Is the Internet a Tool of Tyranny?

We imagine that the web is a forum for uncensored thought. We couldn’t be more wrong

China Features Iran Technology

People have always lived with contradictory ideas. However, the gap between the elated notions literate citizens of Western democracies have of their freedom to think and write and the cowardice and prejudice that characterise the exercise of their freedom is now dizzying.

Officially, we are living in a golden age of information exchange. Everyone says that the internet has brought a revolution as great as that brought by the invention of the printing press. Breathtaking technological advance is, they say, moving us into a new democratic era, which in the words of the American media commentator Clay Shirky will ensure that “anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable”. Just as Gutenberg deposed the monopoly of the medieval scribes who copied manuscripts by drastically lowering the cost of printing, so the internet is breaking the monopoly of book and newspaper publishers, which had used the high cost of production to confine publication to privileged professionals with hidden agendas. The defining polemical form of the new medium is “Fisking”, named after Robert Fisk of the Independent whose articles on the Middle East and Afghanistan were taken apart by bloggers after 9/11. The ubiquity of line-by-line assaults the first Fiskers pioneered, not just on blogs but on newspaper comment pages which are merging into the blogosphere, brings with it the promise that the lies and evasions of cosy political clubs will be subject to merciless scrutiny as outsiders challenge easy assumptions and begged questions. 

Meanwhile, we are promised that the ability of courts and governments to censor will vanish as prohibited material shoots away from their blue pencils to find a home on websites beyond their jurisdiction. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom Foundation encapsulated the libertarian enthusiasm the internet had generated when it responded with imperious disdain to an attempt by the US to control web porn. Its Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which tens of thousands of websites endorsed, roared, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Before going any further, I should say that I do not dispute that the internet is revolutionary. Nor do I doubt that it has vastly expanded the amount of information available to casual and serious users, who would never have had the time to search it out before, or known where to look for it in the first place. If, as is possible, properly funded journalism collapses because media managers cannot find a way to make it profitable on the web, we may indeed look back on the first decade of the 21st century as a golden age. Never before had so much information been freely available and because of this, the quality inevitably declined. Finally, I happily concede that some of the most interesting British commentators around write for blogs. They don’t just produce brilliant political and economic analysis but authentic accounts we would never have had before of what life is like as a police officer in a northern town or a target-battered doctor in the NHS. The internet, like book and newspaper publishing before it, has helped promote a few good writers, many bad ones and a range of writers of varying degrees of talent in between appealing to specialist audiences from friends reading blogs on their lives to fellow devotees of their hobby or specialism.

Yet for all its utopian boosters, it cannot be just another form of publishing. The new medium brings a new message and that is: censorship is doomed because banned material can flit round cyberspace as informed people fact-check online and expose the mistakes of the complacent mainstream.

Unfortunately, there is barely a word of truth in either claim. Traditional censors are finding it surprisingly easy to operate on the internet and stunted party-line thinking has never been so prevalent. Two contemporary examples of shabby thought will explain why the high hopes that technology would automatically generate informed public discourse are fake.

Recently, the Sydney Peace Foundation announced that it had awarded its 2009 peace prize to “the world-renowned journalist, author and film-maker” John Pilger. The jury’s citation praised him, for his “courage as a foreign and war correspondent in enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard. For commitment to peace with justice by exposing and holding governments to account for human rights abuses and for fearless challenges to censorship in any form.”

The confused syntax was warning enough that at some subliminal level the Sydney pacifists realised that outsiders might not see Pilger as a man of peace. On the contrary, he embodies why it is impossible for many to regard the rich world’s Left as a force for good. When al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Ba’athist secret police were slaughtering civilians in Iraq in 2004, and as I remember it denouncing human rights as unIslamic as well, an interviewer asked Pilger, “Do you think the anti-war movement should be supporting Iraq’s anti-occupation resistance?”

 ”Yes, I do,” Pilger replied. “We cannot afford to be choosy. While we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice now but to support the resistance, for if the resistance fails, the Bush gang will attack another country. If they succeed, a grievous blow will be suffered by the Bush gang.”

More liberal-leftists than care to admit it now rooted for al-Qaeda and the Saddamist militias as they slaughtered “the powerless” and tried to overthrow the elected Iraqi government. Even they must raise an eyebrow at the award of a peace prize to one of their number. Pilger was not arguing for peace. He was taking sides — the wrong side in my view — in a war. To overcome this formidable obstacle, the Sydney judges fly off into a make-believe world in which ideas lose any connection to meaning. On their lips, “peace,” “courage,” “justice,” and “human rights” become vacuous murmurs of approval that splash over the ideologically-favoured like warm water from a shower — and then gurgle into the gutter.

