Yesterday, I attended a talk by Evgeny Morozov about the way that governments (but particularly authoritarian ones) have embraced social media for the purposes of disinformation and control. The typical assumption that the availability of communication technology increases dissenters’ ability to communicate and to organize is rooted in the example of the fax machine and copier that were used in the USSR to distribute Samizdat (self-published) works. The devices are different these days, but the same equation is assumed to hold: connectivity x devices = democracy. Last summer’s post-election riots in Tehran, with the attendant Twitter narration, were taken in the same spirit.
This talk was an elaboration of his TED talk (via @ChrisDiehl) that went into more details and had better slides (which I hope he will consider posting). Morozov’s thesis, is that yes, of course this technology helps people communicate and connect. Yes, But: authoritarian governments appropriate the same tools for their purposes, to subvert, to counter, and to preempt the more democratic uses of the technology and the media.The contrast is between censorship (expensive) and “Spinternet” (cheap). A range of social media (and search) optimization techniques are available to steer search and social filtering applications (see uSocial, for example). The basic idea is to manipulate systems that are characterized by power-law distributions to inject (or remove) content that favors a particular point of view. The Chinese government, for example, pays people to write pro-government comments on various blogs; “priority” sites are required to cooperate. Russia has created a “school for bloggers” where they teach people how to spread the party line. Not to be outdone, Iran has created a Bureau for the Development of Religious Blogs aimed particularly at controlling the expression of women bloggers. And yes, Gamal Mubarak wants to be your Facebook friend. The lesson in all of this is that while censorship on the internet simply encourages the content to spread elsewhere (the Streisand effect), spinning, subverting, and co-opting the medium is much more effective and much more deniable. Rather than giving people the means to communicate, SNSs give repressive governments another means of detecting and identifying “undesirable elements.” Welcome to Gulag 2.0.
The upshot is that all technology is neutral. Hammers can be used to drive nails or bash skulls. The internet can transmit information and disinformation. And governments who retain power through coercive means have always embraced technology as a means of preserving their hold on power.
This leaves those of us who are inclined to create technology and want to see it put to positive rather than negative uses with several choices: We can withdraw from invention to avoid inadvertently causing harm, but that is a hypothetical and personally-unsatisfactory outcome. We can chose to ignore the possible uses (good or bad) of our inventions, but that is unsatisfactory from a social perspective. Finally, we can observe how technology is misused, and try to introduce asymmetries that encourage more desirable uses or outcomes. During the recent riots in Iran, the government injected considerable noise into the Twitter stream to confuse reports from those protesting against the government. Technology that helps others (both the protesters and those on the outside) distinguish the propaganda from the signal would help only “the good guys” as it would be aimed at uncovering the information that the government already had.