The internet spreads information around the world, but freedom is more difficult. Believers in a coming tech-utopia have plenty of evidence to show the web’s democratizing force: The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was facilitated in part by new-media technologies, and blogging platforms have given a voice to dissenters in Burma, Iran, China, and many other places. The problem is, Evgeny Morozov writes for the Boston Review, “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be President.”
Reports of China’s growing internet dissent can make for compelling reads in mainstream media outlets, but Morozov writes that they’re often overblown. YouTube users recently tweaked censors with videos about a “grass-mud horse,” the name of which, in Chinese, sounds a lot like a dirty sex pun. The New York Times said the videos “raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet.”
More recently, when China blocked access to YouTube, allegedly over videos showing Chinese police beating Tibetan protestors, many assumed this would backfire on the government. Writing for Time, Austin Ramzy said that blocking YouTube gives the impression that the Chinese government is afraid of the internet and that a “ shift in how people cover the Internet in China may be lost on the government.”
In fact, draconian blocking of websites is just one part of a two-pronged strategy for Chinese information control. The Chinese government is also trying to use the internet as a tool to forward their agenda. The government has trained an estimated 280,000 people to “neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views” David Bandurski reports for the Far Eastern Economic Review. This group—known as the 50 Cent Party, because of the money they are rumored to be paid for each pro-government message—posts to chat rooms and web forums, and also reports dissident content.
“The goal of the government is to crank up the ‘noise’ and drown out progressive and diverse voices on China’s internet,” Chinese web entrepreneur Isaac Mao told Bandurski.
Even if political information is allowed to flow, assuming that information will lead to democracy and freedom is not necessarily true. Western journalists often focus on the blogs written in English, which tend to be more progressive and pro-Western. In other languages, the political landscape is much different. Morozov writes that “investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization.”
Another threat may lie in the structure of the internet itself. The web may actually serve in polarizing political atmospheres, according to Cass Sunstein, both in the United States and abroad. A recent article for Harvard Magazine explores Sunstein’s idea that personalized news services like Google News, and Time Magazine’s new “Mine” service are blocking out ideas diverse opinions, allowing people to read about what they want and filter out the rest. Without an “architecture of serendipity,” where people can happen upon diverse opinions and news, the internet could lead to extremism.
None of this disregards the web’s potential for good. Sunstein calls new technologies “more opportunity than threat,” but serious work will need to be done to promote progressive voices and politics. It also means acknowledging that the techno-utopia envisioned in a free internet may not be worth the paper its printed on.