I’ll not mince words here; Evgenie Morozov has fundamentally changed how I see great swaths of the Internet. You might find that his scholarly text The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom belabours the same few arguments (I did), but they’re fairly compelling ones that you’ll not soon forget.
I came away from The Net Delusion in agreement on three major points:
1. Twibbons aren’t enough.
Right out of the gate Morozov sets to work on debunking Twitter’s overstated role in the Iranian protests of 2009. Long story short, while social media is a fantastic tool for organizing people around a cause, it’s whether or not those same people are willing to step away from their screens and actually do something that makes the difference.
As it was not so long ago I can remember the irrational exuberance with which Twitter users turned their avatars green and changed their location to Tehran. But last time I checked, that particular country was in the same sorry state as it was before Twitter made it a cause célèbre.
2. Social media is not the great liberator.
Here in the west we cry foul every time we hear about social media censorship in some far away place — not just oppressive regimes like Iran but also India and Thailand. Thing is, we see Facebook and Twitter as tools of democracy; they see it, perhaps more clearly, as a commercial service with a decidedly U.S. agenda.
We cyber-utopians, as Morozov dubs us, need to understand and appreciate that (1) other countries have their own domestic social networks that do quite well, thanks very much, and (2) that cultures around the world are just plain different. An example of the latter that maybe hits closer to home is something I remember from Adam Cohen’s The Perfect Store — specifically, eBay’s troubles when they started up in the U.K.; more stringent defamation laws there made user feedback a real problem for the company.
3. The Internet is not a dumb pipe; it’s a loaded weapon.
Before you raise your fist in the air and yell “right on!”, hear me out. What Morozov contends, and what I’m coming to grips with, is that the Internet is not a neutral space — but rather, like a cocked pistol, it’s as dangerous as the person with their finger on the trigger.
Consider that blogs and social media can be tools for propaganda and protest alike. In the same way that television makes everybody famous — giving equal time to Hollywood celebrities and serial killers — truth, lies, even hate speech propagate the web with no discernible difference, at least on the surface. Thus dissenting voices under oppressive regimes can not only be effectively squelched; through clever manipulation of online content the conversation can be fundamentally changed.
And if all else fails the Internet can just be shut off altogether, as it was in Egypt this time last year.
Now don’t get me wrong — I still believe that our Internet, dangerous as it may be, is a wondrous thing. But Morozov has effectively shown me its limitations as a herald of western-style democracy. It can provide those in the west with a precious, candid peek at the plight of others. But it’s going to take more than a Twibbon to actually help them.