Skepticism is Best Left to the Skeptics

Barrett Brown

Foreign Policy runs a regular feature titled “Think Again,” in which one or another contributor addresses an issue he deems has been misunderstood.

Foreign Policy
runs a regular feature titled “Think Again,” in which one or another
contributor addresses an issue he deems has been misunderstood by otherwise
knowledgeable people. Each section deals with some assertion that the
author seeks to correct or clarify; the intent is to bring a skeptical
eye to widely held views on matters of global significance, which is
a fine thing to attempt when the writer in question is a competent essayist
and thinker rather than some other, lesser thing.

In
the May/June issue, FP contributing editor Evgeny Morozov takes to “Think
Again” in an effort to bring clarity to the general subject of the
Internet as it pertains to freedom and representative government. The
first section of the article asks whether the assertion “The Internet
Has Been a Force for Good” is true. The answer, Morozov says, is no,
and he begins to explain why the answer is no-rather than yes or “I
don’t know”-by reminding us of the hopes expressed by web enthusiasts
back in the early days of connectivity, occasionally in their own words.
“The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance,
destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global
village,” he reminds us.

Something
seems to have gone awry, though, and fifteen years later tolerance remains
unfostered, nationalism is still in existence, and our planet is hardly
a wired global village. Morozov does cite one actual claim made long
ago by the pro-Internet crowd, here quoting the 1994 manifesto “A
Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” which, as he notes, promised the
advent of “electronic neighborhoods bound together not by geography
but by shared interests.” This is an odd claim to cite as representative
of unfulfilled hopes, considering that it appears to have been fulfilled
if we observe that we do indeed now have online communities made up
of people “bound together not by geography but by shared interests,”
including blogs such as Daily Kos, user-driven discussion sites such
as Reddit, and thousands of other such things. If Morozov has a different
definition in mind, he has kept it secret from us.

Incidentally,
this marks one of the two occasions in the entire article on which Morozov
bothers to quote any of the assertions he ascribes to his opponents,
and on neither occasion are we treated to anything so bulky as an entire
sentence-but then print magazines are subject to space constraints.
Limited by his medium, Morozov is forced to continue here by merely
summarizing an assertion by Nicholas Negroponte, who “dramatically
predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations
and usher in a new era of world peace” or at any rate stated something
approximate to that.

Whatever
Negroponte said in 1997, it was apparently wrong. “The Internet as
we know it has now been around for two decades,” Morozov reminds us,
“and it has certainly been transformative.… But just as earlier
generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor
the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most
ardent cheerleaders, we haven’t seen an Internet-powered rise in global
peace, love, and liberty.” I wouldn’t know how to measure the degree
of global love, much less to what extent one should attribute any change
in such a thing to the Internet. This puts me at a disadvantage when
dealing with Morozov, who seems to have had a head start on this, so
I will concede the point, which he hammers home by noting that the Internet
has facilitated “the increased global commerce in protected species.”
Meanwhile, a group of Serbians have been “turning to Facebook to organize
against gay rights” while a group of Saudi Arabians are supposed to
be setting up some sort of online version of their Promotion of Virtue
and the Prevention of Vice squad. All in all, “Many of the transnational
networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen-rather than improve-the
world as we know it.” Why this necessarily leads to the conclusion
that the Internet has not been a force for good is left unaddressed,
but there is: a full-page picture of a hand holding a mouse on the facing
page.

Having
accomplished whatever it is that just happened, Morozov moves on to
address more specific assertions such as, “Twitter Will Undermine
Dictators.” This, it turns out, is wrong. “Tweets don’t overthrow
governments; people do,” Morozov begins, adding that social network
sites have proven “both helpful and harmful to activists operating
from inside authoritarian regimes.” Again, one expects to see Morozov
at least attempt to make the case that they have been more harmful than
helpful, but he does not seem to consider this a productive line of
inquiry; he is busy forgetting what it is that he had set out to prove-that
it is wrong to assert that “Twitter Will Undermine Dictators”-and
has instead apparently just decided to make the case that Twitter has
not managed to actually overthrow any dictators after its few
years of existence. “Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has
crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses
circulated on social networking sites,” he points out.

Not
only has Twitter failed to take down either of the two regimes Morozov
lists, but one of those regimes has attempted to use the service for
its own ends. “Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager
to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After
last year’s protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website
that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify
the unruly protestors by name.” We are not told how effective this
turned out to be or why this necessarily cancels out the effectiveness
of Twitter in organizing the protests to begin with or how the fact
that dictators use websites shows that they are not being undermined
by the use of Twitter. The fellow’s talent is being wasted in socio-political
commentary when he could be writing mystery novels.

