Year LVI, 2014, Single Issue, Page 67

 

 

INTERNET AND POLITICS: A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

 

 

The innovation introduced by the internet lies essentially in the fact that it has eliminated the factors of time and distance in the transmission of information. This is a change that hashad a profound effecton the natureof the economy, society and lifestyles, and also onthekind of challengesfacinggovernments globally.

A great deal has already been written on this topic, but there have actually been very few accurate analyses of the internet phenomenon. The tendency, often, is to try and evaluate its effectson the basis of simple impressions alone. One of the few scholars to have addressed this issue using scientific criteria is Eugene Morozov, and we recall, in particular, his book The Net Delusion: the dark side of internet freedom. According to the data he collected and the analysis that followed, the function of the internet, particularly in relation to participation in politics and in the evolution of democracy, tends to be interpreted from two distorted perspectives: Morozov calls these cyber-utopianism and cyber-centrism. Those who believe that the internet has the power tomake politics gradually more transparentand egalitarian may be defined as cyber-utopians, while cyber-centrism is a more radical category embracing the interpretations of all those who think that the internet has profoundly changed the nature of political participation and, above all, of political organisations. Their view is based on the idea that the internet, eliminating the costs of spreading messages and sharing ideas, also eliminates the differencesbetween large andsmall parties.

This illusion is further fuelled by ideological interpretations of the end of the bipolar world order and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s the idea took hold, almost unchallenged, that the course of history, from that moment on, would be uncomplicated, with the market and science acting as automatic driving forces of peace and of progressive global democratisation. In this period, the potentialfreedom offeredby the internetto all citizensseemed to confirmsuch a trend. Subsequently, other factors — the difficulties that started to weaken the hegemonic role of the United States and the emergence of new powers in areas of the world that until a few years previously had been considered depressed — began to nourish the hope that the internet might become an instrument of liberation for peoples subjected to dictatorships that enjoyed, or had enjoyed, the protection of the Americans.

These utopian ideas are encapsulated perfectly in the iconic slogans (such as “drop tweets, not bombs”) that, spreading like wild fire, strengthened the hope that the internet could really prove to be a means of advancing democracy. The widely held interpretation of the role of social networks, Twitter in particular, in the 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran provides an important example of this mystification. The popular view was that the protest had been made possible, and organised on a wide scale, thanks to a “spreading of the word” via social networks. In truth, however, the number of tweets registered in Iran totaled just 19,235, which means that the phenomenon involved, at most (assuming one post per person), only 0.027 per cent of the population. Therefore, the data to hand show that the “Twitter revolution” or “drop tweets, not bombs” revolution, was undoubtedly an exaggeration by journalists.[1] And its effects — as has since been seen — were not at all what they were trumpeted to be. Worldwide, tweets on the elections and protests in Iran numbered as many as three million — mostly celebrating the role of the internet in fuelling the uprising — and many politicians, including government members, were clearlyunder the illusion thatTwitterand social networkswould helpdemocracyto triumphagainst dictatorship. The failure of the uprising shows that these were, unfortunately, false hopes. Despite this, they had been shared by a number of prominent figures, including Hillary Clinton — then US Secretary of State —, all of whom fell into the trap of accepting, as true, sensational news that spreads before it has been verified.

Cyber-Utopianism, Authoritarian Regimes and Democracy.

Morozov’s book contains a large case series illustrating the strategies used by authoritarian regimes to control and monitor internet use, and thus to largely nullify the advantages of this apparently free, universal and egalitarian instrument that, with its blogs and social networks, many hope to see promoting radical changes in the direction of the principles of the liberal democraticstate.

