The Net Delusion is alive and well

My following book review appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane,
408pp, $29.95

As people in the Middle East have been protesting in the streets against Western-backed dictators and using social media to connect and circumvent state repression, it would be easy to dismiss The Net Delusion as almost irrelevant.

Born in Belarus, Evgeny Morozov collects mountains of evidence to claim the internet isn’t able to bring freedom, democracy and liberalism.

Sceptics would tell him to watch Al-Jazeera and see the power of the Facebook generation in action.

In fact, it is a dangerous fantasy to believe, he argues, because countless regimes are using the same tools as activists – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and email – to monitor and catch dissidents.

He writes that “the only space where the West (especially the United States) is still unabashedly eager to promote democracy is in cyberspace. The Freedom Agenda is out; the Twitter Agenda is in.”

Morozov condemns “cyber-utopians” for wanting to build a world where borders are no more. Instead, he says these well-meaning people “did not predict how useful it would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would learn to use it for surveillance” and the increasingly sophisticated methods of web censorship.

Furthermore, Google, Yahoo, Cisco, Nokia and web security firms have all willingly colluded with a range of brutal states to turn a profit.

The Western media are largely to blame for creating the illusion of web-inspired democracy. During the Iranian uprisings in June 2009, many journalists dubbed it the Twitter Revolution, closely following countless tweets from the streets of Tehran. However, it was soon discovered that many of the tweets originated in California and not the Islamic republic. The myth had already been born.

None of these facts is designed to lessen the bravery of demonstrators against autocracies – and Morozov praises countless dissidents in China, the Arab world and beyond – but lazy journalists seemingly crave easy and often inaccurate narratives of nimble young keyboard warriors against sluggish old men in golden palaces.

The New York Times’s Roger Cohen was right when he wrote in January that “the internet’s impact has been to expose the great delusion that has led Western governments to buttress Arab autocrats; that the only alternative to them was Islamic jihadists”.

But most protesters in the streets of Egypt had no access to the internet or any use for it and the main gripes were economic rather than ideological. However, it is undeniable that many of the young organised through online networks and clearly surprised the former Mubarak regime with their ability to harness a mainstream call for change.

Morozov, hailing from a country that knows about disappearances and suppression, urges the West to “stop glorifying those living in authoritarian governments”.

One of the Western fallacies of web usage in non-democratic nations is the belief that people are all looking for political content as a way to cope with repression. In fact, as Morozov proves with research, an experiment in 2007 with strangers in autocratic regimes found that instead of looking for dissenting material they “searched for nude pictures of Gwen Stefani and photos of a panty-less Britney Spears”.

I noted similar trends in China when researching my book The Blogging Revolution and found most Chinese youth were interested in downloading movies and music and meeting boys and girls. Politics was the furthest thing from their minds.

This would change only if economic conditions worsened. A wise government would pre-empt these problems by allowing citizens to let off steam; Beijing has undoubtedly opened up online debate in the past decade, though there are certainly set boundaries and red lines not to cross.

Morozov sometimes underestimates the importance of people in repressive states feeling less alone and mixing with like-minded individuals. Witness the persecuted gay community in Iran, the websites connecting this beleaguered population and the space to discuss an identity denied by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ultimately, The Net Delusion is necessary because it challenges comfortable Western thinking about the modern nature of authoritarianism.

This year we have already been left to ponder the irony of the US State Department deploying its resources to pressure Arab regimes not to block communications and social media while the stated agenda of Washington is a matrix of control across the region.

These policies are clearly contradictory and a person in US-backed Saudi Arabia and Bahrain won’t be fooled into believing Western benevolence if they can merely use Twitter every day.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common