NEAL CONAN, host:
Like the shortwave broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and the Xeroxed samizdats of the Cold War, many hail the Internet as a force for liberation, a tool to challenge the censorship and repression of authoritarian regimes.
In 2009, Iranian protesters tweeted, blogged and emailed cell phone videos of violence which prompted some to declare the victory of social media revolution. That hope, says Evgeny Morozov, has failed to materialize. The revolution, he says, will not be Twittered, but the next authoritarian crackdown might be and not in the way we might hope.
We want to hear from you. Do you think social media can change the world? Have you seen evidence of that? 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, now a visiting scholar at Stanford. His new book is "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." And he's joined us here in Studio 3-A.
Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. EVGENY MOROZOV (Author, "The Net Delusion"): Hi, glad to be here.
CONAN: And you used to be in the other camp. What made you change your mind?
Mr. MOROZOV: Well, you know, I never actually doubted that the Internet is important and that social media is important, and, of course, they are changing the world. Just the more I started looking into this matter, the more I realized that the change was not always positive. So, yes, they are affecting the world, but it also looks like that the other side, the authoritarian governments, are getting empowered as well, whether it's little surveillance, them tracking down what's happening on social networks, trying to identify who all of those people tweeting, whether it's through creation of propaganda.
We are seeing a lot of these regimes go online and start creating blog posts and Twitters and even tweets and even higher bloggers that actually, you know, push their messages.
And there is, of course, in another separate layer of censorship which we get to hear about much more often than propaganda or surveillance. And all of that taken together, I think, we actually - empowers the other side much more than it does the social, you know, the social movements and the dissidents and the human rights activists.
CONAN: I guess the first time we heard about this idea that the Net would set us free was Moldova. This was, you know, part of the old Eastern bloc, and that was the first time we heard that people were blogging and tweeting and trying to organize protests against the government by use of the Internet.
Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm. Well, that's - I mean, even before that, we heard a lot of, you know, positive news about the use of the media in Kenya and Burma and -I mean, so it does extend much further than Moldova. I think Moldova was the case with Twitter. It really came to prominence and the label of Twitter revolution became really prominent.
I was actually one of the people who thought that Twitter was playing a much greater role in facilitating the protests than it actually turned out to be. As it happened, there was still a lot of networks which are analog which are not visible. Those are human networks, so, you know, protesters talking to each other on the phone were just talking to each other in real life and actually encouraging each other to appear on the square.
And, of course, the only thing we can see is the digital networks. It's the Twitter messages and the Facebook messages, and, of course, it is this tendency to attribute everything that happens to the Internet as opposed to this other analog stuff which is invisible.
CONAN: During the - after the Iranian presidential election, a lot of reporters were thrown out of the country, many more were denied permission to go in the first place, much of the news that came out, including the famous video of a woman being shot to death, was provided by, well, Twitter, emailed cell phone videos, that sort of thing.
Mr. MOROZOV: Of course, I mean, social media does play a great role in facilitating access to information and then trying to picture what's actually happening in aggressive environments like Burma or Iran.
On the other hand, what we have seen happening around after the elections was the Iran government actually collecting all the emails, all the Twitter messages, all the Facebook posts, analyzing them and often even going after the people whose names were mentioned. They actually posted a lot of photos from the square to a government news website. And they actually ask people to start identifying who are those protesters. And they went and arrested many of them.
So of course the visible stuff, the stuff that does get into the media during the protest is, of course, you know, the dying Neda on the pavement of Iran. All of the stuff that happens after the election, when the government actually goes after many of those protesters using social media and using some of the technology provided to Iran by Western companies like Nokia, Siemens and many others, all of that gets far less coverage. And I think that's something that needs to be corrected. We do need to see the darker side as well.
CONAN: What do you take from as the lesson of the experience of Google in China, where at one point it was going to leave the country because, well, it was being subjected to censorship?
Mr. MOROZOV: I think Google's entrance into China was a typical utopian undertaking, where they basically thought that giving people access to information will transform the Chinese state. And they thought that they were playing a positive role.
However, I think they underestimated the enemy they were facing. And the Chinese government proved much more sophisticated, launching cyber-attacks on the inboxes and mailboxes of human rights activists, of constantly pressuring Google to do more and more censorship. In a sense, Google struck a deal with a party which doesn't want to adhere to the terms. So the Chinese government kept adding more and more demands, at some point making it very uncomfortable for Google to stay in the country.
What I think happened is that Google (unintelligible) use this occasion to change slightly its presence in China. I mean, they're still doing business there. They're still selling ads. I think what they really managed to do was to get the U.S. government behind it and get a better leverage position. And, you know, they actually did that just a few weeks before Hillary Clinton made a very important Internet freedom speech. And those issues became, you know, connected. And I think the fact that Washington got involved really helped Google to stay in China and still continue selling business, selling ads.
