Evgeny Morozov: How the Internet strengthens dictatorships

Evgeny Morozov: How the Internet strengthens dictatorships

Good morning. I think, as a grumpy Eastern European, I was brought in to play the pessimist this morning. So bear with me. Well, I come from the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, which, as some of you may know, is not exactly an oasis of liberal democracy. So that’s why I’ve always been fascinated with how technology could actually reshape and open up authoritarian societies like ours. So, I’m graduating college and, feeling very idealistic, I decided to join the NGO which actually was using new media to promote democracy and media reform in much of the former Soviet Union. However, to my surprise, I discovered that dictatorships do not crumble so easily. In fact, some of them actually survived the Internet challenge, and some got even more repressive. So this is when I ran out of my idealism and decided to quit my NGO job and actually study how the Internet could impede democratization. Now, I must tell you that this was never a very popular argument, and it’s probably not very popular yet with some of you sitting in this audience. It was never popular with many political leaders, especially those in the United States who somehow thought that new media would be able to do what missiles couldn’t. That is, promote democracy in difficult places where everything else has already been tried and failed. And I think by 2009, this news has finally reached Britain, so I should probably add Gordon Brown to this list as well. However, there is an underlying argument about logistics, which has driven so much of this debate. Right? So if you look at it close enough, you’ll actually see that much of this is about economics. The cybertopians say, much like fax machines and Xerox machines did in the ’80s, blogs and social networks have radically transformed the economics of protest, so people would inevitably rebel. To put it very simply, the assumption so far has been that if you give people enough connectivity, if you give them enough devices, democracy will inevitably follow. And to tell you the truth, I never really bought into this argument, in part because I never saw three American presidents agree on anything else in the past. (Laughter) But, you know, even beyond that, if you think about the logic underlying it, is something I call iPod liberalism, where we assume that every single Iranian or Chinese who happens to have and love his iPod will also love liberal democracy. And again, I think this is kind of false. But I think a much bigger problem with this is that this logic — that we should be dropping iPods not bombs — I mean, it would make a fascinating title for Thomas Friedman’s new book. (Laughter) But this is rarely a good sign. Right? So, the bigger problem with this logic is that it confuses the intended versus the actual uses of technology. For those of you who think that new media of the Internet could somehow help us avert genocide, should look no further than Rwanda, where in the ’90s it was actually two radio stations which were responsible for fueling much of the ethnic hatred in the first place. But even beyond that, coming back to the Internet, what you can actually see is that certain governments have mastered the use of cyberspace for propaganda purposes. Right? And they are building what I call the Spinternet. The combination of spin, on the one hand, and the Internet on the other. So governments from Russia to China to Iran are actually hiring, training and paying bloggers in order to leave ideological comments and create a lot of ideological blog posts to comment on sensitive political issues. Right? So you may wonder, why on Earth are they doing it? Why are they engaging with cyberspace? Well my theory is that it’s happening because censorship actually is less effective than you think it is in many of those places. The moment you put something critical in a blog, even if you manage to ban it immediately, it will still spread around thousands and thousands of other blogs. So the more you block it, the more it emboldens people to actually avoid the censorship and thus win in this cat-and-mouse game. So the only way to control this message is actually to try to spin it and accuse anyone who has written something critical of being, for example, a CIA agent. And, again, this is happening quite often. Just to give you an example of how it works in China, for example. There was a big case in February 2009 called “Elude the Cat.” And for those of you who didn’t know, I’ll just give a little summary. So what happened is that a 24-year-old man, a Chinese man, died in prison custody. And police said that it happened because he was playing hide and seek, which is “elude the cat” in Chinese slang, with other inmates and hit his head against the wall, which was not an explanation which sat well with many Chinese bloggers. So they immediately began posting a lot of critical comments. In fact, QQ.com, which is a popular Chinese website, had 35,000 comments on this issue within hours. But then authorities did something very smart. Instead of trying to purge these comments, they instead went and reached out to the bloggers. And they basically said, “Look guys. We’d like you to become netizen investigators.” So 500 people applied, and four were selected to actually go and tour the facility in question, and thus inspect it and then blog about it. Within days the entire incident was forgotten, which would have never happened