They cannot have thought that they would get away with it, and they didn’t. Hostile bloggers duly mocked and condemned them. But I suspect they did not care because they were not criticised by their own side. The overwhelming majority of political writers on the internet do not fact-check allies or warn them that they are making a mistake. Indeed, the standard web author rarely sees the need to spell out what his or her side believes in and argue for it in the marketplace of ideas. Instead, they encourage group loyalty and group-think by denouncing opponents. Free access to content makes the building of tribal identification by ritual jeering at opponents the dominant style. We are so used to it we forget its novelty. A generation ago, a conservative would have been aware that left-wing newspapers contained ideas he found ridiculous or sinister. However, as he would never waste his money buying a copy, he could spend his life in happy ignorance of the specifics. The same applied to liberals with the Tory press. Now it is easy, far too easy, for a blogger to click on an ideological opponent’s site or newspaper and select heretical thoughts to copy and denounce to his allies.    

The limitations of the style were there for all to see when Britain witnessed the largest outbreak of Fisking the web has yet experienced. It began when Jan Moir, a sort of conservative Pilger, wrote a creepy piece in the Daily Mail about the sudden death of Boyzone singer  Stephen Gately. The web erupted in such fury that its anger was a newsworthy phenomenon in itself. Via Twitter and conventional websites, protesters lodged a record number of objections with the Press Complaints Commission about Moir’s insinuation, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the coroner was wrong to say that the gay pop star’s death had been natural. It had something to do with his homosexuality, she maintained, although for the life of her, she did not know what.  By the time she had thrown in that Gately’s death had been a “blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships” for homosexuals, the web was aflame.

The outrage seemed to fulfil the dreams of those who predicted that the Net would humble haughty elitists. In the past, gatekeeper journalists at the Mail or any other paper could inflict their prejudices on the masses without fear of reprisals. Now, critics could check their facts instantly — there was no evidence that Gately’s homosexuality had anything to do with his death. A surprisingly large number of apparently healthy young men drop dead because of undiagnosed heart problems. The death of a gay man no more invalidates gay marriage than the death of a heterosexual man invalidates conventional marriage. Net enthusiasts emailed and tweeted me to say that we were seeing “reader power” in action. And I had to tell them that we were seeing nothing of the sort.

The protesters weren’t readers of the Mail, who remained as suspicious of gay liberation as ever. They were opponents of social conservatism who were using the access the internet has brought to papers they once ignored to register their violent disapproval of views they had always violently opposed. They were affirming their membership of the liberal tribe rather than announcing their break with conservatism. On the net, as in the rest of life, team-building does not lead to sceptical questioning but to the reinforcement of their existing opinions and loyalties.

Proof of the web’s failure to inaugurate a new age, in which the alleged “wisdom of crowds” corrected the evasions of propagandists, comes from the US, where new technology has augmented rather than diminished the paranoid strain in American politics. The raging Right of the 1990s used it to accuse Bill Clinton of getting Arkansas cops to procure women for his carnal purposes, run guns, smuggle drugs and order the murder of his former business partner, Vince Foster. The fury culminated in the Drudge Report’s revelation that Clinton had had sex with an intern, a claim which stood out from the rest in that it was at least true, but which in most countries would have led to gossip rather than the attempted impeachment of the president. When George W. Bush took over, Moveon.org replaced Matt Drudge and said that the second Iraq war was all about oil and that Bush and Blair were cowboys, liars and the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Now that a Democrat is back in the White House, the heirs of the rabid Right are again the loudest voices, and rumours fly that President Obama is a secret Muslim or an alien whom the Supreme Court should disbar from office because he was not born in the US.

Technophobes look at the gruesome spectacle of US politics and the vast online audiences for 9/11 conspiracy theories and mistakenly see the future as a high-tech dark age in which isolated ideologues read only websites and newspapers that confirm their prejudices. I don’t believe it will happen because the prevailing style of Fisking does not produce isolation but a furious engagement. In Britain, Guido Fawkes, a conservative blog that is so successful it has twice the readership of the New Statesman, does not argue for right-wing policies. Like most other conservative bloggers, he takes their inherent merit for granted and devotes his time to disparaging the Left. Instead of conducting a thorough debate on why its government has failed, Left-wing blogs imitate the Right and respond in kind. For neutral readers, it is like watching drunken football fans shouting abuse at each other.