CONAN: We're talking about the role of the Internet, social media and the free flow of information in reducing the control of authoritarian governments with Evgeny Morozov. His new book is "The Net Delusion." 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
Let's go to Taylor(ph). Taylor with us from Fort Dodge in Iowa.
TAYLOR (Caller): Hello. How are you doing today?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you.
TAYLOR: Well, great. Yeah, I think that we're going to continue to see a lot of changes that are coming from social media on the Internet. I'm a teacher at a community college. I teach sustainable energy. And I've just that amaze that the number of farm kids out here in Iowa that are aware of so many different issues that you just don't hear about on TV, like the growing demand for oil that we're seeing from China and India. I've got students that are aware of the fact that the United States increases its oil consumption by about five percent a year, and we've been doing that for a long time. But now China and India are growing with their consumption about 30 percent a year.
And students are coming out of the cornfields of Iowa here wanting to get degrees in sustainable energy to be able to kind of ride the wave of the growing changes that we're going to see in the future. You know, just all kinds of crazy ideas that people pick up from the Internet.
CONAN: You might want to update your information on U.S. consumption of oil. But anyway, the - that's an example of the use of the Internet, Evgeny Morozov, in an atmosphere where it's not being repressed.
Mr. MOROZOV: Sure. But I mean, I do not challenge the view that the Internet has increased access to information. And there are definitely many more of these sources, news articles, textbooks, that are available to people in both China and Russia, Iran, but also in democracies(ph).
What I think we have to also remember is that access does not always translate into increased demand or interest. So what's happening in places like Russia or China is that most of the users, most of the young users who are online, are actually using the (unintelligible) to either communicate with each other, chat - you know, pornography still plays a very big role, and most of the downloads are downloads of email porn films as opposed to reports from Human Rights Watch.
And I think we tend to idealize many of these people and think that what they are doing is some kind of dissent, akin to what the, you know, Soviet dissidents were doing. And often it's actually - it's the opposite, it's getting disengaged from politics and trying to find entertainment, which is very much demanded in many of these authoritarian states, which are pretty boring places to live in. And as - I come from one. I come from Belarus. So I can actually attest that the entertainment is one of the key demanded things online.
CONAN: And subversive too (unintelligible)...
Mr. MOROZOV: Often it is. Often it's not. To me the key question is, how does it affect existing political movements that are pushing for change? And for many of them, it has become difficult to reach out to many of these young people who have more or less created a parallel universe online. And they are completely disengaged from the (unintelligible) political processes.
CONAN: Let's go next to Asia(ph), and Asia with us from Ripon in Wisconsin.
ASIA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
ASIA: So one of my concerns, though, just talking about this, is what about people who are even more impoverished than we think of people in, like, China or Iran, that don't even have access to these technologies? And then, I mean, they don't even pop up on the radar. So we're still only talking about people who have access to social media, who are in emerging economies. But what about those who are in undeveloped economies? And then, even should certain things that facilitate social media be there, like, for instance, the fact that certain cell phone companies are exploiting Africans in certain African countries to mine the materials for their batteries and things, do we - all the social implications of even have social - having social media or the tools that facilitate it in certain countries just seems kind of wrong to me.
CONAN: I wonder what you think, Evgeny Morozov.
Mr. MOROZOV: Well, I think that it's certainly a problem of access. I think it is getting better, and mobile phones have played a role in facilitating access to information, but also, you know, to facilitating access to trade and banking and many other - health care - many other services.
However, I think we also have to remember that there are existing social and political and cultural practices in many of these countries which may not necessarily be contributing to democracy. Now, bribery is one, for example. In Kenya, what we are seeing is local policemen are actually using mobile banking to hide the bribes that they receive from the drivers that they stop on the roads.
So, you know, we have to consider the impact of social media through the lens of existing social and cultural processes and then see how each of them will be affected. Yes, people will get access to mobile banking, and it will help many of them, but also, you know, the darker forces will get empowered as well. And in many cases they will be empowered disproportionately, thus making it less likely that democracy will prevail in the long run.
CONAN: I think Asia was adding to the dark side by saying...
Mr. MOROZOV: Sure.
CONAN: ...there's also a lot of Africans have to work at very low wages to mine (unintelligible) and other...
Mr. MOROZOV: That's absolutely happening. And it's, you know, and we do need to push more Internet and technology companies to sign up to principles of corporate social responsibility. And many of them still avoid signing up to any treaty, saying that technologies are political and what they do has no bearings on social, political, cultural problems of today.
CONAN: Including Facebook.
Mr. MOROZOV: Including - Facebook especially.
CONAN: Asia, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it. And Evgeny Morozov, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. MOROZOV: Thanks so much.
CONAN: Evgeny Morozov's book is "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." And he joined us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.