Good morning. I think, as a grumpy Eastern European, I was brought in to play the pessimist this morning. So bear with me. Well, I come from the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, which, as some of you may know, is not exactly an oasis of liberal democracy. So that’s why I’ve always been fascinated with how technology could actually reshape and open up authoritarian societies like ours.
So, I’m graduating college and, feeling very idealistic, I decided to join the NGO which actually was using new media to promote democracy and media reform in much of the former Soviet Union. However, to my surprise, I discovered that dictatorships do not crumble so easily. In fact, some of them actually survived through the challenge, and some got even more repressive.
So this is when I ran out of my idealism and decided to quit my NGO job, and actually study how the Internet could impede democratization. Now I must tell you that this was never a very popular argument. And it’s probably not very popular yet with some of you sitting in this audience. It was never popular with many political leaders, especially those in the United States who somehow thought that new media would be able to do what missiles couldn’t. That is, promote democracy in difficult places where everything else has already been tried and failed. And I think by 2009, this news has finally reached Britain. So I should probably add Gordon Brown to this list as well.
However, there is an underlying argument about logistics, which has driven so much of this debate. Right? So if you look at it close enough, you’ll actually see that much of this is about economics. The cybertopians say, much like fax machines and xerox machines did in the ’80s, blogs and social networks have radically transformed the economics of protest. So people would inevitably rebel. To put it very simply, the assumption so far has been that if you give people enough connectivity, if you give them enough devices, democracy will inevitably follow.
And to tell you the truth, I never really bought into this argument, in part because I never saw three American presidents agree on anything else in the past. (Laughter) But, you know, even beyond that, if you think about the logic underlying it, is something I call iPod liberalism. Where we assume that every single Iranian or Chinese who happens to have and love his iPod will also love liberal democracy. And again, I think this is kind of false.
But I think a much bigger problem with this is that this logic — that we should be dropping iPods not bombs — I mean, it would make a fascinating title for Thomas Friedman’s new book. (Laughter) But this is rarely a good sign. Right? So, the bigger problem with this logic is that it confuses the intended versus the actual uses of technology. For those of you who think that new media of the internet could somehow help us avert genocide, should look no further than Rwanda. Where in the ’90s it was actually two radio stations which were responsible for fueling much of the ethnic hatred in the first place.
But even beyond that, coming back to the Internet, what you can actually see is that certain governments have mastered the use of cyberspace for propaganda purposes. Right? And they are building what I call the spinternet. The combination of spin, on the one hand, and the Internet on the other. So governments from Russia to China to Iran are actually hiring, training and paying bloggers in order to leave ideological comments and create a lot of ideological blog posts to comment on sensitive political issues. Right?
So you may wonder why on Earth are they doing it? Why are they engaging with cyberspace? Well my theory is that it’s happening because censorship actually is less effective than you think it is in many of those places. The moment you put something critical in a blog, even if you manage to ban it immediately, it will still spread around thousands and thousands of other blogs. So the more you block it, the more it influences people to actually avoid the censorship and thus, win in this cat-and-mouse game. So the only way to control this message is actually to try to spin it and accuse anyone who has written something critical of being, for example, a CIA agent.
And, again, this is happening quite often. Just to give you an example of how it works in China, for example. There was a big case, in February 2009 called “Elude the Cat.” And for those of you who didn’t know, I’ll just give a little summary. So what happened is that a 24-year-old man, a Chinese man, died in prison custody. And police said that it happened because he was playing hide and seek, which is “elude the cat” in Chinese slang, with other inmates, and hit his head against the wall. Which was not an explanation which sat well with many Chinese bloggers.
So they immediately began posting a lot of critical comments. In fact QQ.com, which is a popular Chinese website, had 35,000 comments on this issue within hours. But then authorities did something very smart. Instead of trying to purge these comments, they instead went and reached out to the bloggers. And they basically said, “Look guys. We’d like you to become netizen investigators.” So 500 people applied and four were selected to actually go and tour the facility in question, and thus inspect it, and then blog about it. Within days the entire incident was forgotten, which would have never happened if they simply tried to block the content. People would keep talking about it for weeks.
