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TED and Reddit interview Evgeny Morozov

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Evgeny Morozov Ask Anything

Today, Internet scientist Evgeny Morozov answers questions from the latest Reddit-powered, TED community-driven interview. Enjoy!

rras asks: Do I see any novel and telling reactions and counter-reactions from individuals or groups in response to governments’ manipulation efforts?

Digital activism is only possible because creative and tech-savvy activists are usually one step ahead of authorities. Part of my thesis has been that authorities are getting more and more sophisticated, which makes the lives of digital activists much more difficult (and much less secure). Chances are that we’ll only know about the most secure and effective means of communication and activism once they have stopped being effective; once they jump the shark, they essentially become useless to activists because authorities are keeping a close eye on them as well. This is why I have been so skeptical about the ability of Twitter and Facebook to bring change to authoritarian regimes — they are simply too visible and well-known; chances are, secret services have already developed data mining tools to figure out what’s going on there.

That said, I should also point out that my good friend Ethan Zuckerman has a different theory: uber-popular sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter also make it easier for digital activists to conceal their real activities in the never-ending stream of cat pictures and funny videos (that’s what Zuckerman calls “Cute Cat Theory“). There are some striking examples confirming this hunch: Iranian activists, for example, have once been very active on GoodReads, a social network for book-lovers, where they have carved up space for their political discussions — and their activists have gone unnoticed to the Iranian regime (after all, they can’t be suspicious about every single site, and a network for book lovers sounds innocent enough even by their standards).

On the broader question of fighting manipulation, there are definitely efforts to collect and publicize lists of bloggers/usernames that might be cooperating with the regime or advancing its talking points. This is fairly ineffective: all it takes is to set up a new account (that’s a bit more problematic for bloggers with established reputations, though, so there are instances when such tactics can be effective). The larger issue here is that those who usually blog/campaign against the government can easily be labeled as “agents of the West” — and there is usually plenty of evidence to support that claim (some anti-government bloggers/digital activists in places like China or Russia or Iran cooperate with various NGOs, attend seminars held by US embassies, etc — and all of that often looks suspicious to their enemies). So the other side — the pro-Western, secular, democracy-loving activists — can be seen as agents of “manipulation” as well. It’s definitely not a one-way street.

silverwater asks: How do we combat anti-critical thinking online and get people out of the bubbles that they form online?

The question about online bubbles is a tricky one. One man’s bubble is another man’s “issue group.” Political scientists have long debated when and how exactly deliberation ends and participation starts; the role that the Internet plays in this is still very poorly understood. It’s certainly true that many social movements would rather not permit too much critical thinking among their members, simply because these movements emerged to fight for achieving a particular goal (e.g., it’s hard to imagine the pro-choice movement pausing to reconsider a new passage from the Bible every time they get criticized for their views).

That said, I do believe that there are many people — they may as well be in the majority — who have not yet fully made up their minds about certain issues — or they could be easily swayed from their current positions by new evidence. It is certainly possible that the proliferation of social networks and blogs may help us cling to the positions we are already likely to embrace (much along the lines of what Cass Sunstein has argued in his book Whenever you try to apply that view in the authoritarian context, reasoning gets even trickier, for their citizens’ other choices are state-controlled media like television or newspapers; it’s not at all clear whether allowing for greater polarization in online discussions is much worse than having people get brainwashed on a daily basis.

Getting people out of their bubbles and exposing them to new information (that they either don’t know or that can significantly challenge their views) is essentially a question of how to engineer serendipity. Random surfing offered by sites like StumbleUpon offers one elegant approach to this. However, I think that many of those who have struggled with “engineering serendipity” in the past have eventually discovered that they need some past data to make a good prediction as to what may be considered “new” or “fresh” by a given user. Thus, they essentially recognize that they need past browsing histories — preferably with some indication of what is liked and what is disliked — to make a good prediction about what to serve next. However, if you look at this really closely, it does look like the good-old bubble: you are, of course, discovering new stuff, but this stuff is served to you because you already liked something. But, again, we are only beginning to experiment with such systems — and there are many new and very powerful players here (Netflix is definitely one of them).

Iwan_Berry asks: Could the Internet become a dictatorship of its own?

I doubt it. It’s far too decentralized and disorganized — by set-up — to become a dictatorship. It might have been possible if the ultimate dream of cyber-utopians — that the Internet would, indeed, become the Global Village, envisioned by McLuhan — were to come true, but I don’t think we are anywhere near that. Besides, even the problems of spin that I outlined in my talk are probably solvable in the long run. Just think about it: with all the money that advertising and marketing companies had to spend on “search engine optimization,” they still didn’t defeat Google, and it continues serving quite decent search results (there are of course, exceptions, where political pressures force Google into tinkering with them — like the situation with China — but it’s a problem of politics, not technology).

