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The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

Debunking the transformational power of internet freedom.

Published on February 2, 2012
The Net Delusion
by Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs, 2011, 432 pp., $27.95

In June 2010, the U.S. State Department led a high-level delegation of technology executives to Syria. Comprised of representatives from, among other corporations, Cisco, Dell, Microsoft and Symantec, the purpose of the trip was to improve relations with a nation that, largely owing to its support for terrorism and enduring alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, has made itself a troublesome actor in the region. Indeed, not long before the delegation took off, Syria was accused of shipping long-range Scud missiles to Hizballah. At the time of the State Department expedition, Damascus was continuing to stonewall an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of an alleged covert nuclear site that Israel bombed in 2007. And the regime’s suppression of dissent, which many in the West had naively believed would lessen once Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000, was continuing apace, a preview of the breathtaking slaughter that the dictator would inflict less than a year later in response to the uprisings that continue to this day.

These grave acts against both the interests of the United States and the welfare of Syria’s own people did not seem to make much of an impression on the two young State Department officials leading the trip, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross. In between meetings with Assad and other regime lackeys, Cohen, then a member of the Policy Planning Staff, and Ross, the first-ever Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State, presented a sunny view of the country largely via Twitter, apparently oblivious to the depravity surrounding them. Granted, the internet platform, which allows users to share messages no longer than 140 characters to “followers” around the world, does not exactly allow for elaborate discussions of international statecraft. Yet even by the abbreviated standards of social media, the collected missives of Cohen and Ross were nothing short of embarrassing.

“Twitter Musings in Syria Elicit Groans in Washington”, read the headline of a story in the New York Times shortly after the delegation returned to the United States in late June. “I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino [sic] ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus”, wrote Cohen, in what became the most infamous tweet of the trip. Ross, for his part, wrote giddily about how his younger colleague dared the Syrian Minister of Telecommunication to a “cake-eating contest”, a challenge he dubbed “Creative Diplomacy.” The Syrians now dying on the streets of Homs and Aleppo will certainly be reassured to know that the two American whiz kids enjoyed themselves on their macabre spring break.

The trip to Syria, of course, did have a purpose beyond the culinary, as seen in Ross’s grammatically redundant tweet, “This trip to #Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of #netfreedom.” As the events of 2011–12 have borne out, however, Assad never intended to “engage more responsibly” on any aspect of his rule, never mind internet freedom. The breezy naivety of the delegation and the electronic musings it generated lie very much at the heart of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refers to as “21st-century statecraft.”

Lest you think this is just another superficial catchphrase (like “smart power”) the Obama Administration uses to distinguish itself from its knuckle-dragging predecessor, the State Department has created an entire web portal devoted to the concept, which it defines as the “complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.” If this doesn’t sound any more complicated than “using the Internet to promote our policies”, that’s because it isn’t.

Yet while this conceit of “21st-century statecraft” is not very complex, its consequences are. In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov coolly paints the internet as a double-edged sword that can be used as easily for evil as it can for good. In a book that ranges widely and usually wisely, that makes use of insights from Sören Kierkegaard to Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, Morozov argues that the internet is not the unmitigated boon that Cohen, Ross, Clay Shirky and other assorted “cyber-utopians” make it out to be. It’s a tool that, in addition to serving as a resource for democracy activists and their well-intentioned supporters in the West, is no less useful, and at times more so, for the authoritarians attempting to repress them.

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orozov was born in Belarus, the former Soviet republic that has earned unwanted attention as “the last dictatorship in Europe”, and he is thus intimately familiar with the various ways in which illiberal regimes maintain control over their populations. As a bright-eyed university graduate, he went off to work for George Soros’s Open Society Institute, helping activists across the former Soviet Union harness the internet for their good causes. Disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of online pro-democracy activism, worried by the craftiness that authoritarians displayed in adapting the internet to their own nefarious purposes, and frustrated by a simplistic media narrative that has all but ignored the latter aspect while trumpeting the former, he left NGO-land to write this book.

