Rarely does one find an article as sober and compelling as Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? published in the Boston Review.
The article’s echoes Smriti Daniel’s conclusion in an article on Facebook activism in Sri Lanka published recently in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times, which ended by suggesting that “while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.”
I have in many previous posts addressed the issue of using the Internet and web under repressive regimes, and how blogs, web based tools and services as well as mobiles and SMS are shaping new public discourses around democracy and governance. These vital interrogations aren’t new, but the manner in which they are conducted, communicated and disseminated are in many countries undergirded by developments in telecoms.
Countries like Sri Lanka today are no longer outside the glare of domestic and international scrutiny, despite the government’s best efforts to clamp down on all information flows from the embattled Vanni region, precisely because channels of communication are pervasive and impossible to curtail. This was witnessed in Myanmar as well, when the only really effective measure the junta could take to control the Saffron Revolution was to shut down all communications in the country. And that was a measure which could not be sustained.
There are already a plethora of ways, some of them under the radar of traditional media, that the Internet and web are helping prop up democratic governance, human dignity and humanitarian aid. Yet Morozov makes an important point,
The idea that unfettered access to the Internet will bring democracy suggests one of the worst fallacies of cyber–utopianism. Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?
Morozov’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 Sri Lankan blogosphere is littered with trolls and hate speech directed against individuals and organisations currently perceived to be partial to the LTTE, the UNP, peace negotiations with the LTTE, federalism, human rights, humanitarian concerns of the Tamil civilians in the Vanni and partial to domestic and international NGO reports and condemnation of violent abuses of human rights. It is also littered with personal diatribes, such as Nibras Bawa’s recent outrageous post against a fellow and much loved blogger, which incensed many in the blogosphere and his subsequent ousting from the leading blog aggregator Kottu.org. Pointing to three of the best known trolls and examples of their writing, London, Lanka and Drums once asked “Why do all three of you choose to try to present your points, arguments and views in such confrontational and insulting demeanours?”
Yet, is a blogosphere more vibrant because of trolls? I have given up engagement with the most racist, insulting and violent elements online because it expends energies much better spent elsewhere. This is not to say that one must always speak with the converted, but on the contrary, engage with dissenting views that are expressed clearly and with a view to engagement, even if the end result is that interlocutors agree to disagree. Perhaps this too is based on a normative value – that non-insulting expression is the basis for conflict transformation. It may be the case that expletives and verbal violence constitute another way of social intercourse. But from the personal experience of framing and moderating debate on extremely contentious issues on the basis of civility and the failure of previous initiatives based on a free for all conversation, my bias is towards the belief that the Internet and web can and will be used for democracy and human progress and that more, not less, information in the hands of citizens strengthens democratic governance.
Hate and violence can only be effectively addressed with alternatives to what fuels both. Youth in Sri Lanka use the Internet to download movies, play games and post photos of their holiday’s on Facebook. A smaller group of committed and influential youth also use it for far more serious purposes. This is why I am engaged in practically engaging with the challenge Morozov poses at the end of his article,
Figuring out how the Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations—very few of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web—would not be a bad place to start.