Authoritarian Deliberation

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Evgeny Morozov on Authoritarian Deliberation

Evgeny Morozov (Ted transcripts):

"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,, 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)" (