“Take
the favorite poster child of digital utopians,” Morozov continues,
citing a random example to which some digital utopians may occasionally
refer. “In early 2008 a Facebook group started by a 33-year-old Columbian
engineer culminated in massive protests, with up to 2 million people
marching in Bogota’s streets to demonstrate against the brutality
of Marxist FARC rebels. (A New York Times article about the protests
gushed: ‘Facebook has helped bring public protest to Colombia, a country
with no real history of mass demonstrations.’)” We might have been
fooled into taking this as a factual assessment of what was going on
in Colombia had The New York Times refrained from gushing
about it, which is a dishonest rhetorical trick that we should be thankful
to Morozov for pointing out to us. “However, when the very same ‘digital
revolution’ last September tried to organize a similar march against
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, they floundered.” Facebook, then, cannot
always be used to effectively undermine dictators in neighboring countries;
pass it on.

“Internet
enthusiasts argue that the Web has made organizing easier,” Morozov
continues. “But this is only partially true,” which is to say that
it is easier only to the extent that it is easier. “Taking full advantage
of online organizing requires a well-disciplined movement with clearly
defined goals, hierarchies, and operational procedures.” I would retort
that such things are necessary in order to take full advantage of anything,
and there is nothing of which anyone has ever taken full advantage,
but nonetheless these imperfect entities do manage to accomplish things.
Again, Morozov was supposed to be showing that Twitter doesn’t undermine
dictators, not that it frees protester organizers from the necessity
of goals and procedures.

Our
correspondent next dismisses the myth that “Google Defends Internet
Freedom,” noting that the company does so “only when convenient.”
I’m not aware of anyone who argues otherwise other than Google’s
public relations people, but at any rate Morozov manages to shoot them
down.

Next
up on the chopping block is the claim that “The Internet Makes Governments
More Accountable.” “Not necessarily,” Morozov retorts, noting
that “even when the most detailed data get released, it does not always
lead to reformed policies,” here citing an example of a single occasion
on which the Internet did not make a particular government more accountable,
thereby refuting the argument that “The Internet Always Makes Every
Government More Accountable in Every Way,” which no one has ever made.
True accountability, he adds, “will require building healthy democratic
institutions and effective systems of checks and balances. The Internet
can help, but only to an extent.” That all help is inherently a matter
of extent and not entirety does not prevent Morozov from throwing out
this redundant qualifier by virtue of its perceived use in minimizing
the fact that the Internet can indeed be of help in building or reforming
such institutions.

The
Internet and the claims made on its behalf merit skeptical scrutiny.
Skepticism, though, is more than contrarianism in the face of a given
claim, and it is wholly incompatible with the style of argument Morozov
gives: a haphazard mixture of anecdotal evidence, selective amnesia,
non-sequiters, and loaded terminology. When publications “gush”
factual assertions and opponents are twice characterized as “cheerleaders”
in the space of a single essay, it is not difficult to determine that
the essayist in question is seeking shortcuts to persuasion. When an
essayist sets out to debunk an assertion by using anecdotal evidence
that is weaker than the contrary anecdotal evidence he seeks to nullify,
shifting from attacking the original assertion to attacking a broader
assertion that no one has made, we ought not be surprised that he has
resorted to such shortcuts. We may even be inclined to allow these things
as a handicap if we are the magnanimous sort, which we are not.

The
Internet has not proven itself to be some surefire weapon against tyranny
or injustice or bad taste, but the same can be said for the written
word and, really, everything else. But aside from being wrong, arguments
to the effect that the last decade has shown the Internet to be a failure
as a tool of political change are almost beside the point if our intent
is to better understand what the Internet will look like in the future.
Had Morozov written a similar essay ten years ago, he would have been
arguing against the revolutionary efficacy of a landscape that is drastically
different from what we see today-one in which Facebook, Twitter, and
YouTube were as yet unknown. Ten years from now, new and entirely different
tools will be in use, and existing tools will be used in different ways.
The Internet will continue in its rapid evolution; the world in turn
will be tugged along in the wake of its influence, and the means of
human collaboration will continue to multiply just as they have for
the last decade and a half-which is to say, orders of magnitude faster
than ever before in human history in an environment of fast-increasing
social complexity. We have barely received a taste of the phenomena
with which we and our very dictators will be confronted in the coming
years.

Barrett Brown

Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.