Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Has the Internet been oversold?

The BBC’s Madeleine Morris introduces the next panel: “Is the potential of the Internet as a force for positive political change being oversold?” and asks users–both here and remote–to participate by asking her questions on Twitter @Mad_Morris.  Though she claims to be “unabashedly old media,” Morris is jumping in directly to a discussion on the importance of the Internet.

“People are tired of speaking to journalists and seeing no return for it,” says Morris, “You guys are different from me: My job is to be impartial and broadcast; what many of you do, by definition, is not impartial…you use the Internet to advocate.  What we want to ask is: has the Internet been oversold?”

Morris introduces panelists Mehdi Saharkhiz (Iran/US), Kim Pham of Access Now (US), Evgeny Morozov of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford (Belarus), and Shanthi Kalathil  (US) join Morris in a discussion.  Each panelist will present a three-minute opening statement, then a broader discussion will be opened up.

Evgeny Morozov says he’s just completed a 400-page book on this subject, so is very familiar.  “Let me highlight two major ways we can think about the Internet: as an autonomous force which is transforming how governments and activists operate.  The second way to think about the potential of the Internet is to think of this as a tool and instrument of power, whether for Western governments to promote their own agendas in terms of democracy, or foundations, companies and so forth,” begins Morozov.

Looking at the issue of the Internet as an autonomous force, Morozov believes we need to look beyond the two-actor model of activists/dissidents and authoritarian governments.  He states that this is too simplistic, and yet is often the major theme of such discussions.  We look for arguments to claim that activists or governments are winning, but that’s too simplistic.

Rather, Morozov suggest, we should look at various forces and try to figure out the relationship between things like government legitimacy or nationalism.  Only then can we figure out how the Internet impacts each of these factors.  How does nationalism or religion impact democratization?  Without understanding that, it’s hard to understand the role of the Internet.  “We have to start drawing a more complex picture,” says Morozov, “rather than drawing a line of activists vs. governments.”

“Authoritarian governments have assumed the Internet to be an apolitical space,” says Morozov, “but this is changing rapidly, in part because the American government is moving into this space.”

Morozov believes we’re missing the bigger picture by not studying the complex intricacies of these relationships.

Kim Pham of Access Now takes the podium to argue that “no, we haven’t oversold the Internet’s potential for social change.”  Pham states that this is a question of representation: the Internet’s capacity for social frame is changed in a Western, goal-driven context of changes in law or policy, but the reality for activists in authoritarian contexts is different.

In these countries, argues Pham, the government controls the mainstream media; thus, the Internet becomes an incredibly powerful tool.  Pham notes that we tend to ignore smaller cultural shifts, instead placing focus on major changes.  She raises the example of cell phone videos in Iran.  “The cell phone videos aren’t just about YouTube; the Internet is working in conjunction with other technologies.”

“We need to think about the Internet’s capacity for social change in terms of incremental movements,” says Pham, “before any movement can take place, there needs to be strategic coordination to identify political opportunities, and the Internet is essential to that.”

Shanthi Kalathil, an independent consultant, starts by saying that, when we talk about the Internet as a potent force for political change, is often overhyped.  “While I do feel that the Internet and other technologies can help effect great change, there’s a great deal of hype that distorts our understanding of what’s happening on the ground.”

Kalathil raises the common “cat and mouse” metaphor, stating that it doesn’t particularly illuminate the reality.  “It’s not that simple,” she says.  In a grassroots nationalist movement, for example, who is the mouse and who is the cat?  She also raises the argument of 4Chan: When they identify violence against animals, who’s the cat and who’s the mouse?  Kalathil calls the metaphor “reductive thinking.”

“I do think the Internet can be extremely powerful, but that we need to bring a measure of context to the discussion; if we do that, it will be more helpful to activists.”

Mehdi Saharkhiz: “Last year, within 24 hours, a tweet I wrote about my father’s abduction was translated into 6 languages; after that, Iranian government acknowledged their arrest of my father.  Without that tweet, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Saharkhiz then notes protest videos coming out of Iran, and how they changed the Iranian government’s media statements about such incidents.  He also raises the point of Ahmadinejad denying the intended stoning of a woman while the judiciary had confirmed the fact.

He concludes: “Using the Internet to save any life is priceless.”

Morris then turns to Morozov to ask his opinion on the examples given by Saharkhiz.  Morozov says, “Again, I think it depends on what level we’re looking at; at the micro-level, we can see governments and activists using the Internet, but at the macro-level, looking at the Iranian example, Ahmadinejad is still president.”