In China, for example, contrary to what is commonly believed, the use of social networks is extremely widespread: many Chinese use them and are actually at the forefront of this field, both in terms of the way it has shaped lifestyles and in terms of the production of these networks. The level of connection to the online universe is strong in China. The world’s most popular social networks include RenRen (also linked to Chinese mobile phones and smartphones), which is used mainly by Chinese adolescents, and Kaixin which is more geared towards professionals. In Russia, too, theculture of online entertainmentis very prevalent; 82 per cent of the population is registered with the country’s most popular social networks (like odnoklassiniki, vKontakte and MoiMir) and for the most part rejects Western equivalents such as Facebook, even though these are available.[2] These are, therefore, two examples of societies that are interconnected, internally, thanks to the internet, while nevertheless remaining in tune with the authoritarian regimes that govern them and without, at least for the moment, showing any sign of a willingness to break with theexisting institutions. The same thing might be said of the BRICS and the MINT countries and all the other emerging countries. Therefore, in the absence of the classic elements that trigger economic and social crises, the internetper se does notappear to playany role in promoting democratisation. Even though we have moved from a situation, in the 1990s, in which the internet had several million users, to today’s situation in which it has several billion, the dynamics regulating political processes do not appear to have changed.[3]

In authoritarian regimes or in oligarchiessuch as China, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam, to mention the main ones, the internet is a tool also widelyusedby governments, which pour considerable resources, human and financial, into efforts to exploit its advantages to the full. The internet can be usedas a monitoring tool, as a meansof censorship, andas a propaganda instrument. In the first case, the web is used todetect and monitoranti-government movements. Whereas prior to the advent of the internet this task, carried out by the secret services, was very costly and required a considerable amount of time in order to get results, today a simple virus infiltrating the computer system of a single agitator is all it takes to control information, log onto his network, and gather information that can lead to arrests. Another possibility as regards the use of the internet for monitoring purposes is the recruitment of pro-government bloggers, or even simple citizens, who are then paid by the regime to identify individuals suspected of destabilising the state.

Censorship is already a more familiar issue, especially as regards the People’s Republic of China. It is known that, in China, many websites are blocked and replaced by domestic versions. China, however, is not the only country to make use of this practice. A regime can intervene at different levels, from social networks to blogs, search engine toolbars to websites, and can also control and censor websites that are very popular in the West such as Facebook or Wikipedia, ensuring that the amount of information reaching the citizens is limited. At the same time, the government can study citizens’ web searches, cataloguing them, by subject matter or user geographical area, so as better to exploit this information, again for monitoring and control purposes.

Finally, authoritarian regimes use the internet as a low-cost propaganda tool capable of reaching a vast audience. There exist, as mentioned, paid bloggers who peddle the government’s line and, at the same time, monitor blog posts generally in order to pick up on possible anti-government stances. The internet is also a vehicle for spreading videos, even ones seeking to justify conflicts. This was seen in the case of the conflict between Russia and Georgia; the video in question, widelypromotedby the Russian governmentat the time of theinvasion, is still accessible. One prominent figure, among those who have frequently used the internet for propaganda purposes (“spinternet”), is Ugo Chavez who, for a long time, wasthe personmost followedon social networks in Venezuela.

This instrumental use of social networks by governing regimes was also seen during the so-called Arab Spring. At that time, newspapers and television channels, in a propagandistic way, attributed the “success” of the Arab Spring to Facebook and the internet. In reality, however, even though there was, from the earliest stagesof the uprising, a certain use of social networks for the communication ofinformationand the exchanging offiles betweencitizens — especially on Facebook and Twitter —, an important role was also played by the pan-Arabtelevision stations. These were actually more influential than the internet, which, conversely, was used to a limited extent. The figures relating to the use of Facebook, which is the most popular social network among citizens of North African countries, are the following: at the start of the protests, membership of Facebook, expressed as a percentage of the population, was quite low: 5.5 per cent in Egypt, 4.3 per cent in Libya, and 18.8 per cent in Tunisia.[4] However, these rates increased during the course of the uprising, by 29 per cent in Egypt and by 17 per cent in Tunisia, whereas in Libya there was a decrease in the Facebook use. As for Twitter, the total number of users in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen is around 14,000: this must be considered in the context of a population that, in Egypt alone, amounts to around 80 million people.[5] It can thus be seen that the social network phenomenon, if we compare it to the number of insurgents on the streets, actually remained confined to an élite. The attempted revolution certainly did not stem from the internet; rather, the internet served as a sounding board contributing to the spread of information. This was particularly true following the public suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whoset himself alightinthe streets inprotestagainsthis country’s authorities. The fact thattheinternetwas closed downin several Egyptian cities,including the capitalCairo, is one of the reasons why the role of social networks was overestimated and overplayed; in reality the internet played a minor role; what is more, the circulation of information on the internet was exploited by the regime in Egypt in order to glean news directly from the bloggers who were helping to coordinate the protests. In this way it was better able to prevent and control the movements of the insurgents on the streets.

