The debate about social media and autocratic regimes can be (roughly) divided into two camps: idealists and realists. Idealists—my camp—believe social media will, on average, improve leverage for citizens seeking representative government; realists believe it won’t.
Because the events in North Africa and the Middle East are so important, both in themselves and in what they will lead us to expect about the future, I have been reading realist arguments especially closely in this period, and it was in this spirit that I came across Kremlin’s Plan to Prevent a Facebook Revolution, by Andrei Soldatov, an intelligence analyst at Agentura.ru.
I’ll quote its opening two paragraphs:
Recent events in the Arab world have sparked renewed optimism with online social networks. Many in the West are now convinced that Internet technology can create something previously impossible under authoritarian states — a strong opposition that can seize power through either elections or street demonstrations.
But how directly the Internet influenced these events is highly debatable. Many of the Western politicians who hold Twitter in high esteem are, in fact, captives of Cold War thinking, sociologist Evgeny Morozov argues in his recently released book “Net Delusion.” These politicians continue to believe that democracy will prevail whenever the people beyond the Iron Curtain gain access to free information.
What interests me about Kremlin’s Plan is that, although it makes a nod to Tunisia and Egypt, it doesn’t seem to internalize anything from those events. It could have been written last year, and then simply updated to acknowledge those revolutions, without changing another word of the text.
As a result, the piece illustrates two anachronisms that have appeared in some realist arguments after Ben Ali and Mubarak’s departures: continued faith in the apolitical nature of internet use, and incompatible views on the response of autocrats to social media.
The lesser of these appears at the end of the piece:
Meanwhile, Russia’s 40 million Internet users — the country’s middle class and most active segment of the population — have shown remarkably little interest in this political struggle. This means that the Kremlin’s battle to prevent an imminent Facebook
revolution will remain largely virtual.
The unpoliticized nature of Russian internet use is presented as evidence of its political inertness. The underlying observation is correct, of course; young people the world over typically don’t use the internet for political activism, but to seek employment or distraction. This is then assumed to be evidence that these same young people are inherently apolitical. The second assumption doesn’t follow from the first, however, as illustrated by the events in Tunisia.
Prior to December 18th, Tunisia’s 2.8 million internet users—the country’s middle class and most active segment of the population—had shown remarkably little interest in political struggle there either, and that country subsequently underwent as thorough a
revolution as has been seen in the region since 1979, one in which the organizers both used and credited social media (principally camera phones and social networks) as effective in aiding Ben Ali’s overthrow.
I blame academia for planting the notion that people either are or are not political, and that we can read that aspect of their identity from their daily practice. Because universities put the PoliSci department down the street from Economics and all the way across the quad from Media Studies, we encourage people to think these are actually separate things. Meanwhile, out in the real world, they are all mixed up; you could ask whether an unemployed protester joining her friends to march on Parliament is making an economic, social, or political choice, but the answer would be “Yes.”
The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren’t so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.
The second tension in Kremlin’s Plan is more far reaching:
[L]eading Western media outlets can’t stop glorifying the Internet and social networks as the new tools for empowering grassroots resistance movements. … As President Dmitry Medvedev said last week in Vladikavkaz: “Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to
Medvedev’s reaction shows that the Kremlin is taking the threat very seriously.
If many in the West wrongly believe that communications tools affect political action, then what are we to make of Medvedev’s taking the threat “very seriously”? That he too is an idiot? Alternatively, if Medvedev is the model of a successful autocrat, shouldn’t we trust him to know a threat when he sees one? And isn’t his reaction therefore evidence that social media is a threat?
This tension—“Social media is unimportant, and the autocrats are responding ferociously”—appears throughout:
As mass unrest continues to shake authoritarian states in North Africa and the Middle East, the siloviki [politicians tied to Russian military or security forces] are pushing for the registration of social network users and waiting to pounce on anyone posting an extremist message and the Kremlin is funding pro-government bloggers. This will inevitably be interpreted by analysts as a new political battle between the government against the opposition.
Speaking as one of those analysts, I can confirm that yes, it is indeed inevitable that when Russian authorities push to curtail political use of the internet, we will interpret this as a battle between the government and the opposition. This, I would offer, is because such a move obviously is part of such a battle.
The realist position is clearly correct in some cases—autocracies do adapt to new threats, and even an idea whose time has come doesn’t arrive everywhere all at once. In the short term, most of the world’s autocratic regimes will survive the current wave of protest, and in
the long term we don’t yet know whether digital tools will help create a deep shift towards representative government, as the printing press did, or if they will prove to be relatively shallow and easily domesticated, as terrestrial television was.
What I think we can now set aside, though, are the anachronistic parts of Kremlin’s Plan. There were never good theoretical reasons to believe that unpolitical use of the internet means apolitical users; now we have practical reminders that people can become
politicized when the times call for it. The causes of this shift will be debated for decades: maybe it came from people revealing hidden preferences, or from collective action being aided by information cascades, or the invention of new narratives incompatible with current
realities. The fact of the shift, however, won’t be debated.
Similarly, the self-contradicting assertion that social media isn’t a threat and that smart autocrats are working ever harder to combat it, can, I think, be laid to rest. However much Medvedev’s response to the threat changes outcomes in Russia, he is at least correct to be
worried. The best reason to believe that social media can help synchronize and coordinate insurgent action against autocrats is that both the insurgents and autocrats believe that, beliefs that seem to be strengthening on both sides as real-world evidence mounts.