Do Facebook and Twitter help spread Democracy and Human Rights?

The official American establishment’s reaction to the Iranian youth venting briefly on the streets of Tehran their protest against fraudulent elections of June 2009 bore striking resemblance to a commercial campaign on behalf of the likes of Facebook, Google or Twitter. I suppose that some gallant investigative journalist, to whose company alas I do not belong, could have supplied weighty material proofs of such impression.

The Wall Street journal pontificated: “this would not happen without Twitter”! Andrew Sullivan, an influential and well-informed American blogger, pointed to Twitter as “the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran”, whereas the venerable New York Times waxed lyrical, proclaiming a combat between “thugs firing bullets” and “protesters firing tweets”. Hillary Clinton went on record announcing in her 21 January 2010 “Internet Freedom” speech the birth of the “samizdat of our day” and proclaiming the need “to put these tools (meaning “viral videos and blog posts”) in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights”. “Information freedom”, she opined, “supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress”. (Let me though note right away that little water had flown under Potomac bridges before the American political elite started, as if following the French injunction of deux poids, deux mesures, to demand restrictions on WikiLeaks and a prison sentence on its founder).

Ed Pilkington recalls Mark Pfeiffe, a George Bush adviser who nominated Twitter for the Nobel Prize, and quotes Jared Cohen, an official in the US state department, who described Facebook as “one of the most organic tools for democracy the world has ever seen”. To put it in a nutshell: Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and their companions-in-arms are the generals of the advancing Democracy-and-Human-Rights Army – and we all, tweeting and sending Facebook messages, are its soldiers. Media is indeed the message – and the message of the digital media is the “information curtain descending” and uncovering thereby the new planet-scape of people power and universal human rights.

It is such un-common-sense of the American political and opinion-making elite and other unpaid salespersons of digital services that Evgeny Morozov, a 26-years young student and new comer from Belorussia to America, berated, ridiculed, and condemned as a “net delusion” in the book under the same title, just published by Allen Lane. Among many other points Morozov managed to squeeze in his four-hundred-pages-long study, was that according to Al-Jazeera there were but 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran, and so the organizers of the demos used mostly such shamefully old-fashioned techniques of getting attention as making telephone calls or knocking on the neighbours’ doors; but that the clever rulers of autocratic Iran, no less internet-savvy than ruthless and unscrupulous, looked up on Facebook to find out the links to any known dissidents, using that information to isolate, incarcerate and disempower the potential leaders of revolt – and nip the democratic challenge to autocracy (if there ever be one) in the bud. And there are many and different ways in which authoritarian regimes can use the internet to their own advantage, Morozov points out – and many of them did use them and go on using them.

To start with, social networks offer a cheaper, quicker, more thorough and altogether easier way to identify and locate the current or potential dissidents than any of the traditional instruments of surveillance. And as David Lyon argues and attempts to show in our joint study (Liquid Surveillance, Polity Press, forthcoming), surveillance-through-social-networks is made so much more effective thanks to the cooperation of its intended objects and victims.

We live in a confessional society, promoting public self-exposure to the rank of the prime and easiest available, as well as arguably most potent and the sole truly proficient, proof of social existence. Millions of Facebook users vie with each other to disclose and put on public record the most intimate and otherwise inaccessible aspects of their identity, social connections, thoughts, feelings and activities. Social websites are fields of a voluntary, do-it-yourself form of surveillance, beating hands down (both volume-wise and expenditure-wise) the specialist agencies manned by professionals of spying and detection. A true windfall, a genuinely pennies-from-heaven-style, for every dictator and his secret services – and a superb complement to the numerous “banoptical” institutions of democratic society concerned with preventing the unwanted and undeserving (that is all those who behave or are likely to behave comme il n’est faut pas) from being mistakenly admitted or worming themselves surreptitiously into our decent self-selected democratic company. One of The Net Delusion chapters is titled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”.

Morozov spies out the many ways in which authoritarian, nay tyrannical regimes may beat the alleged freedom fighters in their own game, using the technology in which the apostles and panegyrists of the internet’s democratic bias vested their hopes. No news here; old technologies, as the article in The Economist reminds us, were similarly used by past dictators to pacify and disarm their victims: research showed that East Germans with access to Western television were less likely to express dissatisfactions with the regime. As to the admittedly much more potent, digital informatics, “the internet has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.” That is, unless politics is recycled into another exciting, full of sound and fury yet comfortingly toothless, safe and innocuous variety of entertainment; something practiced by the new generation of “slacktivists”, who believe that “clicking on a Facebook petition counts as a political act” and so “dissipate their energies on a thousand distractions”, each meant for instant consumption and one-off use, which the internet is a master supreme of producing and disposing of daily (just one of numberless examples of how effective is the political slacktivism in changing the ways and means of the “real world”, is the sad case of “Save the Children of Africa” group: it needed several years to collect the princely sum of $12,000, while the un-saved children of Africa went on dying).

With the popular mistrust of the powers-that-be spreading and deepening, and the popular esteem of the power-to-the-people potential of the internet rising sky-high through joint efforts of Silicon Valley marketing and Hillary Clinton-style lyrics recited and broadcast from thousands of academic offices, no wonder that pro-government propaganda has a better chance of being listened to and absorbed if arriving to its targets through the internet. The more clever among the authoritarians know this all-too-well to be the case: after all, informatics experts are all-too-available for hiring, eager to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Hugo Chavez is on Twitter and boasts allegedly half a million Facebook friends. While in China there is ostensibly a genuine army of the government-subsidized bloggers (commonly baptised “the 50 cents party” for being paid 50 cents for every entry). Morozov keeps reminding his readers that – as Pat Kane puts it – “patriotic service can be as much a motivation for the young socio-technical operative as the bohemian anarchism of Assange and his pals”. Info-hackers may equally enthusiastically and with the same volume of good will and sincerity join a new “Transparency International” as a new “Red Brigade”. The internet would support both choices with equal equanimity.

It is an old, very old story told all over again: one can use axes to hew wood or to cut heads. The choice does not belong to axes but to those who hold them. Whatever the holders’ choices, the axes won’t mind. And however sharp the edges which it may be currently cutting, technology would not “advance democracy and human rights” for (and instead of) you.