The web won’t set us free

My following article was published by the Washington Post online on September 26:

During China’s milk powder crisis, with tens of thousands of babies affected by the contaminated goods, the country’s blogosphere railed against corrupt officials.

One outraged blogger wrote: “What are the people in the Government doing? They just want mistresses, they want cash, but out here we’re dying!”

Another said: “When they tell us some official is sacked, they are just giving us part of the story. The rest isn’t reported. They just move on to other jobs.”

It was the kind of brutal honesty that the internet has brought to the world’s largest online market. Millions of angry netizens were openly questioning the regime’s ability and willingness to manage the crisis. As it did after May’s Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of citizens used the web to organize protests against shoddy builders, the web is slowly democratizing information flow in the Communist State.

It has become almost accepted wisdom that the web is an automatic democratizer, but I never accepted this doctrine.

That freer flow of information is one of the main reasons the country has implemented The Golden Shield over the last years, the most effective web-filtering program in the world, ably assisted by Western multinationals such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Despite the explosion of views on topics as diverse as sex and economic development, the system allows the regime to eavesdrop in ways that were simply impossible before the net’s development.

It is, as Canadian writer Naomi Klein explains, “McCommunism“, a “potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism – central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance – harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism.”

It’s not just China. My on-the-ground investigation of the blogging revolution and its influence on the relationship between the West and the rest took me in 2007 to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China. In these countries I met writers, bloggers, dissidents, politicians, journalists and average citizens. I wanted to gauge how the web was changing lives and how little we understood about their worlds.

Blogs offered a window into mainly middle-class segments of societies rarely examined in the West. What does a Saudi Arabian woman think about her country’s adherence to Wahhabism? How does the average Egyptian web user cope with the ever-increasing number of arrested online activists? What is Cuba’s likely future under Raul Castro?

In China, where the vast majority of web users are far more interested in entertainment than politics, blogger Mica Yushu told me in Shanghai that most of her financially comfortable friends didn’t crave political change. “We use the internet mostly for entertainment, sharing information, earning money or other fun,” she said. It was a similar message in many states deemed “enemies” or “allies” of the West.

Take Iran. The Islamic Republic, routinely demonized in the Western press as the center of world terrorism, has arguably the healthiest blogging scene in the Middle East. As one blogger explained to me in Tehran: “Most of the people (I know are) in favor of reform, not revolution, because people are too tired to experience another revolution.” I found the same message echoed throughout the countries I visited: the desire to experience incremental change without foreign involvement.

The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has undoubtedly tightened the screws on political dissent, but despite onerous, Western-assisted web filtering, robust online debate continues. An editor of a leading youth magazine told me that he was constantly amazed that his Iranian friends were blogging about their exploits with sex and drugs. Life goes on in even the most challenging societies.

One point that resonated with virtually every person I met was how it was impossible to generalize about the web’s influence. In Egypt, the U.S.-backed dictatorship is struggling to manage a well-organized insurgency from web-organized activists and Muslim Brotherhood members. Syria increasingly blocks opposition websites, despite the fact that the groups themselves enjoy minimal support in the country itself.

U.S. writer Clay Shirky explains in his book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations” that “communications tools (such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blogging) don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring”. In other words, it’s only now becoming possible to find online the words of indigenous communities in Paraguay, dispossessed voters in Fiji or imprisoned bloggers in Morocco.

Ultimately, it is the Western media’s responsibility to engage new voices that are not simply “official” sources. The internet can never on its own bring freedom or Western-style democracy – nor should it. It is the job of reporters to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of individuals with messages that may be unappealing to our ears. The online world is just one way to enter this universe.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, blogger and author of The Blogging Revolution (2008) and My Israel Question (2006).

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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