Friday, February 4, 2011

Cyberutopians and the Social Media Fallacy

The Net Delusion: Twitter Can't Save You.

As Evgeny Morozov demonstrates in “The Net Delusion,” his brilliant and courageous book, the Internet’s contradictions and confusions are just becoming visible through the fading mist of Internet euphoria. Morozov is interested in the Internet’s political ramifications. “What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?” he asks. The Net delusion of his title is just that. Contrary to the “cyberutopians,” as he calls them, who consider the Internet a powerful tool of political emancipation, Morozov convincingly argues that, in freedom’s name, the Internet more often than not constricts or even abolishes freedom.
Gasp. What's this? The internet and social media as social control? The hell, you say.

He quotes the political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who proclaimed after protesters took to the streets in Tehran that “the revolution will be Twittered.” The revolution never happened, and the futilely tweeting protesters were broken with an iron hand. But Sullivan was hardly the only one to ignore the Iranian context. Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”

Two decades of inane patter about the magical powers of a technology of mere convenience had transformed Twitter — once the domain of “a bunch of bored hipsters who had an irresistible urge to share their breakfast plans,” as Morozov mordantly writes — into an engine of political revolution.

In 2007, when he was at the State Department, Jared Cohen wrote with tragic wrongheadedness that “the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can . . . say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.” Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead. Cohen himself now works for Google as the director of “Google Ideas.”
Nice. If Morozov sounds a lot like someone you know that's because he must be reading TPE. His take on the so-called Iranian revolution is even more akin.
The Iranian protests against what the protesters believed was a corrupt election were brutally crushed because, as Morozov unsentimentally says, “many Iranians found the elections to be fair.”

What was broadcast on Twitter and elsewhere was repression of the revolution. The Iranian regime used the Web to identify photographs of protesters; to find out their personal information and whereabouts (through Facebook, naturally); to distribute propagandistic videos; and to text the population into counterrevolutionary paranoia.
The utopians tend to believe that governments and repressive authoritarian regimes are technological simpletons, being undone by young people on Facebook or Twitter. Meanwhile, as he documents, governments are using the same social media outlets to crush dissent (I'd bet dollars to donuts that on Facebook, governments promote the promise of getting laid for all counterrevolutionaries).

As Morozov notes, all kinds of people are using social media for the opposite of "freedom and liberation."
In Morozov’s eyes, this sort of backlash to Internet “freedom” is routine. Polygamy may be illegal in Turkey, but that doesn’t stop Turkish villagers from using the Internet to find multiple wives. Mexican crime gangs use social networking sites to gather information about their victims. Russian neofascists employ the Internet to fix the positions of minorities in order to organize pogroms. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela wrote to a young critic on Twitter, “Hello Mariana, the truth is I’m an anti-dictator.” LOL!

As Morozov points out, don’t expect corporations like Google to liberate anyone anytime soon. Google did business in China for four years before economic conditions and censorship demands — not human rights concerns — forced it out.
Yep, same themes echoed here over the years about the false notion of freedom on the internet, and how fast it would be for big government to shut down the 'net when threatened (see also: first days of unrest in Egypt).

More importantly, as Conflict theorists might note, social media is fundamentally more about how to profit from you than it is anything else.
Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the ­asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.”

For Morozov, technology is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the strongest temperament. And the Internet, he maintains, is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television. Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.”
I am so reading this book. It's nice to know that my own "bitter observations of social media" (as one fellow academic crank called it) are not completely out of left field as you thought.

You can learn more about Morozov and his book here. And he's on Twitter, of course.

1 comment:

MRMacrum said...

It amazes me a population's capacity to endure before they rise up and do something about it.

Any government not well involved in any emerging movement is just asking to be taken down. We should never underestimate what a government is willing to do to stay in business.