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Evgeny Morozov at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 3

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Evgeny Morozov is a member of the illustrious group of TED Fellows and hails from the former Soviet republic of Belarus. He explains that it’s not exactly a liberal democracy, so he’s always been fascinated with democracy and how that intersects with media. Lately, there’s been a lot of hope placed in new media’s role in promoting democracy, but Morozov says dictatorships do not crumble so easily. Some, he asserts, have survived the Internet challenge and even become more impressive.

Morozov left his job to study how the Internet can impede democratization. He says there is bad logic underlying some of the more hopeful new media prediction. One of the classic mistakes he says, takes the form of “iPod liberalism.” This is the assumption that every Iranian and Chinese person that happens to love their iPod will also love liberal democracy. We confuse the intended users with the actual users of technology, as quite often they are the ones spreading propaganda.

Sometimes, Morozov says, governments pay bloggers to make ideologically charged comments. He gives the example of a case in China that he calls “Elude the Cat.” In this tragic situation, a 40-year-old man died in prison and officers said that he had been playing hide and seek with fellow inmates and hit his head. This did not sit well with Chinese bloggers. But, instead of censoring, the government reached out to bloggers and asked them to become investigators, to see the site and then blog about it. Within days, the incident was forgotten.

Morozov also points out that these dictators usually operate in an information vacuum, but that now they can go online and see what’s happening in the country. In recent events in Iran, the government was able to gather open-source intelligence. They now know how activists connect to each other by looking at their Facebook pages. The KGB used to torture people for this information, he notes.

He also says that we must consider cyber-activism versus cyber-hedonism. For every digital renegade, he thinks there at least two digital captives doing nothing but playing World of Warcraft. The Internet usually plays a social role but, according to Morozov, not necessarily one that leads to social engagement. People may just be using it to view pornography, Sex and the City or funny videos of cats. Instead, we have to think about ways we can empower dissidents and NGOs in real ways.

Photo: Evgeny Morozov at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 3: “Connected consequences,” July 22, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson