Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was to the Reformation as Jack Dorsey’s Twitter is to the Arab Spring. In the drafts of American history, both are credited for revolution. But unlike journalists like Andrew Sullivan who reported “the revolution will be Twittered,” Boston Review’s contributing editor Evgeny Morozov provides a cautionary tale on Internet power.
In his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Morozov argues that the Internet is a tool that can both help and hinder social change. He clarifies the faults of the Google Doctrine (“the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology … in the global fight for freedom”) and cyber-utopianism (a naïve belief that all online communication is positive) through case studies from the Arab Spring, Cold War, and Eastern European, Venezuelan and Chinese history. Facebook groups — which can advertise a public protest — can also provide the identities of activists to leaders of oppressive regimes. Cell phones — which activists can use to coordinate — allow governments to send mass text messages spreading propaganda or admonishing potential protesters. While technology makes knowledge more accessible, Morozov points out that it takes increasing Big Brother surveillance and censorship.
Yet George Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t paint the only analogy between oppressive governments and their people, and Morozov is quick to incorporate Aldous Huxley’s views from Brave New World. In the chapter “Orwell’s Favorite Lolcat,” Morozov acknowledges that both Orwell and Huxley’s ideas are valid and working, but suggests that perhaps Huxley’s thesis that “a man has an almost infinite appetite for distraction” is more effective. “Even authoritarian governments have discovered that the best way to marginalize dissident books and ideas is not to ban them,” Morozov writes, “but to let the invisible hand flood the market with trashy popular detective stories, self-help manuals, and books on how to get your kids into Harvard.” Western television placates East German and Russian citizens, and, he argues, this escapism makes them less likely to rebel. This passivity extends to activism in social causes.
Coining the term “slacktivism,” Morozov describes what happens when someone creates a Facebook group and invites his or her friends. Yes, Facebook allowed for political mobilization of online campaigns, but the catch is, it can further fake campaigns as well. “If a nonexistent… cause could garner the attention of 28,000 people, more important, well-documented cases… can certainly rally millions,” Morozov writes. But Facebook doesn’t equal engagement. How can you affect change if all you’re doing is sitting by your computer and liking posts?
Morozov asks us to reconsider the media narrative of the Arab Spring, providing a critical counterpoint to the stories of Internet activists like Wael Ghonim — credited for managing the Facebook page of the Egyptian revolution. (Ghonim documented his involvement in his own book, Revolution 2.0.) “I see nothing wrong with established political groups using the Internet to spread their gospel,” Morozov writes. “What bothers me is the emergence of brand-new, decentralized, leaderless structures that exploit all the benefits of the Internet to mobilize their supporters while also believing that they won’t need to become centralized, hierarchical, and competitive in the political arena.” It’s a fair point (remember the Occupy Wall Street movement?).
While Morozov offers a convincing narrative about the dangers of over-trusting the Internet, his intended audience is cyber-utopianism subscribers creating these media narratives. He structures his argument by introducing his terms, cyber-utopianism (someone who doesn’t see any negative effects from the Internet) and Internet centrism (the Internet is a vehicle for democracy). Then he sets up the reported media narrative of the Arab Spring, in which “on one side are government thugs firing bullets and on the other are young protesters firing tweets.” Look, Morozov argues, aren’t we giving the Internet too much credit here?
“The premise of this book is thus very simple: To salvage the Internet’s promise to aid the fight against authoritarianism, those of us in the West who still care about the future of democracy will need to ditch both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism. Currently, we start with a flawed set of assumptions (cyber-utopianism) and act on using a flawed, even crippled, methodology (Internet-centrism). The result is what I call the Net Delusion. Pushed to the extreme, such logic is poised to have significant global consequences that may risk undermining the very project of promoting democracy. It’s a folly that the West could do without.” – Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom is a persuasive warning to view the web more cautiously. Morozov echoes the battle cries of Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King Jr., and others before him, adding, “Tweets, of course, don’t topple governments; people do.”