March 15, 2011

The Dark Side of the Internet - Part 2 - political activism

Yesterday, I took a long look at whether the Internet lived up to the hype of cyberutopians Clay Shirky and Michael Shermer, and if not, how far short it fell.

Well, now, I'd like to take a bit more of a look at one particular issue within this, and that's whether or not the Net really empowers people politically, whether it primarily promotes slacktivism.

The entree to that?

Via a Facebook discussion, here's a dystopian take on Internet skeptic Evgeny Morozov as being over-dystopian.
Morozov thinks that the “ridiculously easy group-forming” that his leading nemesis Clay Shirky described in his recent book Cognitive Surplus is, in reality, leading largely to cognitive crap, at least as it pertains to civic action and political activism. Indeed, at one point in Chapter 7 (the creatively-titled, “Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism”), Morozov speaks of the development of what we might think of as a “tragedy of the civic commons” (my term, not his). ...

But this ignores many legitimate forms of social organization / protesting that have been facilitated by the Net and digital technologies. Despite what Morozov suggests, we haven’t all become lethargic, asocial, apolitical cave-dwelling Baywatch­ rerun-watching junkies. If all Netizens are just hooked on a cyber-sedative that saps their civic virtue, what are we to make of the millions of progressives who so successfully used the Net and digital technologies to organize and elect President Obama? (Believe me, I wish they wouldn’t have been so civic-minded and rushed to the polls in record numbers to elect that guy!)
The main takeaway I get from this review of Morozov is that the reviewer thinks he's being too dismissive of the possibility of the Internet transforming democratic action.

I disagree. I think, at least in the democratic U.S., governments have found new stasis or equilibrium, a la this"hype cycle" graphic.

Above the level of a small-town city council, do governments even take notice of e-mail action alert e-mails any more? Do you think they do? Do you, like me, assume they don't, and so participate in fewer such campaigns?

My guess is that staffers at congressional offices and such look at those e-mails, then go to environmental, civil liberties and other activist organization websites, and look at the "standard language" suggested by the agency, then discount all e-mails based on that.

I'm guessing that federal bureaus and agencies act similarly.

I'm also guessing that, in larger states, state elected officials' offices and state agencies are doing that more and more.

Ditto on Twitter feeds, if they see thousands of Tweets linking to the same bit.ly or tinyurl.com webpage.

In other words, government is screening you out.

That said, an old-fashioned phone call reaches either a real person, or a real-person's human-voiced voice mail. And, other than the higher tech of cellphones vs. landlines making it a bit easier to do the call, though no easier to speak, there's no tech advance here.

Or, are you a bit more skeptical of human psychology than that, even? Do you believe the ease of an e-mail alert is a salve for the conscience, an easy "indulgence" similar to buying carbon credits rather than taking real action against global warming? (See here for my thoughts on carbon credit indulgences.)

I do.

In other words, does the Internet have a tendency to foster "slacktivism"? Possibly, even quite possibly. Is that better than nothing at all? Yes. How much better will decide whether you lean toward Morozov or Shirky.

Now, I don't claim to have the answers for something more than that, but, I do think that's another fact that Net utopians don't address. In short, Shirky's utopianism about the Net is matched, possibly, by a utopianism about human nature.

But, not all governments are semi-transparent to transparent. What about authoritarian or totalitarian ones?

Again, from the review:
Morozov says modern China, Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez are embracing new digital technologies in an attempt to better control them or learn how to use them to better spy on their citizens, and he implies that this is just another way they will dupe the citizenry and seduce them into a slumber so they will avert their eyes and ears to the truth of the repression that surrounds them. Sorry, but once again, I’m not buying it.
Here, Adam Thierer seems ignorant of 19th-century European history.

I don't know about France, but, places further east, after the rise of daily newspapers in larger cities, provide an instructional parallel.

Rather than ban newspapers outright, or even censor them to near the point of being unintelligible, governments such as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary let leading newspapers of the left stay on racks at coffeehouses and other high-traffic public places precisely so they could keep tabs on who appeared subversive, what information was getting the most reading, etc.

And, presumably, in exchange for letting such places stay in business, occasionally leaning on their owners to rat out a few patrons to stay in business.

Now, Morozov may be overstating the case with the idea that Chavez is, or can be, "duping" people. There, I would agree with Thierer. Somewhat. But, not nearly totally.

As I noted in my original post, a leaked e-mail from HBGary, one of the companies that wanted to spy on “Anonymous” and online supporters of it and Julian Assange, showed it has plans to ramp up corporate online sockpuppetry to a whole new level.

Now, Venezuela or Iran may not have consultancy companies with this level of expertise, or folks inside its government, to pull off something similar. But, you can bet Hu Jintao's China and Vladimir Putin's Russia do.

Speaking of, it now (3/20/11) seems China is blocking Gmail. Another nail in the coffin of Net utopians, as well as that of transationalists.

Again, Thierer should read some history of 100-plus years ago.

The Okhrana, the Czarist predecessor to the KGB, was notorious for its use of human agents provacateur. They included the man who assassinated Prime Minister Pytor Stolypin in 1911.

The use of fake Tweeters, fake Facebookers, etc. to do similar by electronic means should be seriously considered by the U.S. foreign policy establishment when monitoring unrest, or apparent unrest, in these countries, in fact.

But, at the same time, we don't need to go abroad, or leave the land of democracy, to talk about governments abusing the Internet

I mentioned HB Gary above. We don't even need to do that.

Under the Bush Administration (and perhaps still ongoing with Team Obama), the FBI spied on, harassed, and even arrested on flimsy charges individuals involved in peace/antiwar groups. How much of that was enabled by electronic snooping, or even electronic sockpuppetry?

And, let's not forget the Patriot Act itself and the Internet spying it allows.

For Shirky to write his utopian BS without even discussing that? Unconscionable. If the mainstream media did something like that, he'd be vomiting all over the Internet.

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