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Is the internet a solution for the revolution?

Mimma Lehtovaara writes:

Evgeny Morozov participated in the Reuters Institute Seminar Series just after the so-called Tunisian Jasmine revolution, but just before the uprising in Egypt had started. In his book 'The Net Delusion', Morozov argues that internet freedom is an illusion, and in his presentation, it soon became clear that in his opinion there is too much excitement and hype about the power of internet.

But with that in mind, one is forced to ask: How about the protests we have seen lately in many totalitarian or undemocratic countries? Do the internet and the social media in general make protests more likely or successful in countries such Belarus, Iran, Tunisia and Egypt?

Morozov agreed in his presentation that for example in Belarus last December, the social media helped 'to some extent' to publicise what was happening regarding the presidential election. But what was the outcome of the mass protests against President Lukashenko and his regime? That is controversial. In his lecture Morozov admitted that the social media can be very helpful in powering and mobilizing people: "The social media and its users cause collective action, it makes coordination easier, it makes access to information easier." But on the other hand, it can also be very useful for governments. As Morozov explained, the darker side of the events in Belarus was that the government was able to stay in power after the election. Therefore it managed afterwards to track down the protesters who had used social media and its tools for spreading information about the protests.

According to Morozov, this sort of tracking also took place in Iran during summer 2009 after the election, which President Ahmedinejad allegedly won with a large majority and which led to massive protests. As in Belarus, the authorities in Iran also blocked parts of the internet, mainly parts of the social media, and disrupted the mobile phone traffic. And after the election, 'The (Iranian) government turned to social media websites for evidence for who those protesters were', Morozov pointed out.

There are other important aspects, as well, according to Morozov: “If you assume that social media on the internet are making protests more effective to some extent, you also have to evaluate whether the internet and the social media are actually making the protest more likely to begin with."

"And here you have to look beyond the power of mobilization and look at how the governments themselves are using social media for their own purposes.... It differs from country to country but here you have to look at how social media facilitate propaganda and how even the mode of propaganda is different in social media to what it is in traditional media…And look at how the governments with their own existing political and social agendas are shaping the internet according to their own needs," he argues.

Morozov also presented other points about the ownership of the infrastructure within the internet. At present the field is in many ways in the hands of American corporations like Google, Skype, Facebook or Twitter which have been actually facilitating many recent political changes.

According to Morozov, it is time that America and Europe start to think about future prospects. Should the western countries be prepared for the possibility that countries like Russia or China, with a lot of talented people and more and more resources, will create their own Silicon Valleys within the next decade or so and replace the American players with local, domestic ones? And how do the companies in such countries respect for example freedom of expression or what kind of transparency politics are those companies following?

At the end of his lecture Morozov expressed this message: “The social media landscape is changing tremendously, it is being shaped by forces that most decision makers who speak enthusiastically about internet freedom and twitter revolution don’t fully understand – and I think we have to be very cautious about raising expectations on subjects like internet freedom in the foreign context so high that our own domestic mistakes will cost us dearly."