Does the Internet empower or censor?

September 22, 2009

What if the Internet is not really a utopian democratic catalyst of change?

The Web is often seen as a positive means of instilling democratic freedoms in countries under authoritarian rule, but many regimes are now using it to subvert democracy, Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at “Foreign  Policy“, proposes.

The Internet can actually inhibit rather than empower civil society, Morozov, argued in a lecture on Tuesday at London’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Social media platforms are being used by certain governments to create a “spinternet” to influence public opinion. They are also being used as part of a process of “authoritarian deliberation” to try and increase the legitimacy of authoritarian rule, he said.

Morozov spoke with Reuters after the lecture.


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The internet is already highly censured from the source.

Posted by Van | Report as abusive

[…] My instincts are to be interactive online but I can still appreciate  the power and utility of broadcast. During the halcyon days of  blogging the democratic impulse of blogs was evident. We maybe entering aperiod of what Evgeny Morozov,  posits  "Social media platforms are being used by certain governments to create a “spinternet” to … […]

Posted by Social Media: Broadcast while still having a conversation. « Shanedillon’s Weblog | Report as abusive

Sadly I missed his talk at the RSA however the issues which he raises I have thought about. Namely how non-democratic states use the web. In terms of exploiting the potential of the web to communicate misinformation and propaganda this does not surprise me at all. That they can carry out this task with a high degree of skill and creativity would also be consistent. In the 20th century both the Nazis and Communist regimes were adept at using cinema (though communist regimes produced better cinema than the Nazis) to control and subvert with propaganda. Like the web cinema was a new technology and Lenin would take cinema to the masses on a train trip throughout Russia.

What Evgeny Morozov portents is and I hazard a guess is a kind of free world web which encourages, welcomes and develops the tools for people to interact with, create content for and broadcast to anyone they wish. While on the other side a web grows up were interaction is limited and broadcast is the key feature of web use and only a limited amount of people have the means to broadcast. Morozov has highlighted an issue that I need do much more thinking and he opens up a debate that is marginally more interesting than whether we download a music track for free or not.

Posted by shane dillon | Report as abusive

You are right Van, it also depends where you find yourself, in empowering or disempowering societies and whether you are actually connected with a dedicated IP address. Also, sometimes a few siphoned commentaries could make a big difference, else it is really clutter or narcissm. The audience might be much smaller than we think, maybe 5% of the 5% on the far right side of the IQ bell curve. Some people become so far right that they land up on the far left side of the bell curve.

Posted by Casper Lab | Report as abusive

Hey guys, it’s a TOOL. Like a chisel, it can be extremely useful if you learn to use it properly, and extremely dangerous if you don’t.

I’m afraid Mr Morozov lost me when he mentioned “the Communist leaders” in the present tense. While for a time the Internet was contemporary with Communism, it didn’t enter the public consciousness until some years after Communist leaders had all left the stage. So while it may be clear to him what he’s talking about, it’s not clear to me. Overall, I got the impression of someone blaming Alexander Graham Bell for the fact that some governments tap phones.

For myself, I’m far more bothered about the crooks who try to tap my communications than I am about any politicians or civil servants.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

There is already censership of the web. Comcast, for instance, and others, will not print comments which contain key words, especially those referring to homosexuals and Wahhabi, derogatory or not; you cannot call John Kerry a “coward” for running from the Vietnam war by his bogus Purple Hearts and then covering up his cowardice with his anti-war venom, or Teddy Kennedy a coward for his craven actions at Chappaquiddick, etc. There seem to be a whole slew of key words which get a serious commenter instantly censored, i.e., refused entry into the comments, while general name-calling of the most vile often kind seems admissable.

Posted by ctr | Report as abusive

All the internet does is make information more accessable to the public.

Meaning all the information is easily capable of being censored, altered or even falsified. And if a lie is easily accessed, it becomes more easily accepted as fact.

Even forums are capable of being controlled or manipulated, sometimes even by posters paid to moderate or drown out genuine debate.

China and Russia are prime examples of the modern misuse of digital information. Both for censorship and political propaganda.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

America not to lecture on democracy or censorship. Especially after Afganistan and Georgia.

West should focus on its own affairs, and leave China alone.

Posted by Paid Chinese Poster | Report as abusive

China not lecture on democracy or censorship. Especially after violent responses to Tibet and other ethnic, non-Han citizen demonstrations. China should focus on it’s own affairs and leave the rest of the world alone. :-)

Posted by Unpaid American Poster | Report as abusive

This seems to me to be pretty disingenuous. Any communications technology or media can be exploited to further the ends of those who control that media. The corporations which control newspaper and TV programming are doing this today, carrying forward the agenda of the liberals. Should we apply the same logic in the case of newspapers and TV?

The best way to manage the most intrusive cases of this sort of communications misuse is to prohibit its’ control (and/or even its’ overuse) by our government, which, if they so choose, can use media control in the most destructive manner — as was the case with Nazi Germany in the ’30s.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

It seems to me the biggest problem with all the media in general is the way they are owned. Some giants like Time Warner and Murdock or Berlusconi own many types of electronic and print media and can manipulate it if they care to. But someone can actually bring suit against a TV network or newspaper for false information and libel. The big media can also print what their paying customers want to hear. Who needs central organs of propaganda when the public can propagandize itself? There still are “papers of record” but it is very easy to look elsewhere and claim that the internet is the real “record”. Blogs are full of that kind of “common sense paranoia”.