if they simply tried to block the content. People would keep talking about it for weeks. And this actually fits with another interesting theory about what’s happening in authoritarian states and in their cyberspace. This is what political scientists call authoritarian deliberation, and it happens when governments are actually reaching out to their critics and letting them engage with each other online. We tend to think that somehow this is going to harm these dictatorships, but in many cases it only strengthens them. And you may wonder why. I’ll just give you a very short list of reasons why authoritarian deliberation may actually help the dictators. And first it’s quite simple. Most of them operate in a complete information vacuum. They don’t really have the data they need in order to identify emerging threats facing the regime. So encouraging people to actually go online and share information and data on blogs and wikis is great because otherwise, low level apparatchiks and bureaucrats will continue concealing what’s actually happening in the country, right? So from this perspective, having blogs and wikis produce knowledge has been great. Secondly, involving public in any decision making is also great because it helps you to share the blame for the policies which eventually fail. Because they say, “Well look, we asked you, we consulted you, you voted on it. You put it on the front page of your blog. Well, great. You are the one who is to blame.” And finally, the purpose of any authoritarian deliberation efforts is usually to increase the legitimacy of the regimes, both at home and abroad. So inviting people to all sorts of public forums, having them participate in decision making, it’s actually great. Because what happens is that then you can actually point to this initiative and say, “Well, we are having a democracy. We are having a forum.” Just to give you an example, one of the Russian regions, for example, now involves its citizens in planning its strategy up until year 2020. Right? So they can go online and contribute ideas on what that region would look like by the year 2020. I mean, anyone who has been to Russia would know that there was no planning in Russia for the next month. So having people involved in planning for 2020 is not necessarily going to change anything, because the dictators are still the ones who control the agenda. Just to give you an example from Iran, we all heard about the Twitter revolution that happened there, but if you look close enough, you’ll actually see that many of the networks and blogs and Twitter and Facebook were actually operational. They may have become slower, but the activists could still access it and actually argue that having access to them is actually great for many authoritarian states. And it’s great simply because they can gather open source intelligence. In the past it would take you weeks, if not months, to identify how Iranian activists connect to each other. Now you actually know how they connect to each other by looking at their Facebook page. I mean KGB, and not just KGB, used to torture in order to actually get this data. Now it’s all available online. (Laughter) But I think the biggest conceptual pitfall that cybertopians made is when it comes to digital natives, people who have grown up online. We often hear about cyber activism, how people are getting more active because of the Internet. Rarely hear about cyber hedonism, for example, how people are becoming passive. Why? Because they somehow assume that the Internet is going to be the catalyst of change that will push young people into the streets, while in fact it may actually be the new opium for the masses which will keep the same people in their rooms downloading pornography. That’s not an option being considered too strongly. So for every digital renegade that is revolting in the streets of Tehran, there may as well be two digital captives who are actually rebelling only in the World of Warcraft. And this is realistic. And there is nothing wrong about it because the Internet has greatly empowered many of these young people and it plays a completely different social role for them. If you look at some of the surveys on how the young people actually benefit from the Internet, you’ll see that the number of teenagers in China, for example, for whom the Internet actually broadens their sex life, is three times more than in the United States. So it does play a social role, however it may not necessarily lead to political engagement. So the way I tend to think of it is like a hierarchy of cyber-needs in space, a total rip-off from Abraham Maslow. But the point here is that when we get the remote Russian village online, what will get people to the Internet is not going to be the reports from Human Rights Watch. It’s going to be pornography, “Sex and the City,” or maybe watching funny videos of cats. So this is something you have to recognize. So what should we do about it? Well I say we have to stop thinking about the number of iPods per capita and start thinking about ways in which we can empower intellectuals, dissidents, NGOs and then the members of civil society. Because even what has been happening up ’til now with the Spinternet and authoritarian deliberation, there is a great chance that those voices will not be heard. So I think we should shatter some of our utopian assumptions and actually start doing something about it. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts to “Evgeny Morozov: How the Internet strengthens dictatorships”

