The Cyber-Skeptic

In his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Evgeny Morozov calls for cyber-realism in examining the relationship between freedom and technology.

In his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Evgeny Morozov calls for cyber-realism in examining the relationship between freedom and technology. It has become fashionable to invest social media platforms with democratizing power, power that Morozov has said they simply do not possess.

“Americans overstate the role that western technology, such as Facebook and Twitter, have played in recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt,” Morozov said at an April book signing in downtown Portland. “The role that Egyptian judges played in the revolution, for instance, is something that most Westerners do not understand. Not only does social media give them some way of relating to it, but it can make them feel good, as though western technology is helping to bring democracy to the world.”

Evgeny Morozov, who was born in Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and one of the foremost experts on the political effects of the Internet.

In “The Net Delusion,” Morozov further argues that while social media have the capacity to facilitate revolutionary action, they in no way level the playing field when opposition groups are facing an autocratic regime. Rather, it becomes a race for media literacy, with opposition groups using social media to organize and oppressive regimes using them to gather intelligence and circulate disinformation.

Morozov related a scary story that hints at Iran’s policy on how to best use social media to further the government’s agenda.

“A trusted colleague, while flying into Iran, was asked at customs if she had a Facebook profile,” Morozov said. “She told them ‘no,’ at which point they pulled out a laptop, found her Facebook profile and then took note of all of her friends on the social networking site.”

“The Net Delusion” also describes the different ways that oppressive regimes use social media platforms to subvert opposition groups. One end of that spectrum is represented by China, who immediately hacks, dismantles or otherwise destroys subversive websites. The government of China, according to Movozov, exerts an iron grip in controlling the Internet use of its citizens. They follow what he calls the “four hour rule.”

“In China, if a subversive website is discovered by the government within four hours of its creation, it is taken down,” Morozov said. “If they can’t get to it that quickly, however, they find it becomes more effective to discredit the website.”

According to Morozov, countries like Iran prefer a more subtle approach. They infiltrate Facebook groups, use social media as a means of intelligence gathering and even outright subversion.

“These regimes sometimes go as far as posting information for a protest to an opposition group Facebook page,” Morozov said. “Then they just arrest everyone who shows up.”

Technology, Morozov argues in his book, is merely a tool. The landscape of revolution remains the same, and social media are merely a means toward achieving the same things that have always been achieved.

“Autocratic governments are not afraid of social media,” Morozov said. “What they are afraid of are organized youth movements, funded by western governments. That is what’s most threatening to their systems of oppression. Social media does have the potential to organize opposition groups, but it has equal potential to be used against them. Overall, I think the role of social media and technology in revolutionary movements has been really overstated.”

With investigative journalism, spirited storytelling and an expert knowledge of both politics and technology, Evgeny Morozov deftly dissects many commonly accepted notions of the impact of social media on the world’s political stage. It is a bold work that stands at the absolute frontier of new media research, and it not only takes us to the brink, but also shouts bold proclamations into the void. ?