The apotheosis of cyber-utopianism was the 2009 anti-regime protests in Iran, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest a rigged presidential election. Almost immediately, bloggers in the West, most notably Andrew Sullivan (then of The Atlantic), took to their computers to claim that, with their laptops and their iPhones, the Iranian people would liberate themselves through the power of the web. And given the web’s inherent interconnectivity, these self-styled Western revolutionaries would play an instrumental role in throwing off the shackles of the mullahs’ three-decade rule. They would be latter-day Lane Kirklands to the Iranian people’s Solidarity, supplying digital know-how and publicity instead of cheap printing presses. (This self-congratulatory and self-righteous navel-gazing was encapsulated in Sullivan’s mantra, “The Revolution Will Be Twittered.”) Cohen earned his status of hero to the cyber-utopians when it was revealed that, in the midst of the uprising, he emailed his contacts at Twitter to plead with them to avert a scheduled overhaul of the site that would have taken it offline for several hours.

Unfortunately, neither Twitter nor social media more broadly overthrew the mullahs. Morozov cites an analysis which found that only 0.027 percent of Iranians had access to Twitter, a number that may itself be inflated due to Green Movement sympathizers who changed the location of their Twitter handles to Tehran in an attempt to confuse their government’s electronic goon squad. The director of new media for Al-Jazeera has said that his channel confirmed only sixty active Twitter accounts in Tehran at the time of the protests.

Not only was the power of Twitter exaggerated, but any possible negative externalities were ignored. The Iranian government used the internet to disseminate its own propaganda, and, more fatefully, to hunt down and arrest activists. Twitter and Facebook profiles served as a form of “open source intelligence.” As Morozov observes, the “KGB used to torture to get this information. Now they get it online.”

Given the various ways in which undemocratic regimes have used technologies for ill, it is amazing that so many credulous Westerners have touted the internet as a kind of magical freedom bullet. Long before the advent of the World Wide Web, malignant forces used technology—including precisely those forms encouraged by Western governments and NGOs to encourage democracy and good governance—for their own purposes. The 1994 Rwandan genocide, for instance, would not have been possible without the incantations heard over the airwaves of Hutu “hate radio”, which broadcast false information, labeled minority Tutsis “cockroaches”, and incited people to kill their neighbors.

The gospel of cyber-utopianism, Morozov writes, can be boiled down to a mathematical equation: Connectivity x Devices = Democracy. In other words, distribute more cell phones and you’ll have yourself a Velvet Revolution. If only it were so easy. Morozov shows how at least certain subsections of mankind have often welcomed new technologies with over-abundant and unrealistic praise. “It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for exchange of thought between all nations of the earth”, read an 1858 British newspaper editorial welcoming the arrival of the telegraph.

Not only does the internet provide new tools for totalitarians; it can also adversely affect the liberal consciousness of the very people who are its intended beneficiaries: ordinary citizens living in dictatorships. After all, given their right to do as they wish on the internet, what’s to say that Russians or Iranians or Chinese will not use it for downloading pornography and wasting time on MySpace rather than meditating on Havel’s “Power of the Powerless?” As Morozov writes, “The internet has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has been considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.” It’s the new “circus” in the old “bread and circus” formula for stunning the masses into political passivity—“bread and bandwith”, as it were.

Morozov reminds us further that no serious appraisal of the internet, that ultimate democratic space, can be complete without acknowledging how it has enabled hatemongers to spread racist and conspiratorial tracts around the world, and helped otherwise obscure crackpots to earn a celebrity they never would have otherwise imagined possible. Conspiratorial crank Ron Paul has attracted millions more followers—thanks to the internet—than he could have ever hoped to lure with his monthly newsletters.

If there’s a consistent message to Morozov’s book and his prolific journalism, it’s that the old tools of international statecraft—economic and military power—continue to rule the day, and will do so well into the future. Tied to this is the fact that international problems have not been made easier to solve due to “globalization” and the proliferation of mass media; the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict should dispel any such sanguine notions. In a largely fawning profile last year for the New York Times Magazine, Alec Ross derided traditional diplomacy as “white guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties, with flags in the background, determining the relationships.” But the increasing popularity of Twitter and Facebook is not going to replace the 5th Fleet. The foreign relations of the United States, (along with Russia, China, and every other nation), will continue to be determined very much by those in power (who, for what it’s worth, are increasingly less white and male). The masses in Syria stand to gain more from a NATO no-fly zone—which is what many Syrians have in fact called for—than they ever would from a Twitter campaign.

Another negative effect of this “pernicious internet-centrism”, as The Net Delusion terms it, is that it simplifies the complex dilemmas that vary from country to country. “While all free societies are alike, each unfree society is unfree in its own way”, Morozov writes, acknowledging his debt to Tolstoy. Here, Morozov applies some tough love: “Sometimes the best way to launch an effective social movement is to put an oppressed group into a corner that leaves no other option but dissent and civil disobedience.”

