The Internet Political Paradox refers to the Internet’s potential to facilitate both autocracy and democracy. The Net has helped states to conduct autocratic behaviors (as well as democratic ones, thought I won’t revise them now) and has empowered individuals to fight for democracy against asymmetrical government actors. The Internet is a tool, and as such it has potential for both good and evil. It’s all about what humans decide to do with it. What’s interesting is that these autocracy vs democracy online dynamics happen in both autocratic and democratic countries. So let’s look at the cases of autocratic China and (nominally) democratic United States, and analyze how these antithetical forces unfold by using the Internet.
In the case of China, which is lucidly described in the book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are by Emily Parker, the Net has become a crucial instrument for the Communist regime to tighten their autocratic dominance (through online censorship and surveillance, as analyzed in Morozov’s The Net Delusion), but it paradoxically has also helped political dissenters to self-organize while remaining anonymous to government officials. Looking close into the government’s autocratic online behavior, Parker identifies four main tiers of censorship: 1) the Great Chinese Firewall, which blocks unfriendly voices; 2) automatic filtered “sensitive” keywords; 3) human censors who monitor online activity; and 4) self-censorship, which is the hardest to see but the most real and pervasive.
Regarding blogger dissenters, Parker argues that the Net benefits them greatly by allowing “ridiculously easy group-forming” (which I looked at in this post and which gives the title to Parker’s book), by protecting them through the use of fake names, and by connecting them to the outside world (what in same cases can be a life insurance given the regime’s reluctance to see their branding hurt in foreign media). Also, these digital pro-democracy activists come up with creative turnarounds for some of the state’s censorship practices, such as VPNs to bypass the Great Firewall and language coding to overcome filtered keywords (such as May 36 or May 37-1 to mean banned June 5).
On the other side of the spectrum, the US also experienced similar dynamics in the recent past, despite being a democracy. The outrageous scandal of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations brought to the spotlight this paradox. On one hand, the US government incurred into autocracy-style behavior by taking advantage of the Internet to implement a massive and illegal surveillance program both at home and abroad, in complicity with Silicon Valley giants. And on the other hand, it was a single individual who challenged the government by exposing the facts (Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide book is great for the details) and starting a very urgent debate for democracy’s health.
And if we talk about Snowden, we also need to talk about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the most mediatic case of an individual empowered by the Net to challenge the US government (I recommend this old The New Yorker piece on him). Although many things around him are controversial (as convincingly argued by Lanier), one must acknowledge that many of his leaks have definitely been positive breakthroughs bringing transparency over dirty government issues and opening up much needed debates. Good news is that, as Bruce Sterling compellingly reminded us, more Snowdens and Assanges will inevitable come in the years to come of this digital age.
Richard Stallman, Julian Assange and “Yes We Can” photo of Edward Snowden. Credit: WIKILeaks.
But what was the most shocking and worrying symptom for me was to witness how the US government was so successful in manipulating public opinion to demonize both Snowden and Assange: in a Harvard Kennedy School class about this topic 2 days ago, it was terrifying to see how many Americans in the room discredited both by labeling them as “lunatics” (the word was used at least 15-20 times in the session), messing up this important debate about government surveillance and whistleblowers with ad hominem arguments that fall very short from expected Harvard standards. This notable quote (also cited in the Wikileaks Collateral Murder video) comes to mind:
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell
To make it even worse, one of my American classmates justified the NSA by saying: “I worked in Washington and that’s how reality works, all governments do it; that’s how life is“. Hopefully we’ll not conform to this status quo argument that has been repeatedly used throughout history to justify terrible social evils.