  1. I don't think humanity is smart enough to overcome our humanity.

    we are biological machines designed to consume and reproduce. The majority of 'thinking' that is being done by our brains is merely scheming on how to better consume and satisfy ourselves.

  2. interesting the ad in 4:05 is actually an advert for Tencent QQ and has nothing to do with government and it's the website mentioned in 5:53.

  3. Sooo… the freedom given to the people, is bad because of what they do with it, so this strengthens dictatorships. So cyber freedom will replace real freedom via cyber Opioum? I do not agree.

    And it is true, internet is not activisim. The question is… should it be?? I do not think so. but does this make it better for the dictatorship??? neither.

  4. Excellent talk – but jeez, I am glad his arms stopped waving around – kind of ironic, considering the subject matter: saying something so important but diluting the message with hand gestures. Perhaps the first step is to send all the intellectuals to Toastmaters. 🙂

  5. Regardless, the internet is still a source of free information for those willing to do their own investigative research.

    Sheep are sheep regardless.

  6. So if it is true that the internet strengthens dictatorships, then logically TED is strengthening dictatorships by posting this talk on Youtube.

  7. Fail logic, he is arguing that the internet is being used as a medium for political propaganda and manipulation of behavior ,not that the usage of internet empowers dictatorships.

  8. Look at Iran, a large percentage of the population twittered for action agains the government, and they have protested but, it will take much more to actually accomplish anything.

  9. It's an undesirable side-effect of a global communication network, not by no means a show stopper. So while it may well be true, it can be disregarded at once, on my opinion.

  10. ultimately it's a good point: genuine individual empowerment is more than just one particular enabling technology… but the internet is a tremendously enabling technology, and surely does more net good than harm.

  11. how this stupid guy appeared on ted ????
    ///we should drop more i-pod than bombs///
    wow , i mean as if he wanted to say , no drop more bombs than i-pod !!!!!

  12. Its so true, look how Israel uses the internet. They are one of the most connected countries and people. They blog falsely, create websites to push their illegal occupation of arab land, change facts and push throught falsied ones.

  13. The internet greatly decreases the transaction cost of communication. That's all, it's not a magic spell of democracy and peace. There is nothing inherent in the internet other than that.

    But never underestimate what people can do when they can communicate.

  14. The internet will bring an intellectual revolution just as the printing press did. Even if governments printed a lot of propaganda, the printing press helped good ideas spread even faster.

  15. in other words if people feel like there is a democracy its really easy to control them. Makes me think of this one country called USA.

  16. Interesting, I kinda agree with this guy. I mean on the surface we all have heard people got fired because of facebook and twitter.
    The intelligence must have jumped ship to the network to gather information, silently. We always think that internet is the place where people win. wait a minute, that can be a wrong assumption. They, the govt and Intels have power, money, controls, and they can easily hire intelligent people who can predict and calculate everything.

  17. At the end of the day, Facebook is owned by a corporation. How do you think it manages to stay up? It is funded by companies who pay to have their ads up. The people don't have any control of the internet at the end of the day.

  18. @Vid

    I watched this.. and maybe its just because he mentioned so many things.. it really didn't seem like he had a point.

    I don't know if he hates the internet or likes it.. or if he was feeding a line of bs.

    I couldn't understand his logic.

  19. just a quick note

    YouTube shouldn't really be at the "HAVE FUN" class on the hierarchy pyramid… as it incorporates all categories on his lil list there… it isn't solely for fun… just nit picking here

  20. The TED slogan above says "ideas worth spreading". There is no evil bit that can tell the internet what ideas are worth, it attempts to spread them all. Dictator's generally don't like competing ideas so will attempt to eradicate them from their part of the internet. Neither the net nor the dictator will be fully successfull but barring a global dictator the net will gain the upper hand. The internet means that dictators can no longer simply smash the presses of those with different ideas.

  21. Ah well, I don't really have time for that; there's probably more than one international computer network (internets), but when that term is used online, in 90% of the cases it is meant as a joke, so, there's a 90% chance that it actually IS funny.

  22. This isn't that great of a point. The benefits to dictators that the internet gives them is most likely outweighed by the potentials for free speech / exchange of ideas. The true reason regimes stand as they do now are the power of modern weapons (and the resulting chasm between military weaponry and public personal weaponry) as well as an international distaste for war. A crappy little dictatorship like N. Korea would be invaded by a superior society 1000 years ago. Today it is allowed to rot.

  23. all of hte modern weapons in the world mean nothing if the people themselves hold an idea strongly enough to overthrow their own governments. propaganda, not weapons, are the most powerful tool of dictators…u sway ppls minds enough and start herding them into a group mentality, any new minority idea/opinion that goes against accepted belief is snuffed by the people themselves (such as the internet being a potential propaganda tool…like he said…an unpopular idea).

