Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change

I mentioned previously that one of the extreme gender feminists suggested on Twitter that the #MooreandMe protest was something akin to a new civil rights movement. No doubt there’s quite a bit of self-congratulations there. And while the gender feminists did gain a lot of attention, the power of Twitter and other media is to mobilize social change through strengthening civil society. The new media gets people out in the streets, to the ballot box, raising money and distributing information. This is not to minimize the leveling effect we saw with this most recent feminist campaign, but large-scale political effects of social technology will vary across regime development, or at least that’s one of the things I’m getting from Clay Shirky’s article at Foreign Affairs, “The Political Power of Social Media.” While Shirky discusses the new social media as a global phenomenon, the essay focuses on the potential for revolutionary change in authoritarian regimes. The established democracies aren’t prone to regime change of this sort, although some of those in the U.S. and Europe are backing the WikiLeaks project with such hope in mind. That said, it’s an informative discussion at the article. The key point is the contrast between “instrumental” and “environmental” approaches to Internet freedom. The former relates to U.S. efforts to pressure repressive regimes to open access to online information sources. The latter focuses on the more traditional theme of opening civil society in general, taking the long view to social and political change:

In January 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined how the United States would promote Internet freedom abroad. She emphasized several kinds of freedom, including the freedom to access information (such as the ability to use Wikipedia and Google inside Iran), the freedom of ordinary citizens to produce their own public media (such as the rights of Burmese activists to blog), and the freedom of citizens to converse with one another (such as the Chinese public’s capacity to use instant messaging without interference).

Most notably, Clinton announced funding for the development of tools designed to reopen access to the Internet in countries that restrict it. This “instrumental” approach to Internet freedom concentrates on preventing states from censoring outside Web sites, such as Google, YouTube, or that of The New York Times. It focuses only secondarily on public speech by citizens and least of all on private or social uses of digital media. According to this vision, Washington can and should deliver rapid, directed responses to censorship by authoritarian regimes.

The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.

The instrumental approach can also be dangerous. Consider the debacle around the proposed censorship-circumvention software known as Haystack, which, according to its developer, was meant to be a “one-to-one match for how the [Iranian] regime implements censorship.” The tool was widely praised in Washington; the U.S. government even granted it an export license. But the program was never carefully vetted, and when security experts examined it, it turned out that it not only failed at its goal of hiding messages from governments but also made it, in the words of one analyst, “possible for an adversary to specifically pinpoint individual users.” In contrast, one of the most successful anti-censorship software programs, Freegate, has received little support from the United States, partly because of ordinary bureaucratic delays and partly because the U.S. government is wary of damaging U.S.-Chinese relations: the tool was originally created by Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that the Chinese government has called “an evil cult.” The challenges of Freegate and Haystack demonstrate how difficult it is to weaponize social media to pursue country-specific and near-term policy goals.

New media conducive to fostering participation can indeed increase the freedoms Clinton outlined, just as the printing press, the postal service, the telegraph, and the telephone did before. One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect.

Just as Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed, today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions; it would be impossible to describe the Moldovan Communist Party’s loss of Parliament after the 2009 elections without discussing the use of cell phones and online tools by its opponents to mobilize. Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.

Despite this basic truth — that communicative freedom is good for political freedom — the instrumental mode of Internet statecraft is still problematic. It is difficult for outsiders to understand the local conditions of dissent. External support runs the risk of tainting even peaceful opposition as being directed by foreign elements. Dissidents can be exposed by the unintended effects of novel tools. A government’s demands for Internet freedom abroad can vary from country to country, depending on the importance of the relationship, leading to cynicism about its motives.

The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the “environmental” view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.

In any case, Charli Carpenter has more thoughts: “Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, People Do.”

RELATED: Evgeny Morozov, “Why Washington’s support for online democracy is the worst thing ever to happen to the Internet.”

Cross-posted from American Power.

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