Many may see the Internet as a harbinger of liberalism - but Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born journalist, holds a different view. He explains to DW why the Internet doesn't necessarily lead to democracy.
Evgeny Morozov is a journalist and blogger based in the US
Evgeny Morozov is a Belarus-born journalist who is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the United States. His first book, "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," which was released in January, presents a counter argument to what is often espoused by officials in Berlin, Brussels and Washington: that authoritarian regimes use the Internet to monitor and placate their people more effectively.
Deutsche Welle: Please summarize the main argument of your book.
Evgeny Morozov: The argument is that we have to be very careful about assuming that the Internet will have liberating effects on repressive states. We have to be careful about having Western governments enter the space and campaign on issues like Internet freedom, and we have to be careful about the authoritarian governments exploiting the space for their own reasons - often to strengthen their own governments. That would be it, in a nutshell.
You were born and raised in Belarus. Does your background influence your thinking? You hold what many people might consider a contrarian viewpoint.
Sure. I grew up there and I still go there often, so I know the kind of uses people put the Internet to, and I know the way the Internet is changing life back there. But I also have to specify that I spent almost three years when I was working for an NGO travelling through the former Soviet bloc and actually working on creating new media projects that sought to promote democracy and freedom of expression and human rights and all that.
I met with many of the activists and bloggers and I also met with many people in Washington and Brussels and elsewhere who were actually extremely, widely enthusiastic about the power of new media. Many of the reflections in the book come from direct experience from the players involved.
And I just noticed the disconnect between what I was seeing as a practitioner and the kind of wildly optimistic cyber-upotian treatment that the Internet was getting in the mainstream media and also the public discourse in America and increasingly in Western Europe, where there is a lot of talk of blogging being Samizdat 2.0 and the “Great Firewall of China” being the “new Berlin Wall.” Many of those metaphors assumed that the moment you take down the “Great Firewall of China” you get the same political developments as you did in East Germany. And I just I don't think that's going to happen.
"The Net Delusion" was released in January 2011
You spent a lot of time working with new media projects in the former Soviet Union. Was there a moment where you felt like the rhetoric you were hearing from Washington - or perhaps from the people pushing these projects - didn't match the reality of what you were seeing on the ground? A moment that planted the seed of this book?
I remember going to Tajikistan and delivering a very upbeat, shiny PowerPoint about Flickr, and Wikipedia, and YouTube, only to realize that the people in the audience actually didn't know what those were. I went there with support from a grant and from this NGO, and it seemed like a good idea to whoever decided to fund that project. But to me it seemed that these people probably need another way of campaigning, in part because much of their population was still offline. At some point it just became very clear to me that the model of new media development is as, I think, flawed as the model of economic development in places like Africa.
What happens is that you get these big American agencies coming to promote blogging, like in Belarus, but what happens is they suck in all talented new media entrepreneurs locally and put them on a payroll and make them work for these supposedly promising new media initiatives, all of which fail. And these people never do any innovation on their own, because they feel comfortable working for this NGO-supported project and they're interested often in not succeeding so they can apply for another grant. So I realized that the way in which my own organization, too, was using new media was probably detrimental to the long-term sustainability.
Could you expand on some cases in which governments co-opt the Internet as a way to placate their people?
There are some interesting projects I discovered and discuss in the book. In Russia for instance you get this website called Russia.ru with a very interesting video section. They basically hire a lot of professional journalists from traditional Russian television - state-owned, of course - and they try to produce high-quality video content and turn this into a sort of an Internet TV-station, with extremely high-quality content. But most of the programs are entertainment. For example, there is a report about a horny young man who visits night clubs in Moscow searching for the most beautiful female breasts. That's the whole concept of the show. It gets a lot of page views on the Russian Internet, but 10 percent of the programs and of the content that this TV show produces, is political. So in a sense, you go to the site to see that show about night-clubs and you end up watching a political message, as well.
In other words, come for the boobs, stay for Nashi?
Yes, I think that is an appropriate slogan, not least because they have several Nashi (the pro-Kremlin youth movement - eds) TV shows. It's a project of a guy called Konstantin Rikov, who I also discuss at some length in the book, who is something of the godfather of the Russian Internet and is a deputy in the Russian Duma.
It's fascinating how the Kremlin manages to co-opt many of the talented new media entrepreneurs and turn them to government and public service. And to me it's a very interesting story of how they co-opt new technology and blogging, which many in the West still associate with some kind of pro-democratic, liberal mindset. We still want to think that Russian bloggers, Iranian and Chinese bloggers are the harbinger of democracy, the way dissidents in the Soviet Union were. And in many cases, that's not the case at all.
Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn