Regime change via ICTs. Not. But bearing witness?

Evgeny Morozov is not a technocrat, and this is the single most refreshing aspect about his writing and presentations. Unlike my own work, anchored to using ICTs to prise open, strengthen and sustain democratic dialogue and dissent under repressive regimes, Evgeny’s work is fascinating – and vital – because of his emphasis of and evidence to the contrary, that ICTs actually aid regime stability in closed societies.

I’ve flagged his compelling submissions in the past on this blog. As a this recent article on NextGov notes,

One of the most commonly cited examples of how citizens have used the Internet to challenge a government occurred after the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009. Despite news accounts of protests being organized through the text-messaging service Twitter, Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, said he has grown skeptical of the Web’s power to foster democracy.

Morozov, a native of Belarus who studies the Internet’s effect on authoritarian states and a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, noted the evolution of social media actually has aided oppressive regimes. The Web has given dictators the ability to mine contents of social networking sites to identify dissidents and to pay bloggers for spreading propaganda. “I wasn’t really sure that the good guys were winning,” he said.

In an earlier piece published in the Boston Review, Evgeny’s essential thesis is interesting.

“Yet, investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization. A brief look at the emerging cyber–nationalism in Russia and China provides a taste of things to come.“

The Internet strengthening democracy? was my response to this at the time. Since then, I have begun to appreciate more the power of ICTs to bear witness within closed societies, and importantly, not necessarily with a view to regime change in the short to medium term. A cogent recent example of this was a single comment to the citizen journalism site Groundviews, which I created in 2006.

“I am an Indian pediatrician who served with the Indian Medical Team at Menik Farm IDP center. The point I am trying to raise is this – we were managing scores of infants with bullet / shell blast injuries (some festering, mostly healed). It gives an idea of the extent of collateral damage suffered by the civilians caught in the last days of the conflict. If an infant could not be protected, imagine the plight of older children and adults. The so-called “Sri Lankan Solution” being touted as the panacea for dealing with terrorism worldwide needs a thorough relook.”” by Dr. Tathagata Bose

Unique perspectives on the end of war in Sri Lanka, my post looking at a selection of the content from a special edition on Groundviews looking at the end of war in Sri Lanka a year ago notes,

Groundviews was set up to bear witness, contest the status quo and document inconvenient truths. This comment by Dr. Bose, from over 300 published to date in response to the Special Edition on the end of war, is a cogent example of the site’s raison d’être. Over the previous weekend alone, over 6,500 readers read the content on the site. With over 22,000 readers to date, and three more days of compelling content looking at the end of war yet to be published, Groundviews is a unique platform for perspectives, opinions and a defiant remembrance that mainstream print and broadcast media in Sri Lanka, even post-war, will not feature.

The Special Edition includes content – in prose, verse, photography and video – from the well known political commentators, award winning poets, photographers, senior civil servants, erstwhile high-ranking diplomats, senior academics, leading feminists, researchers, film-makers, novelists, leading voices from the Tamil diaspora, senior journalists, youth activists and bloggers.

This is not the rarefied academic hypothesis that Evgeny correctly abhors. This is fact, and the special edition is but one example amongst many others on Groundviews (the sui generis coverage of flooding in Menik Farm IDP camp just after the end of war) and its sister sites Vikalpa and Vikalpa Youtube Video that demonstrate clearly that ICTs and new media can and have borne witness to war, violence and deterioration of democracy in Sri Lanka even when the Fourth Estate and traditional broadcast media could not, our of fear or coercion.

The good guys aren’t the only one using ICTs today. But just as they don’t always win, they don’t always lose either.

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