  24. people are always stupider than they think they are, the internet is a potential forum for lay ppl to get together and validate eachothers unfounded opinions. you get enough ppl and those ignorant, unfounded opinions become an accepted belief that ppl just fall into.

  25. you're off topic…this isn't about people fighting powerful foreign governments, its about people fighting their own governments…in which case, propaganda and a promotion of disunity are more important tools than weapons are when a dictatorship government deals with its people

    you think a single dictator alone can wield all his weapons and keep everyone in line? he needs a group of people who listen to and believe in him to do it for him…

  26. I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both.
    Thomas Babington Macaulay

  27. It had been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience had proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.
    Alexander Hamilton June 21, 1788

  28. Living in the Middle East, I can definitely say this is true, and not just in Internet, but also in newspapers, books, speeches, and practically all forms of media…

  29. Yes but he now needs a small amount of people to do it with. If England had tanks and apache helicopters in 1776, I don't think history would've turned out the way it did. That is how things are today: governments control massively powerful weaponry while civilians have small arms. A dictator does indeed need others, but very few. A dictator plus about 25% of a country and do damn well.

    Propaganda IS a powerful tool but I believe it hurts the dictator more than it helps.

  30. totalitarian states are known to use way more propaganda then democracies. Because of freedom of speech it is much harder to spread government propaganda. Media is spreading the propaganda in democracies which doesn't benefit government as much.

  31. TYPING WONT CHANGE YOUR MIND! Its when you talk to people face to face where they can actually punch you is when you listen.

  32. its mostly from history (hitler stalin, China) . Some of it is logic. Simply because when you are controlling information then you can spread whatever propaganda you want. when there is free speach you arent only source of information because there is media. Unless goverment limits free speach and owns media (or is has its support) in amounts that is visible in totalitarian countries cannot be achieved.

  33. I think you are very naive.
    It is true that totalitarian regimes advocate propoganda and limit free speach, but propoganda has limited value because no one believes it and the State can enforce its authority though coercion. In ostenibly 'free' societies where corporate and State power has merged, such as the US or Britain, propoganda is far more important. Any impartial review of the US's media coverage of the Iraq wars, Afghanistan, Iran or Palestine will reveal this.
    Turn off your TV.

  34. No one believes in it? Really so people didnt really believe in Hitlers propaganda. For me perfect example is given in the video how government in china controls people and keeps them calm. People believe misinformation in totalitarian systems Hitler himself said "tell a lie make it big repeat it over and over and people will believe it". I do believe that there is no real free speech in USA and that there is propaganda here. I just think it plays even bigger role in totalitarian systems.

  35. I've lived in China, and I heard there the same thing that we hear in these comments — that the West and America looks down on China and only says bad things about it.

    Here's a news flash guys, until China became an economic power in the last decade, we never really thought about China. The CCP demonizes the U.S. to make it seem as though it protects/defends the Chinese people. In reality, it just tells them the U.S. looks down on China, when it really doesn't.

  36. This is a great talk. Internet is a great resource for those who use it. People who were active without the internet will still be active with the internet. People who were not active without the internet will not be active with the internet. I have been using the internet as a source of knowledge for a couple months and it is amazing what i have learned. He also made a great point about activists and networks, i should tell this to the activists I know.


  38. No, he's not right either. Waving your arms can't be right or wrong. It doesn't apply.

    This has nothing to do with culture. This has to do with a bimbo waving his arms around for no reason. I can guarantee you not everyone in his "culture" waves their arms around for no reason.

    Stop pretending like everything anything says about anyone is a racial slur. I hate people like you.

  39. Why is the audio of this video has been edited?
    at minute 4:07 you can pick up mih saying "they r building what I call the spenternet." then there is a "the" that has been added to the audio and then it goes back to normal.
    What is the need of this cut?

  40. @graveyardpc So true. – 10 years after

    I'd love to change the world
    But I don't know what to do
    So I'll leave it up to you

    This refrain is so true, it always has been. Everybody wants to make the world a better place, in his own way. But because we all have other ways (we all have another interpretation of that better world and so there's no unity) it's very hard to do; So what happens: you don't know what to do and you forget about it, hoping that other people will do it for you


  41. This speech should resonate a lot more with the current Wikileaks situation. His assertion that the internet is useful for MISinformation as well as Information, means that the most valuable commodity in the digital age is the certainty of truth. Wikileaks is the first successful effort to develop a reputation for truth so leaks can be trusted.