Morozov states that the Internet helps organize, and has helped raise Western awareness, but that we should be looking outside of emotion.

Saharkhiz says “I don’t think changing regimes is the only way we can positively use the Internet for activism.  That’s an ignorant way of looking at it.”  Rather, he says, if you look at the changes in Iran, we can’t deny that Internet tools have helped.  He states that videos he posted have 7-8 million views, while Iranian government sources have less than 1,000.

“Having the Internet gave a voice to a community without newspapers, without independent media, where 80 journalists are in jail,” says Saharkhiz.  “If it weren’t for protests in Iran, we would never know who Neda was.  We never heard this information from Iranian-run state TV, or CNN, because they weren’t reporting from Iran at the time.”

Morozov agrees that the Internet helped to raise awareness in the Iranian instance, but thinks we need to look at the broader environment of foreign policymaking.

Kim Pham adds to that, stating that there’s a lot of focus on democratization, but that’s not the only purpose of Internet activism.  She gives the examples of labor and land rights and says the framing of the Internet as a tool for democratization is limiting.

Kalathil: “A lot of people bring their own values to the Internet; they assign their own values, call it a liberation technology.  It’s a phenomenon, a tool, but it can be used in any different number of ways.  These concrete examples make it hard to disentangle the various layers of analysis.” She agrees with Pham that the framing of the discussion in terms of democratization is limiting.

Morozov adds that we should realize that the Internet is also used for organizing hate, terrorism, and human trafficking; if we look that far, he says, we need to realize the negative aspects of online organization as well.

Pham: “We can use the space to counter these narratives. There is interaction; this gives us a chance to learn and dynamically alter our strategies.”

Internet access is also a strong point raised; we tend to treat the Internet as separate from the rest of our lives, but lack of access is a real issue in many countries and particularly rural locations.

Xiao Zhang, from the audience, is then asked to discuss the Chinese example; “Internet is an important political force changing China. The Chinese say that if you watch water boiling, it won’t boil, but if you keep heat up, it will.”

Internet is not just a tool, says Zhang, it’s a powerful platform with architecture that favors decentralization. He says looking at China, we should consider the macro-level: After 20 years that he hasn’t been to China, nothing has changed in terms of system or institution but the ecology of public opinion has changed drastically. Major public opinion “incidents” in the past year; 8 out of 10 came from the Internet first, all are related to social justice, or other important issues (not necessarily democracy). It’s about the right to know, the right to express, and the right to monitor one’s government, says Zhang.

“This year, Chinese bloggers were voted amongst Time Magazine’s most important people,” says Zhang. He concludes by stating that it’s about process, not regime change.

Madeleine Morris wants to hear from the panel about how they would’ve asked the question differently; the audience will then participate.

Morozov: “What are the forces and actors beyond government and activists we need to be aware of?”

Kalathil: “Does overhyping the Internet help or hinder activists/dissidents in authoritarian countries?”

Saharkhiz: “How does the Internet change traditional media?”

Pham: “What is social change anyway, in this context?”

Morris then asks the audience to vote for one each, and says that we’ll take the top two. After the vote, she jokes, “Well, this is a disaster” (as the votes were fairly even).

Audience Participation Segment

An audience member says, “We claim this is overhyped without discussing what we mean by social change.” He mentions how the printing press was involved early on in both democracy and religious wars, as an instrument of political change. Now, we should ask “What is the change that the Internet will produce?” He argues that our discussion on political change is framed in the context of representative democracy; the reality is that it’s not the best mechanism of politics. The Internet should also put pressure on already democratic regimes to become even better. “Finally,” he says, “in terms of political change, we’re talking about the Internet as a tool, but also as a space.” The biggest social/political change is the organization of transnational communities both large and small. This is a community that is designing its own rules (or are defined by TOS).

Audience member Nasser Weddady says, “I’m going to cut to the chase…I’m interested in what Morozov wants to explore, but am intrigued by the question of ‘what is social change?'” He states that, in his region, the Middle East and North Africa, “change is happening.” His point is that there are lots of voices empowered by these tools, but that he’s weary of the entire notion of the Internet as a silver bullet. “The Internet has real and human cost. We can’t have a serious conversation as far as MENA is concerned without acknowledging that reality. In my sphere, blogging and digital activism is a health hazard.”

Morozov responds to the previous remark to say that there’s an assumption that change is bad to authoritarian governments; that the only reason the Soviet Union died was that it wasn’t moving fast enough. We assume that China is stuck 30 years ago, but it is, in fact, changing, democracy or not.

