Texting Toward Utopia

Evgeny Morozov asks if the Internet spread democracy in The Boston Review:

It is safe to say that the Internet has significantly changed the flow of information in and out of authoritarian states. While Internet censorship remains a thorny issue and, unfortunately, more widespread than it was in 2003, it is hard to ignore the wealth of digital content that has suddenly become available to millions of Chinese, Iranians, or Egyptians. If anything the speed and ease of Internet publishing have made many previous modes of samizdat obsolete; the emerging generation of dissidents may as well choose Facebook and YouTube as their headquarters and iTunes and Wikipedia as their classrooms.

Many such dissenters have, indeed, made great use of the Web. In Ukraine young activists relied on new–media technologies to mobilize supporters during the Orange Revolution. Colombian protesters used Facebook to organize massive rallies against FARC, the leftist guerrillas. The shocking and powerful pictures that surfaced from Burma during the 2007 anti–government protests—many of them shot by local bloggers with cell phones—quickly traveled around the globe. Democratic activists in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe used the Web to track vote rigging in last year’s elections and used mobile phones to take photos of election results that were temporarily displayed outside the voting booths (later, a useful proof of the irregularities). Plenty of other examples—from Iran, Egypt, Russia, Belarus, and, above all, China—attest to the growing importance of technology in facilitating dissent.

But drawing conclusions about the democratizing nature of the Internet may still be premature. The major challenge in understanding the relationship between democracy and the Internet— aside from developing good measures of democratic improvement—has been to distinguish cause and effect.