    Think about it, this is how the power of the net can be used to expose despots and free people.

  42. Yeah, dictatorships are getting stronger and more sinister, but hey, as long as I have access to my Porn (yeah, with capital P) I'm safe and sound.

  43. These are nice ideas, but as the Arab Spring and China's effective use of censorship demonstrates, the net effect appears to be far more harmful than helpful to these regimes. The internet makes it a lot easier for hidden knowledge (we all hate the dictator and want him deposed) to become public knowledge. Normally, stating that you hate the dictator would cost you your life. The internet makes it incredibly easy to share that sentiment with millions while not dying. A game changer.

  44. its less predominant. Its harder to brainwash people in free societies in totalitarian systems (with certain believes already present culturally) it is much easier. Dictators like those would never exist if not for the limited press and mass brainwashing. In North korea people think their great leader is "god". There are much more divided opinions in free country although propaganda is still very much alive.

  45. i am not disagreeing with you. All i was saying is that there is more "brainwashing" in nations that have dictatorship rather then in a societies without a absolute leader.

  46. I agree but a different title would have been better
    I´m looking for friends who have similar interests like me, the most important you can see in my Twitter profile.
    Priorities change sometimes a little but the essential remains. (ideas worth spreading)
    Follow me, I follow you back:
    Twitter: @Enigmaisland
    FaceBook: vanos.enigmaisland

  47. I-Pod Liberalism? What is this guy talking about?
    Who said that if you give people enough connectivity or devices, democracy well never fall? this guy should give references…
    Internet is just a toll, is logical that economical power and political power fall into it as well, but the big difference with television, for example, is that if you are clever enough you can make money too! In other words you can make your own television if you have the will do it…

  48. Off course if you submit to a social web then you have to follow the policies of those who created that website…but this is common sense…I don't see how this person is arguing about internet almost considering that masses are just absorbed by it in sort of passive way… Television is passive and dangerous – internet is active(if you are clever enough, and therefore it can be very good and make a big difference).

  49. This person just think that everybody else apart from him is dumb…
    …Maybe to grow up in country with so many years of communist dictatorship distorted his vision about what freedom really is… I hope that in countries where they have restrictions in using internet they will soon get the freedom they deserve … but off course is up to the individual to make a good and conscious use of the net… at the least now political power doesn't have anymore monopolio on information

  50. Enforcing dictatorship? This guy is taking it way too much far…
    Governments are very worried about the internet because is new and it does spread information [very quickly – they cannot anymore hide things so easily…
    Off course the same discussion is reflected on those who are actually trying to use it for deliberating important information… but the thing is must not have restriction but more information… like it is for agricultural products for example

  51. when you buy food the label should tell you everything about it…That's how internet should be too.. If you don't trust such a system …then you cannot trust anything in life too.
    But as citizen we should expect a net today restrictions free (apart for what concerns the use of it in relation to minors) and I would say even accessible for free in most of the public spaces … clearly we have to keep our eyes opened, but you should keep your eyes opened even if internet didn't existed.

  52. This guy is narrowing down the power of internet and he is talking about blogs as if they are all the same and talking about wikipedia as if that is the only source of available information, and he does apply the same simplistic approach about everything he says; just generalizing and narrowing down… I think he is just looking for publicity…some people are worried about internet and this guy could become their intellectual alibi to support restriction for the net. Horrible talk..

  53. Indeed he's not narrowing down the power of the internet; he's clarifying the internet's power works more difficult than is generally thought.
    Moreover, the generalizations and simplifications he is depicting are the generalizations and simplifications of those who he brands cyber-utopians. Morozov himself actually constantly emphasizes the importance of context.

  54. I don't know… this seems to be a glass half full, glass half empty type of discussion. Just think of the way hackers kept the internet going in The Arab Spring

  55. It's just technology. Like anything else you can do good with it or do bad. There is much good that can and will be done. If you want to think about the bad that can be done, fine, but be careful with thinking that a technology is inherently good or bad. 

    He fails in logic but wins in making money off being a contrarian. 

  56. This man is a prophet. I watched in 2011 Arab spring time and he saw the fight we will have against big government. Today, its not just big gov. but big tech which will be a determent towards liberalism around the world. #Salute.

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