Digital Myth: Internet Brings Democracy

Digital Myths: #14 – The Internet does not bring democracy, but it’s a great sound bite for business.

Democratization: on the one hand, it can be the process of making privilege more accessible, like how we say that now that anyone can upload videos to the Internet, video distribution has been democratized. On the other hand, it can also mean the actual process of changing the political system of an authoritarian state into democracy. The two may not be very closely connected but the thought may be appealing: technology empowers the people and as a consequence the system changes. This is a favourite theme in tech-spin. Some examples: encryption technology TOR is broadcast as a tool for dissidents planning revolution, funded mainly by the US government, except the most popular use is probably rather to hide criminal or infringing traffic with no more revolutionary purpose than perhaps to order recreational drugs or download pirate content. Visitors to North Korea are supposedly required to surrender their smartphones at customs in order for the regime to control the flow of information. And of course the idea that the Arab Spring was brought by social media, as if the technology itself brought the revolution.

With some perspective on the Arab Spring, it is clear that social media is not enough to change the political system. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman conceded in a February 2016 op-ed that his optimism for technology and the Egyptian revolution had turned and that social media is now more a tool for repression, surveillance and misinformation than a force of progress. His point is that while technology can be a tool, it can’t on its own create a viable option for a government system. While the 2011 events in Tahrir Square succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and brought the Muslim Brotherhood to office, now the military is back in power and the people are as oppressed as ever.

Social media can be a tool for counter-revolution, disinformation and propaganda.

One who knows this better than most is Mariam Kirollos, an Egyptian-born human rights activist who used to live in Cairo and participated in the protests. I got to know Kirollos in 2012 when she wrote a chapter on the role of social media in the Arab Spring for a book I was involved in*. She explained a majority of the people in Egypt are illiterate, let alone have internet access or Twitter accounts. When they demanded bread, freedom and social justice, risking their safety and even lives, technology had little or nothing to do with it. ‘We don’t talk about poster or flyer revolutions in the past,’ says Kirollos. ‘Twitter was just a medium.’ It should have come as no surprise. In his 2010 book The Net Delusion (Public Affairs), Evgeny Morozov points out that the internet companies of today have little in common with the likes of Cold War-era Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. While the latter were set up with the single purpose of promoting democracy (call it propaganda if you will), the first loyalty of the Googles and Facebooks and Twitters of the world is to their shareholders rather than liberal values. Predictably, any dictator worth his salt will use social media for disinformation these days.

But not only do tech companies not in fact promote democracy, they sometimes actively assist the despots. That’s right. When the European Union foreign ministers wanted to embargo exports of telecoms equipment in 2011, Sweden vetoed two Syrian carriers who were clients of Ericsson, the network technology manufacturer. Syrian opposition spokespeople claimed the technology was used by the al-Assad regime to identify mobile phone subscribers in protest rallies. The Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said it was important for the opposition that the telecoms network continued to function. Not a Swedish phenomenon by any standards, in 2012 French daily La Croix revealed national telecoms company France Telecom as having supported the Ethiopian regime with deep packet inspection technology which can be used to monitor, hunt down and arrest dissidents.

Social media can be a tool for counter-revolution, disinformation and propaganda. Telecoms networks can be used for surveillance. There is no reason to believe that technology is a positive force for democracy. It’s a myth and perhaps the most dangerous myth in this book because if we believe it, it may delay or hinder actual democratization and hurt individuals in the process.

* Myten om internet (Volante 2012, anthology, Swedish, editors Snickars and Strömbäck)

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.