That was certainly the case in the nations of the Warsaw Pact; it took the citizens of Czechoslovakia more than forty years to earn their freedom, and not a shot was fired. To be sure, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty lent a hand in providing moral support and accurate information to the masses, but the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to factors much larger than Western radio broadcasts—namely, the internal contradictions of communism and the Western military build-up. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of RFE/RL.) Had Václav Havel had the internet to disperse his essays, it does not necessarily mean that change would have occurred faster. The Czechoslovak secret police might have used the web just as effectively to track down dissidents and disseminate their own propaganda. And there are some regimes for which no amount of digital samizdat will do the trick. Deliberating on the proper use and morality of force is beyond the realm of Morozov’s study, but certainly some despotisms, like the late regime in Libya and the one now fighting for its life in Syria, require nothing less than armed opposition and the subsequent carnage that regime change requires.

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t’s easy to understand, then, why liberals especially have cottoned on to the notion of “21st-century statecraft” so jubilantly: It absolves them of the responsibility to approach the world with skepticism and tough-mindedness. Cyber-utopianism is the Left’s answer to the Right’s embrace of American exceptionalism and unalloyed military force; it’s the belief that college students with their laptops can change the world simply because their hearts are in the right place.

Tweeting for freedom in Iran or Darfur may seem like a sophisticated approach to international problems, but it is actually as unimaginative as Archie Bunker-esque calls to turn the Middle East into an irradiated parking lot. Not only does it dazzle policymakers and activists in the West into embracing half-hearted methods as solutions (while simultaneously ignoring any negative consequences); it also lets the dissidents themselves slip more easily under a cloak of quiescence. “The danger is that the temporary false comfort of the digital world may result in that group never quite feeling the corner as forcefully”, Morozov writes.

The evangelists of cyber-utopianism compose a consortium of actors: tech companies, policy wonks and issue activists whom Morozov dubs “technologists.” Their collective embrace of the internet as the master key to freedom and prosperity is not only ideological but also self-aggrandizing: “It’s in their direct interest to overstate the effectiveness of their own tools and downplay the presence of other non-technological threats to the freedom of expression.” Such exaggeration is employed as much by tech entrepreneurs eager for government contracts as it is by government officials themselves, who, either due to intellectual laziness or a preening desire to tout their own cleverness and savvy as “21st Century Statesmen”, sound as if attracting more Twitter followers to the Save Darfur campaign would have actually “saved” Darfur.

For an author whose main targets are mushy liberal internationalists, Morozov surprisingly betrays a pop-cultural leftist bent. He claims that Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror was “one of the few books [George W.] Bush read during his time in office”, when, at least according to Bush if not also several others in a position to know, he read hundreds. He claims that Freedom House is a “mostly conservative outfit”, which is true only in the sense that, unlike most other so-called “human rights” organizations, it is not habitually anti-American. He refers to Angela Davis, the radical professor and two-time Communist Party of the United States Vice Presidential candidate, as “one of the most talented organizers on the left” who “played an important role in the struggle for civil rights.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin, were they still alive, might challenge that contention, which is embarrassing nonsense.

Unfortunate indulgences like these make it too easy to dismiss Morozov as a cynic and pessimist, as some have. When he is at his best in The Net Delusion, which is often, he is better described as a realist who provides a much-needed tonic in a debate populated by a plethora of Polyannas who proselytize about the inherent goodness of technology.

Readers looking for policy prescriptions, however, won’t find much here. Morozov doesn’t offer detailed plans by which the State Department could hone its “21st-century statecraft” to better serve the interests of liberalism and human rights. The Net Delusion is not the latest tome to emerge on the proper use of technology, but rather a long overdue corrective to a shallow meme. That doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable and engaging contribution. At the very least, policymakers in Washington, especially thirty-somethings with hyperactive Twitter accounts, should be made to read this book.

 

1Cohen’s childlike optimism about the positive power of the internet has a pedigree. Morozov notes that, in his 2007 book Children of Jihad (published right after he had joined the Policy Planning Staff), Cohen wrote, “The internet is a place where Iranian youth can operate freely, express themselves, and obtain information on their own terms. [They] can be anyone and say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.”

 

James Kirchick, based in Prague, is a contributing editor for the New Republic and a fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.