One aspect to consider, in order to understand why social networks continue to play an only marginal role in revolutions, is the nature of the bonds that are created between insurgents. The bond created through the shared experience of a demonstration on the streets or through a personal relationship forged within a political organisation is a strong one, especially when it is based on a mutual belief in the importance of the cause, or when it is underpinned by a sense of a considerable common risk. Social networks lack this feature, which isindispensablefor cementinga revolutionarypoliticalforce. Generally speaking, social networks are more likely to contain light-hearted language and content; they often encourage narcissistic tendencies (appearance and attractiveness are core elements in Facebook and they are systematically exploited), and they favour the development of rather shallow relationships. While it is certainly true that the immediate, bold and sensationalistic type of expression favoured by the internet is capable of stirring up waves of intense excitement and hope, as well as alarmism, it is also true that these are often transitory “mobilisation” phenomena. Subsequently, when analyses and indications turn out to be wrong, it remains incredibly difficult to ensure that the necessary denials and corrections are spread at the same rate and achieve the same level of penetration.

Use of the Internet in Democracies.

In democracies, too, the internet is used more for advertising, commercial and entertainment purposes than for political purposes. The internet and, above all, the social networks are a sort of huge container of information used by a myriad ofsubjects — often commercial entities — to bombard the web’s countless users with information or propaganda, seeking to influence them. Citizens thus find themselves faced with animmense amountof data andmessages from which to choose, and it is inevitable that those that are more prominent in society are also more present and visible online.

When used as a vehicle of political propaganda, the web carries some specific “user warnings”: the highly simplified nature of online communication encourages messages that are appealing (at the expense of content), answers that are offensive rather than thoughtful, and the intervention of those who want to provoke rather than encourage reflection. The internet certainly does not foster rational and in-depth exchanges of ideas. What we see, therefore, is a behavioural regression which, manifesting itself as so-called flaming, encourages an immature tendency to posture, to be too ready with insults, and to interact, narcissistically, with computers.[6] These attitudes have become entrenched precisely because, in this form of communication, there is no face and nosimultaneity, but instead an anonymity that removes all sense of responsibility, anuncontrolled desireto appear, and the possibility of communication that is entirely one-way.

This explains why political campaignsmounted on the web are often linked to the pursuit of quite simple and direct objectives. They may be organised, for example, to promote petitions on issues that have a strong emotional impact, or serve as awareness-raising instruments generally. Instead, the battles undertaken to bring about major political-institutional change, or that accompany profound clashes of cultures, are not ones can be won thanks to the internet or in which the internet can play a decisive role. The internet, in such battles, can play only a subordinate role; contrary to what the cyber-centrists like to think, the web cannot replace political parties or political organisations. Morozov, in this regard, recalls Kierkegaard's view of the café debates that became fashionable at the start of the twentieth century: he considered them a frivolous, empty form of communication, because they addressed all issues, and always in a superficial way. Being willing to talk about anything is the same as being willing to engage in prattle. The parallel with what we see on the internet is clearly evident. Even though cyber-centrism tries toequate online debatewith real debate, they are not the same: in the former, there is no structure and everyone communicatesin one direction, without beinginclined tolisten. Furthermore, online debate is punctuated by all kinds of messages, for advertising or purely recreational purposes, which divert attention away from the issue in hand. Finally, the political issues most likely to take hold online are those with a strong populist appeal and a high emotional impact.