In his impressive book, Here Comes Everybody (Allen Lane, 2008), Clay Shirky accepts that alongside the dissemination of knowledge and the building of new social and intellectual networks, the internet is producing masses of third-rate material. We should not be surprised, he says, because history is repeating itself and vast amounts of rubbish followed Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1440s. But, he continues, we should not despair either because the Gutenberg revolution eventually allowed “the public scrutiny of elites, the international spread of political foment and even literate women”. We can be sure that the internet will bring a comparable liberation. Shirky is by a considerable measure the most interesting and thoughtful of the web utopians. His moments of slack-jawed credulity are thus all the more telling. The invention of printing certainly disseminated knowledge as well as nonsense, but his idea that print also produced political progress is absurd. The most striking political feature of Europe in the three centuries after Gutenberg was not the liberation of the newly-literate public but the rise of absolute monarchs, who wiped out medieval parliaments. Britain escaped but only just. Parliament fought a civil war against Charles I and deposed James II because it feared the Stuarts wanted to import absolutism. To its 17th-century admirers, absolutism was not an antiquated system that conflicted with the new technologies of the age of print but the most modern and dynamic form of government available. The authoritarian state derived domestic legitimacy from its promise to prevent the anarchy and civil war, the liberties of old Europe had fostered, and foreign legitimacy from the success of Louis XIV’s armies.

I am not saying that the printing press caused autocracy — simply that absolute monarchs could live with it and exploit it for their own purposes. They, along with the Georgian oligarchy in Britain, banned books and licensed printers. They allowed debate outside the political sphere, most notably debate about scientific research and limited dissent. But if a printer published arguments that threatened the state, they sent him to prison.

Europeans and Americans are still living under the shadow of Nazism and communism. We are so impressed by the magnitude of the terror they inflicted and the grandeur of the struggles that led to their fall, we fail to see that more modest and more conventional dictatorships are flourishing as well today as they did in the Europe of the absolute monarchs. Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s promise that history was finished in 1989 leaving liberal democracy as the only way, autocratic China now appears to be  the coming power in the world. Its communist apparatchiks are the Bourbons of our day, admired and imitated by aspiring dictators the world over, most notably Vladimir Putin. Russia and China are not totalitarian states comparable to the slave empires of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They allow freedom in private life, scientific and technocratic debate and limited criticism of minor abuses. 

In Moscow, a few dissenting newspapers and magazines even publish attacks on the regime, although I accept their journalists have the unfortunate habit of ending up riddled with bullets, but the state retains control of the mass media, as does the Iranian state with depressing efficiency. Naïve Westerners still talk of Tehran’s “Twitter Revolution”, a revealingly inaccurate phrase that misses the inconvenient fact that the theocracy is still in place and social network sites did not enable the revolution to succeed. How could anyone have thought they would, when new technologies inevitably increase the power of the already powerful with access to the resources and labour that can best exploit them?

We ought to know about the asymmetries of power that technology can bring from our own experience in the West. The main emotion the explosion in computing capability has generated is not jubilation at the bracing challenge it poses to the state but alarm at the opportunities it allows for increased surveillance by the state. The web enthusiast who brags one minute about how he is dethroning the gatekeepers and creating a new age of popular sovereignty will switch in seconds to railing against the government’s plan to link biometric ID cards to vast databases that can collect every “registrable fact” about its citizens, including details of their emails and visits to websites. If the database state arrives, our ability to protest on blogs and in the comment threads on newspaper websites will be, I suspect, a small consolation.

Authoritarian governments can go further and actively control protests online. China has tens of millions of bloggers, whom the communists are happy to leave to tap out their thoughts because they pose no threat to the ruling order. In an analysis for Index on Censorship, Rebecca MacKinnon showed that the authorities could make transgressors vanish from cyberspace. “Most Chinese internet users know nothing of the 48 jailed internet writers,” she explained. “They have not heard of Hu Jia, the Aids activist, free speech advocate and blogger who was recently sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison [because] China’s censorship effectively protects people from themselves.” Rather than directly censoring its citizens, the state cleverly holds service providers responsible for the contents of the web just as the European monarchies held printers responsible for the contents of books. If an ISP does not censor, the communists put it out of business. The result, says MacKinnon, is that even “overseas websites, including many of the large international blogging platforms such as WordPress.com and Blogspot.com have been blocked in China. If a dissident writer creates a website on any overseas platform or independent hosting service his website or parts of it can end up being blocked by the Chinese filtering system if his content contains any blacklisted keywords or URLs.”

Dictatorial governments — “those weary giants of flesh and steel” the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace dismissed with such complacency — have life in them yet and more coercive power at their disposal than libertarians imagine. The most persuasive is the oldest known to man. Throughout history in most dictatorships most of the time, when the authorities say, “stop this or we will hurt you,” people stop.

Web utopianism is as deluded as Fukuyama’s dreams of an end to history and Marxist delusions of the unstoppable rise of the working class, because it assumes inevitability. The mere existence of the internet is meant to be enough to bypass the struggle for liberal constitutions and bills of rights. The freedoms previous generations had to fight for are now to be won with a click of a mouse.

Whether they are communists in China, mullahs in Tehran or censorious libel judges in London, all opponents of freedom of expression must be grateful for the cover such empty-headed determinism provides. They can carry on as before, while their deluded citizens believe that the mere fact that they can blog and tweet is enough to free them from the long, grinding and often dangerous tasks of political reform.