What I am much more concerned about is that more and more authoritarian governments realize that Internet governance is a strategic field, where they need to be present. As ICANN gets democratized (i.e., the US loses control over it), it’s not all guaranteed that the Chinese or Russian interests wouldn’t prevail there. Some of them may be benign but some may call for more pervasive surveillance and monitoring. That’s what scares me much, much more than the possibility of “Internet dictatorship” per se.

00boyina asks: During the Iranian election crisis, many in America and other parts of the West tried to shut down Iranian government websites with denial-of-service attacks. Do you think there is any value in this tactic?

In my opinion, this was one of those examples where good intentions backfired badly. First, I find it hard to believe that the Iranian government wouldn’t figure out a way to get their messages heard if they really wanted it; in the worst-case scenario, they would just set up a blog account on any of the popular and free blogging services. Would “hacktivists” also be breaking into those?

Second, my understanding of the situation — after talking to several Internet experts — is that the attacks against the Iranian government’s websites also significantly slowed down the Internet speeds for other Iranians. In practice, this means that ordinary Iranians protesting in the streets potentially had difficulties uploading their photos and videos to the Internet or communicating with each other.

Third — and I think most important of all — now the use of cyber-attacks for political purposes has been completely legitimized. I am not aware of any legal action taken by the Department of Justice or the FBI or any other agency against those who were planning and executing attacks on the Iranian targets. Well, fine; they probably thought it was “hacktivism” and they had the right to express themselves. But it would be impossible to, for example, hold Russia responsible for not going after its own hackers after Georgia or Estonia get attacked next. Furthermore, it would be impossible for the US to claim any higher moral ground here. So, all in all, I think cyber-attacks on Iranian targets were a very bad idea — and I am sure we’ll be dealing with its consequences in the month to come.

S2S2S2S2S2 asks: Do you feel optimistic about the future of democracy or do you feel technical society will erode it?

If you look at it from a global perspective, of course, I agree that the world is more “democratic” than it was 20 years ago — no matter what we mean by “democratic.” It’s also certainly more prosperous. I think it would be silly to challenge either of those assumptions, simply because the evidence proves it rather conclusively.

Now, the real question here is whether the world is as democratic today as we expected after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From where I stand, this is a “no” and it’s important to investigate why. That’s where the embrace of technology and new media by authoritarian regime kicks in. I think that the ruptures we are seeing in the fabric of most authoritarian states are not caused by technology; they are caused by globalization. Whether states would be able to use technology to patch those ruptures is a very challenging question; personally, I’d say there is a very high chance they’ll succeed, at least in the short term. Undoubtedly, some regimes will fall — but not all of them, and perhaps fewer of them than we think.

What I think would happen is that more and more regimes will gravitate towards the Singaporean model, where they will be able to guarantee prosperity for their citizens, but the price for it would be set too high, at least in terms of civil liberties and freedom of expression. Most Russians and Chinese would probably be fine with it; I agree it’s definitely better than the regimes they had 20 or 30 years ago. Will they be like model liberal democracies like those in North America or Western Europe? Probably not — and it may have been naive to expect so in the first place.

supercargo asks: Is there still value in the connections people can make across national boundaries that are enabled by the global interconnectedness the Internet provides?

Well, in theory, of course, there is value in these connections — it would be silly to say no. Today we confront “the other” on a daily basis — they stare at us from their blogs and Facebook profiles. It’s never been easier to know what it’s like to live another life: you don’t have to turn to novels for this; blogs are enough. For the cosmopolitans among us, the Web has provided a never-ending supply of foreign trivia and fetish. But does it mean we’ll suddenly become more tolerant and put an end to all violence around us? I really doubt it. We do not firmly know much about the impact of living in a multi-ethnic community in real life; recent research by Robert Putnam attracted controversy because it suggested that living in a multi-ethnic and diverse community may not necessarily create more trust. I simply do not know how this dynamic will play out in cyberspace; occasionally I do notice spikes in online populism and extremisms — particularly in Eastern Europe — so I am not sure that the Internet will make nationalism “as rare as smallpox,” to quote Nicholas Negroponte.

Besides, watching the “other” — particularly if that “other” is much richer and successful — may also augment the sense of class and ethnic hatred, particularly in our globalized times, when transnational elites have much more in common with each other than they do with their less fortunate fellow citizens. I am pretty sure that radicalized Islamists view Paris Hilton’s Facebook page as the ultimate proof that Western civilization is in decline. I doubt it’s going to make they any more tolerant of our lifestyle.

digitalbuddah asks: What steps can we, the people, take to protect our freedom of expression from being oppressed by a flood of deceitful, malicious, contrived information among social networks, blog comments, blogs, tweets and other outlets of expression?