And this actually fits with another interesting theory about what’s happening in a authoritarian states, and in their cyberspace. This is what political scientists call authoritarian deliberation. And it happens when governments are actually reaching out to their critics and letting them engage with each other online. We tend to think that somehow this is going to harm these dictatorships, but in many cases it only strengthens them. And you may wonder why. I’ll just give you a very short list of reasons why authoritarian deliberation may actually help the dictators.
And first it’s quite simple. Most of them operate in a complete information vacuum. They don’t really have the data they need in order to identify emerging threats facing the regime. So encouraging people to actually go online and share information and data on blogs and wikis is great because otherwise, low level apparatchiks and bureaucrats will continue concealing what’s actually happening in the country, right? So from this perspective, having blogs and wikis produce knowledge has been great.
Secondly, involving public in any decision making is also great because it helps you to share the blame for the policies which eventually fail. Because they say, “Well look, we asked you, we consulted you, you voted on it. You put it on the front page of your blog. Well, great. You are the one who is to blame.”
And finally, the purpose of any authoritarian deliberation efforts is usually to increase the legitimacy of the regimes, both at home and abroad. So inviting people to all sorts of public forums, having them participate in decision making, it’s actually great. Because what happens is that then you can actually point to this initiative and say, “Well, we are having a democracy. We are having a forum.”
Just to give you an example, one of the Russian regions, for example, now involves its citizens in planning its strategy up until year 2020. Right? So they can go online and contribute ideas on what that region would look like by the year 2020. I mean, anyone who has been to Russia would know that there was no planning in Russia for the next month. So having people involved in planning for 2020 is not necessarily going to change anything. Because the dictators are still the ones who controls the agenda.
Just to give you an example from Iran. We all heard about the Twitter revolution that happened there. But if you look close enough, you’ll actually see that many of the networks and blogs and Twitter and Facebook, were actually operational. They may have become slower, but the activists could still access it and actually argue that having access to them is actually great for many authoritarian states. And it’s great simply because they can gather open source intelligence.
In the past it would take you weeks, if not months, to identify how Iranian activists connect to each other. Now you actually know how they connect to each other by looking at their Facebook page. I mean KGB, and not just KGB, used to used to torture in order to actually get this data. Now it’s all available on line. (Laughter)
But I think the biggest conceptual pitfall that cybertopians made is when it comes to digital natives, people who have grown up online. We often hear about cyber activism, how people are getting more active because of the internet. Rarely hear about cyber hedonism, for example, how people are becoming passive. Why? Because they somehow assume that the Internet is going to be the catalyst of change that will push young people into the streets, while in fact it may actually be the new opium for the masses which will keep the same people in their rooms downloading pornography. That’s not a option being considered too strongly.
So for every digital renegade that is revolting in the streets of Tehran, there may as well be two digital captives who are actually rebelling only in the World of Warcraft. And this is realistic. And there is nothing wrong about it because the Internet has greatly empowered many of these young people. And it plays a completely different social role for them.
If you look at some of the surveys on how the young people actually benefit from the Internet, you’ll see that the number of teenagers in China, for example, for whom the Internet actually broadens their sex life, is three times more than in the United States. So it does play a social role, however it may not necessarily lead to political engagement.
So the way I tend to think of it is like a hierarchy of cyberneeds in space. A total rip off from Abraham Maslow. But the point here is that when we get the remote Russian village on line, what will get people to the Internet is not going to be the reports from Human Rights Watch. It’s going to be pornography, Sex in the City, or maybe watching funny videos of cats. So this is something you have to recognize.
So what should we do about it? Well I say we have to stop thinking about the number of iPods per capita and start thinking about ways in which we can empower intellectuals, dissidents, NGOs, and then the members of civil society. Because even what has been happening up till now with the spinternet and authoritarian deliberation, there is a great chance that those voices will not be heard. So I think we should shatter some of our utopian assumptions and actually start doing something about it. Thank you. (Applause)
– from ted.com