Yesterday I asked the question: does China really feel threatened by U.S. social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube? As usual, I got an education in the comments to the post. While it’s true that the Chinese government blocks Twitter, Facebook and all of the main American social media sites, several commenters pointed out they are blocked not because of their popularity (because they aren’t, in fact, very popular in China), but due to their degree of freedom. In other words, the more open a social media service is, the more likely it will be blocked in China.
However, perhaps authoritarian governments shouldn’t block social media – it may actually be helpful to them!
Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born researcher and blogger, presented at TED last year on the topic of How the Net aids dictatorships. In his presentation (embedded below), Morozov makes the contrarian argument that the Internet is actually helping authoritarian governments – more so than being a challenge to them. Morozov asserted that governments like China’s have “mastered the use of cyberspace for propaganda purposes.”
Morozov noted that in the Iran Twitter protests of June of 2009, services such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs were actually operational and being used by activists. According to Morozov, this was great for the Iranian government – as it enabled them to “gather open source intelligence.” The government could identify how Iranian activists connect to each other, by looking at their Facebook pages or Twitter connections.
Kaiser Kuo commented in yesterday’s post about the same issue in China:
“…it’s astonishing how cavalier some critics of the CCP [China Communist Party] are on Twitter, making no effort to disguise their identities, making their network of friends totally transparent (you can use any of a number of Twitter tools to see the extent of interconnectedness, friend overlap, number of @ messages back and forth, etc) and leaving a completely searchable history. Anyone with a serious anti-CCP agenda would be an idiot to use Twitter.”
Also worth noting: Morozov said in his TED talk that cyber-activism may be offset by what he termed “cyber-hedonism.” He claimed that people are becoming passive due to the Internet. He said that we often assume that the Internet is going to be the catalyst of change, but it may actually be “the new opium for the masses.”
Morozov’s theories were challenged in the comments to that TED video. One commenter claimed that “we focus on the obvious totalitarian regimes while our so called democracies use propaganda on a daily basis.”
Regardless, Morozov raises some very valid points. While the Web promotes freedom of expression, at the same time it enables authoritarian regimes to monitor their citizens and identify troublemakers.
Let us know your thoughts on this in the comments.