist?).

What are the other functions of internet technology and social media in promoting social change? What do we really know about this?

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Written by brayden king

March 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm

10 Responses

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  1. the social media, and internet at large, played a huge role in Egypt by helping like-minded people connect on line, within Egypt and outside it. But organizers also took their efforts into the streets, organizing on the ground in communities that weren’t hooked up. I especially appreciate your point that dictators block the net for a reason. They appreciate its strengths more than western cynics. Morozov also makes a good point–tyrants can use the net too, and they have more tools and power at their disposal to exploit it.

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    sparkle

    March 11, 2011 at 5:25 pm

  2. Marc Lynch:

    it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment … I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition (“Twitter vs. Al Jazeera”), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space.

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    Benjamin Geer

    March 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm

  3. “We know that the Egyptian government tried to thwart reformers’ efforts by blocking access to social media sites, and yet the revolution carried on anyway. But does that mean that activists just found a way to get around the firewalls? Was their use of social media one step ahead of the government? ”

    Jeff Ely, at Cheap Talk, hypothesized that blocking access to social media was a very public signal that the demonstrations were serious and, hence, unwillingly, the government helped to coordinate the efforts of activists.

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    pll

    March 11, 2011 at 8:23 pm

  4. [...] the net delusion? [...]

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  5. I don’t think any medium (or any technology, actually) can be “basically democratizing”. The internet is no more fundamentally democratic than the newspaper or the TV (consider Pravda and Vremya for uncontroversial examples of non-democratic media). Nor are mobile phones biased in favor of democracy.

    Democratic movements will obviously use all the means at their disposal. But would anyone say that a hand grenade is “basically revolutionary”?

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    Thomas

    March 12, 2011 at 8:42 am

  6. I think Morozov’s point is the following. Suppose a conflict between a democratizer who (1) wants to mobilize in order to (2) crush a dictator, who in turn (3) wants to learn about the democratizer to (4) crush him. Morozov argues that the Internet might serve (3) better than (1). Not an uninteresting proposition, but I don’t see it happening.

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    Fr.

    March 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm

  7. [...] the net delusion? « orgtheory.net [...]

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  8. Oh, there is an Anonymous on French TV right now, explaining how the Anonymous network acted collectively to set fire to the official fax machines of the Tunisian government. That kinda makes my point.

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    Fr.

    March 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  9. So far this all seems a mostly theoretical discussion. Nothing wrong with that, but I think we need more empirical research to decide on the issue. That’s easier said than done, though…

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    Rense

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 am

  10. [...] the power of the Internet to fuel democratization. Egypt, in particular, stands out. It’s not clear though how much influence the Internet had in encouraging change in these parts of the world. Was Twitter driving additional protests or would [...]

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