What can the consumer of internet information do to correct false reports? People have always had their favorite papers or broadcast media shows and commentators. But so many blogs and web sites can be more dubious than those notorious CDOs and derivatives. The internet can become one vast supermarket tabloid where no information is reliable, not even the so-called papers of record.

The internet could bring about a world of disinformation so pervasive that one is forced to assemble one’s own sources and possibly hire reliable personal news agents who will report only on what can be verified. No doubt many people with deep pockets try to do this now. And that is a world very like the Middle Ages where merchants were the gathers of the news of the world. But that is a little better than living with electronic rumor mills and the madness of crowds.

And I believe there are still “communist” leaders alive and well on some very significant world stages. Fascist leaders are no picnic either and they seem to be the temptation in this country. WE have been more than flirting with it for the past eight years.

What good does a high IQ do you if no one believes you have one? Do you wave your IQ scores at them? That doesn’t impress in politics or any other hot topic, haven’t you noticed?

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

Almost every blog, no, correction, every blog of apolitical or vaguely political nature (eco/green, party political, economic, save the X etc) has been so sdominated by mainly ignorant but totally dogmatic idiots that I have been unable to take part.

I can be persuaded by argument but the vast majority seem only able to sloganeer, and badly at that.

In the case of the BBC political editors blog it has been overwhelmed by a thousand variations of the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair are the most ( choose your perjorative abuse). The infill is always questionable, selective and once researched usually found to be made up.

The frightening thing is that as each blog goes on the level of vehemence escalates to the point where one can imagine the blogee drooling at visions of mutilation and more.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that in many ways the blogosphere aspect is no more than a mob with all the dangers attached to that mentat.

I now simply contrast and compare divers “Hard News” sources and dispense with the wide ranging discussion that I had hoped the web would engender.

Plus ca change.

Posted by Paul Arkle | Report as abusive

Dear Author,
Happy to use the word !Author! to you.
Your writings on this subject are full of facts and figures.
Internet penetration is very high in many developing countries.
It provides lot of opportunities to students,adults,educationists,film directors,singers,script writers,scientists, scholars,seniors and lastly to web editors.
It creates and brings more revenue by advertisement,product promotions ,enlarging friendship, creating a sound platform to many users and to its members.
On line sales has been increasing and attracting day by day.
Regarding some strict controls or censor by respective governments has become order of the day.
Iran,Middle East,and from south Asian countries have formulated some sorts of direct and indirect rules,regulations ,controls and censor to certain web based schedules and curtailed individual freedom in great extents.
Here,Local websites,some business tycoons,government officials, and from some regional state politicians have started murmuring on demerits of web applications and its long usages by school,college and office goers,and stated that more time on social websites, seeing some censored clippings and from some disgruntled elements.
Their arguments has some reasons but not beyond that.
Because of Twitter,face book and from some other noted world websites, it encouraged users to get on the spot news,events on Iran Election Results Crisis.
China also blocked some websites for suppression of real happening in her country.
Generally speaking any type of control or censor in web works will not be accepted ,agreed, encouraged from any individual who advocates,practices individual freedom.
For national and international security reasons on defense,government secrets,rumor,drug traffic,human trafficking and for these anti national, anti human activities ,then the concerned governments can pass some legislations for their nations security and for general interest.
The words,Hard News, Soft approaches to certain ideas,Negative,provocative news are temporary in nature.
Now, people are intelligent to judge what web says, or its noted contents or they will analyse and judge in later times.
To sum up, this article is good and for future planners and hope to get wisdom from all agencies.
We have to accept that, internet is a very large source of information to many.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

The internet is one massive library of information, so let’s call it the Encyclopedia Galactica. It has its pro’s and its con’s. The pro’s is obvious, but some of the con’s is far less obvious. Ian Kemmish has a valid point: ‘For myself, I’m far more bothered about the crooks who try to tap my communications than I am about any politicians or civil servants’. I am not subject to the trappings of private/public industrial espionage and personal information dissemination, such as on Facebook, as I control and edit the information, so naturally I would be more cautious of government agencies. I am not a threat to governments or the like though, and try to play the ball and not the man – that’s carries one far. Internet debates are conducted out in the open, and moderated, so I sleep at night. I did however change to ‘ANON’ when I realised that blog name references can end up on the internet. That’s a bit frightening. By the same token, I use powerful anti-spam, antivirus, antispyware and anti-hacking (free) software that protect my IP address and in fact monitor ‘outward’ information traffic and its destination. Filtering is a necessary evil, so maybe sometimes it is good not to give/supply free advertising/marketing to e.g. Japanese whalers and fundamentalists and fuel fires further. You simply can’t have chauvinists writing articles in a woman’s magazine. ctr has a valid point: ‘General name-calling of the most vile often kind seems admissible’: I have to agree with this, especially tirades.

In the end it, media is all about circulation, ratings and ‘hits’. That’s what makes the advertising dollar drop in the can by the minute. Why not ? You seek information and entertainment, you pay, this is no charity, it’s a big business.

Posted by ANON | Report as abusive