The success, often cited, of the internet campaign mounted by Obama and the Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, confirms this assessment. The campaign was considered a great success for two reasons: because it contributed to Obama’s victory and because of the funds that it raised. But the real strength of Obama’s electoral campaign was actually the mobilisation of tens of thousands of volunteers who were prepared to go from house to house, knocking on the doors of citizens who were undecided, or not planning to vote, in order to speak to them individually and try to convince them. A study[7] has shown that the effectiveness of efforts to convince voters can vary greatly and depends on the method chosen: one citizen in 10 for door-to-door campaigning and around one in 100,000 for campaigning using flyers and e-mails; the effectiveness of telephone campaigning was found to be controversial and the use of electoral posters did not seem to have any influence. Most (80 per cent) of the efforts of Obama’s team were devoted to the first of these methods and it is specified in the campaign report[8] that the primary objective of the campaign was to mobilise people who had expressed their support on social networks, getting them to become active volunteers in the field.

From the funding point of view, the electoral campaign was undoubtedly a huge success, made possible by the web. The campaign waspaid forentirelyby voluntary online donations, each of up to a maximum of $200, from ordinary citizens. This strategic choice allowed Obama to avoid relying on large loans from business tycoons who could have imposed conditions that might have influenced his future choices. The overall figures are impressive: 3 million donors, 13 million e-mails sent, 5 million “friends” and contacts on social networks (especially Facebook), 8.5 visits to the website MyBarackObama.com and 80 million official electoral video viewings. But the fact remains that this remarkable success was possible because there was not a single American citizen who had not already heard of Obama; indeed, Obama’s popularity was absolutely crucial.

The case of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, too, highlights the fact that it is actually a person’s popularity that increases his or her visibility on the web. Despite efforts to paint the success of the M5S — especially in the February 2013 elections — as a resounding victory for online communication, heralding an alternative, web-based, democratic model, the truth is that much of the consensus won by the M5S, as well as being linked to political factors typical of times of crisis, like the emergence of forms of populism, was due largely to the media and to traditional methods of communication. Through public rallies and extensive media coverage, on television and in newspapers, the success of the M5S was, in reality, strongly driven by the “old media”, which frequently quoted and extensively diffused Beppe Grillo’s blog posts. Instead, the weaknesses and limitations inherent in the idea that a political force can be built, without an organisational structure, on the basis of the “free” online participation of citizens very quickly became apparent and the whole enterprise turned out be a dismal failure, in terms of internal democracy at least.

What the case of the M5S shows, however, is that cyber-utopianism and cyber-centralism can become tainted with populism. And while the internet has yet to prove able to undermine the structure of traditional political organisations, what can be said of it is that it has the capacity to promote charismatic leaders and contribute to the spread of chaos in periods of crisis. Without the development of a strong critical and civic awareness, which is necessary in order to be able to adopt a selective approach to the content available on the internet, the internet mayprove toa double-edged swordthatfurther distances the citizens from democratic life, leaving them at the mercyof private entities that are not always easilyidentifiable and thathave an interest inconveying highlydestructive messages.

Nelson Belloni



[1] Eugene Morozov, The Net Delusion: the dark side of internet freedom, New York, Public Affairs, 2011, p. 15.

[2] http://www.demnet.eu/it/l82-dei-russi-usano-social-network-scopriamo-quali/.

[3] http://www.parlamento.it/application/xmanager/projects/
parlamento/file/repository/affariinternazionali/osservatorio/
approfondimenti/PI0040App.pdf.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/holland.html.

[7] Guillaume Liegey, Arthur Muller, Vincent Pons, Frapper aux portes - ou comment mobiliser pour les prochaines élections,Laboratoire des Idées du Parti Socialiste, October 2010.

[8] Barak Obama and Joe Biden, 2012 Obama Campaign Legacy Report, http://secure.assets.bostatic.com/frontend/projects/legacy/legacy-report.pdf.

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