I do hope that technology will also help to deal with this. Look, for example, at the initiative to color-code Wikipedia entries based on trust (changes that are made by trusted editors will be marked in green; those made by “newbies” will be marked in red, for example). That’s a great system that will give us extra visual cues when browsing this excellent online reference source. I was glad to hear that the Wikipedia community may soon be rolling it out on an experimental basis; I have kept a close eye on that technology for two years now. I do think that more and more communities should be adopting similar ways of locating and visualizing “trust” within their communities.

That said, we should also make sure that we still provide enough space for anonymous contributions. From my own experience I know that people who have something important and controversial to say would rather remain anonymous — and ensure that their online actions cannot be easily “collected” into a profile that can then be assigned a “trust-grade.” That’s the reason why the “spinternet” exists in those states: you can’t have a productive conversation simply based on user reputations: those reputations by default have to remain fluid, if those who possess them do not want to get caught for their dissenting views … I do not expect that tension to go away anytime soon.

dijon asks: Do you think that the problems cited about the democratic nature of the Internet are specific to it, or [are] in fact necessary flaws in democracy as a general concept?

Many of the problems — propaganda and censorship, for example — are not specific to the Internet; they are problems that are inherent to any medium and any space. The Internet, however, certainly amplifies many of them and adds a few idiosyncratic features of its own. Also, I think that these problems tend to be much less important in societies that are already democratic: yes, propaganda and censorship exist even in the US or the UK, but they are not viewed as serious problems the way they are viewed in China or Iran.

There are constant concerns about the undemocratic nature of Wikipedia, Digg, Reddit, too; of course, it’s true that its top users have much more influence than their regular users — but I am not sure that any of these websites would ever be possible if they operated on a “one person/one vote” principle, simply because this would leave many of their top users without any incentives to contribute as actively as they do now. So, lack of democracy on these sites may as well be justified, especially given that anyone can quickly advance to the position of a “top user.”

These largely theoretical debates do not really bother me. I am much more concerned with the fact that many of these sites — or local sites inspired by them — can be used by authoritarian governments to air their talking points but wrap them in the rhetoric of “participatory social media,” thus making them look more credible.

annakarmaz asks: What sort of initiatives can empower civil society groups to address the use of the Internet by repressive regimes?

Even though I’ve been critical of how much attention (and money) is spent on fighting online censorship (as opposed to other, more subtle forms of manipulation), I do believe that developing better, faster and more secure anti-censorship and anti-filtering tools is probably the best way to spend one’s time and money. This is not going to solve all problems, but it will solve the small problem: getting secure and unfiltered Internet access to activists and NGOs on the ground. We’ll still have to deal with the problem of how to ensure that the Internet actually amplifies rather than extirpates activist urges among those who are not yet activists. This is really a one-million-dollar question — and I do not yet have a simple answer to it.

One well-tested way of doing this is to ensure people have access to free educational resources — and I think the Internet could play a significant role here. This is, of course, based on a very utopian view that exposing people to new ideas, knowledge and skills would eventually result in them deciding to fight for human rights and democracy. The other option is that they would actually learn all the skills, join a state-owned oil company, and have a carefree upper middle-class existence. But I do not really think that it’s a question of tools or the Internet; it’s a question to be decided by much broader social forces, which civil society could try to influence, whether via the Internet or through some other means.

PuP5 asks: Are you proposing that, on aggregate, the bad resulting from dictators’ manipulation of the medium outweighs the good resulting in the empowering of citizen-to-citizen communication? If not, then what’s your point?

No, I am not proposing this. I do agree that there is much good that the Internet unleashed, especially in cultural spaces. Even citizens of authoritarian states now have the option of living much richer cultural lives than they could 20 years ago. To a lesser extent, the same conclusions apply to commerce and opportunities for professional development. My point is that authoritarian regimes are evolving — partly under the pressure of cheaper communications, and partly under the pressure of globalization — and much of that change is, probably, for the better.

However, we should not confuse this evolution with the arrival of Western-style democracy, which may, in fact, never arrive. (Francis Fukayama‘s predictions about the “end of history” have never been more wrong than now.) Besides, I don’t like the juxtaposition of “governments vs. citizens.” Suppose that authoritarian governments didn’t do anything online, not even censorship: would their citizens suddenly revolt simply because they had access to Wikipedia’s articles about human rights abuses? I am not so sure. How do we know they’ll actually go for those articles rather than spend their days playing video games or catching up on Western movies? We used to have similar debates about television: Of course, TV can be good for education because there is the History Channel on it, but would you really give your kids unfettered access to it — hoping they will amass tons of knowledge about the Roman Empire on their own?

I think we need to go beyond the simplistic assumptions that simply because the Internet provides the option of “citizen-to-citizen” communication, most citizens would take advantage of it. This idea is wrong, in part, because it assumes a very high degree of familiarity with how democracy works, and what the role of a citizen is in the process. That’s almost never the case in most authoritarian states.

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