Another audience member: Architecture and policies matter a lot. How do policies affect whether the Internet can provide space for social progress? Morris asks, “should there be any restrictions in terms of content online?” The audience member brings up the contentious definition of hate speech, calling it “so-called hate speech” and stating that it can provide an easy opportunity for governments to suppress dissent.

Pham: “A lot of these questions are determined at the policy architecture level.” She brings up net neutrality and other regulation, noting that this space includes many actors.

An audience member from India brings up the fact that the Internet affects public opinion in India and Pakistan in that it allows people from the two countries to talk, when they are not typically able to do so.

Morozov notes that border battles also engender DDoS attacks; when language is an issue, for example, there’s little to no opportunity for transcultural communication.

Saharkhiz notes that he spoke to CNN during the Iranian elections; that Iranians posted videos on CNN’s iReport and that at first, CNN didn’t want to post videos without permission, but that after the Neda video came out, CNN changed policies to post the video themselves. He says that this is important to Iranians, it lets them know that the world is watching.

Morris asks if the Iranian regime really cares if the world is watching; Saharkhiz says yes, but that it’s a slow process. “Every time a video is uploaded, good things will happen slowly.”  On Twitter, @alaa asks “But what part of the world watching matters?”

Morozov points out that bad things can happen slowly as well. Pointing out the example of Russia, he says that there, human rights go down as Internet penetration goes up. His point is that we can use these same examples and turn them around to illustrate negative change.

Morozov states that anyone coming up with a discussion around Internet freedom needs to also include negative moments.

Rita Chemaly of Lebanon asks “are we in a truly deliberative democracy?”  The Internet also includes depths of discrimination; can the Internet really induce change?

Mohammed Abdullah of Syria points out that the activism needs to happen offline, that real change can only be complemented by the Internet, not effected by its use alone.  “Change can only happen if people are ready and willing to ‘spill blood in the streets.'”

Someone from Georgia takes the mic to point out that there, and in Ukraine, the Internet is fairly open because the governments are actually paying attention to TV and mass media, not the Internet.  “Nobody cares about the Internet,” he says.  Influence of television is more important.  He disagrees that spilling blood in the streets needs to happen.

Walid al-Saqaf of Yemen says, “I would like to stress the point that in countries with truly authoritarian regimes, spilling blood is not necessarily an option.”  There are large demonstrations at times, but they are often unreported by media.  Thus, not only is the Internet effective as a tool, but it’s also not being used effectively in some places.

Using the example of his own site, Yemenportal.net, he points out that when the site reported on a demonstration, it was filtered.  Governments can see the potential of online change, but it’s generally ineffective (in Yemen).

Pham mentions that offline activists are taking their activism online, and that’s an important point in realizing actual change.

Another audience member raises the Middle East as an example and as a mainstream media stereotype to say that Web 2.0, blogging, and the Internet is doing a great job of changing the image of the region, by raising examples of LGBT activism or rock bands in the region.  Has the Internet helped to change the image of the region and do you have any great examples of this?

Saharkhiz notes that the Iranian elections and the subsequent attention they got in the U.S. helped Americans realize how Iranian people are different from the Iranian government.

Tunisian audience member Houeida Anouar says that there’s a difference in the way Internet affects truly authoritarian countries (e.g., Syria) vs. countries with some freedom (e.g., Tunisia).  She says that it’s difficult to move past the hype: 1,000 people will sign up to join a protest, but only 10 will actually come.  “Spilling blood is not truly an option; in most of the country, people are actually quite comfortable.  What we have to do is build real information to pressure the government on and offline.”

A CEU student speaks up to ask “what does it really mean if a video has 10,000 views?  What has really changed?”  The Internet is about news, she says, these videos might help us relate, but only emotionally.  She also raises the point about Obama and young Internet users; “if the Internet is such an immediate medium, will it stand the test of time, and if it does, for how long?”

Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org points out that mobile networks actually comprise a larger sphere of activists than the Internet.  “When we’re talking about digital communications,” she says, “it’s not just the Internet.”

Closing Statements

Morris asks if any of the panelists have changed their views in response to the discussion.

Kalathil says: “Rarely do we get beyond the battle of the anecdotes.  We’re missing the forest for the trees; we need to step back and try to get beyond this conversation.”

Pham: “I actually think Internet is a relatively new tool and thus we have yet to see what its true capacity is; look at the civil rights movement, these things take many years.”

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I hope you’ll be writing about other sessions as well.

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