Civil War in Cyberspace

Evgeny Morozov has become the main spokesperson for those that look at how forces hostile to democracy are also using the internet to their great advantage, and his latest piece in Dissent gives a good overview of the latest debates on the issue of whether the “internet is good for democracy … or not”. (in this article, he also especially dislikes non-mainstream voices getting an airing, such as the vaccine critics and sceptics.)

The article is very rich in examples of many hidden ideological struggles for prominence taking place over the internet.

A few excerpts:

* Anti and pro corporates:

“Much has been made of bloggers’ ability to take on corporations and hold them accountable., a popular consumer-oriented blog has emerged as, perhaps, the most notable of such sites, attracting complaints from dissatisfied customers all over the world and advising them on how to fight back. A typical blog post from The Consumerist–entitled “How to Launch an Executive Email Carpet Bomb”—offers tips for “rattling the corporate monkey tree to make sure your complaint gets shoved under the nose of someone with decision-making powers.” However, corporations themselves have not been slow to exploit cyberspace for their own purposes, with many of them relying on “search engine optimization” (SEO)—a set of online techniques to boost their Google ranking–to make themselves easier to find. Now, they have stepped up their efforts, hiring the services of dedicated SEO firms that can ensure that any online complaints about corporate misbehavior posted by the likes of The Consumerist will be almost impossible to find on Google., the most visible of such companies, advertises “Do you need negative information removed? We are masters at knocking bad links off the front pages of search engines!” boasts its front page. In some sense, cyberspace has made life relatively easy for companies: they don’t need to beat up journalists anymore; they just need to beat up Google. The latter can be done quietly, privately, and at little expense–to their finances or their reputations. The buck doesn’t stop with consumer-oriented blogs: Western governments are also quite eager to beat Google’s search algorithms: Britain’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism is planning to coach moderate Islamic groups in SEO, so that they can “flood the Internet” with positive interpretations of Islam. There are many other reasons why the Internet has failed to amplify the voices of civil society. The most obvious one is that governments have mastered the tricks of Internet censorship; this has been the most accessible and often the most reliable way to neutralize the dissemination of critical information on the Internet. To the great disappointment of free-speech advocates, global backlash against Internet censorship has been extremely limited, with several American companies feeling bold enough to supply governments such as China’s with technology that is being actively used for censorship. It’s too early to tell whether nascent international efforts to draw more attention to this issue–such as the Global Network Initiative, a consortium of, corporations, human rights groups, and individual activists aiming to thwart the censorship attempts of governments–will be successful, but the early signs are not encouraging.”

* Measures against government critics in Thailand:

“Some governments are combining aggressive Internet laws with truly innovative measures aimed at identifying and barring undesired content early on in the publishing cycle. The Thai government, for example, uses the country’s severe lèse majesté laws, prohibiting any offensive material aimed at the reigning sovereign, to go after administrators of critical Web sites. The most recent case is that of Cheeranuch Premchaiphorn, the Web administrator of Prachatai, the most influential Thai political Web site, who was recently detained because a comment critical of the king was discovered on the site. The Thai authorities also “crowdsource” the process of gathering URLs of sites to be blocked by encouraging their loyalists to submit such sites for review (a site named is a primary collection point of the offensive URLs). Predictably, it’s a one-way street: there is no similar invitation to submit sites to unblock.”

* “Authoritarian deliberation” in Russia (and China):

“Kremlin-affiliated public relations technologists increasingly turn to cyberspace to generate fresh ideas on how to keep the current regime in power. Virtually all the political technologists of yesteryear–those who were instrumental in getting Boris Yeltsin re-elected in 1996 and Vladimir Putin elected in 2000–are now actively experimenting with cyberspace. Gleb Pavlovsky, perhaps the most famous of that cohort, has paved the way; his think tank–the Fund for Effective Politics (FEP)–has arguably been the most effective player in shaping Russian ideology during the Putin era. Sensing a tremendous opportunity on the Internet, FEP has ventured into what can only be called “social networking with a Kremlin twist.” By launching–half social network and half group blog (think Huffington Post meets the DailyKos meets Facebook), Pavlovsky managed to tap into the creativity of Russian Internet users for his own ideological projects–while also giving his online community the impression that they have influence over the Kremlin’s agenda.

When asked recently about his motives for launching a Web2.0-friendly project like (not to mention giving it such an un-Kremlin-like name), Pavlovsky answered with atypical frankness.

– Based on the FEP polls in 2006-2008, we identified three major clusters in Russian society. The biggest one is that of Kremlin loyalists; the smallest one is the politicized opposition; the cluster in the middle—14-20% of the population—is the creative class. They…are part of a new economic system. They are the trend-setters: journalists, advertisers, PR experts, IT specialists, Internet users….These people are able to shape and promote new ideologies… [] will help political parties tap into their collective wisdom, see what these people are really concerned about; [the parties] would even be able to borrow some major policy points from these online discussions.

Pavlovsky’s activities, which, in essence, allow the Kremlin to tap into the collective unconscious and use it both to identify new ideas and promote old ones, are in line with what political scientists call “authoritarian deliberation”–the practice of authoritarian regimes that provide space for seemingly meaningful deliberation without any intention of engaging in regime-level democratization. Of course, pursuing such a policy requires giving up a modicum of political power, when it comes to selecting participants and prioritizing projects, for example, but it ultimately pays off as an “investment” in the future.”

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