Author warns of Russia's and China's 'Spinternet'

In 'The Net Delusion,' Evgeny Morozov describes how China, Russia, Iran -- and even the U.S. -- pay bloggers to push their views

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Is the Internet, with its blogs, tweets, e-mail, Web and social networking sites, a force to change places such as Iran, China, Vietnam and Russia into Western-style democracies with the West's ideas about freedom of expression and political rights?

While that's an article of faith among much of the Western media, academic and political elite, says Evgeny Morozov in his provocative new book "The Net Delusion," he calls this "cyber-utopianism, a quasi-religious belief in the power of the Internet to do supernatural things." The more realistic view, he counters, is that the Internet has become an effective tool that authoritarian governments are artfully using to propagandize their citizenry, crush dissidents and stifle freedom of speech. And Morozov cautions that Internet titans such as Google, Twitter and Yahoo, companies with American roots, are increasingly regarded with suspicion abroad as possible tools of the U.S. government.

Book cover of 'The Net Delusion'

"Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed their authoritarian skin is just one of the high expectations placed on the Internet these days," writes Morozov, who experienced an authoritarian political system firsthand growing up in Belarus. That Eastern European country's president, in power since 1994, willingly describes himself as authoritarian, and the country's disputed elections are fraught with violence against political opponents. 

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Morozov, now in his 20s, is in the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Stanford University as well as holding the research post of Fellow at the public-policy think tank New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He wants to debunk as myth the idea that the Internet is an inherently liberating force and his book shows how governments around the world are using paid bloggers, tweets, surveillance and censorship for political ends.

"The border between cyber-utopianism and cyber-naivete is a blurring one," he writes in "The Net Delusion." "In fact, the reason why so many politicians and journalists believe in the power of the Internet is because they have not given this subject much thought. Their faith is not a result of the careful examination of how the Internet is being used by dictators or how it is changing the culture of resistance and dissent."

Just because authoritarian governments such as China are censoring the Internet does not mean they are afraid of it, Morozov points out. He says there's an Internet embraced by authoritarian regimes which he calls the "Spinternet"—the means to blast out government-approved views to spin the opinion of Internet users or angle for Internet eyeballs on a massive scale, where entertainment and multimedia are all just part of the mix.

Among the many examples of government-driven "Spinternets" cited in "The Net Delusion" are:

*, described as "Russia's pioneering experiment in Internet television supported by Kremlin's ideologues" and said to offer "more than two dozen weekly and daily video shows" such as a quirky show where a "horny and slightly overweight young man travels around Moscow nightclubs in search of perfect breasts" where "Moscow nightlife being what it is, the show is never short of things to film and women to grope and interview." Produced with technical expertise by Konstantin Rykov and Maria Sergeyeva, other programs on include political interviews with Russian leaders such as president Dmitry Medvedev, as well as talk shows with senior members of various Kremlin youth groups. "The need for such a site stems from Kremlin's concern that the transition from the world of television, which it fully controls, to the anarchic world of the Internet might undermine the government's ability to set the agenda and shape how the government reacts to news," Morozov says in "The Net Delusion," calling the site "highly propagandistic."

* China, in addition to its unremitting censorship of political and other content on its Internet, funds online bloggers to voice pro-government views, according to Morozov. "While Rykov and Sergeyeva do not have to conceal their relationships with the Kremlin, since they are comfortable producing branded propaganda, some governments are exploring more anonymous and creative models," writes Morozov. "China's Spinternet, for example, is much more decentralized, with local and regional authorities playing a crucial role in shaping public discourse in their own areas of the blogosphere. Collectively, China's pro-government Internet commentators are known as the Fifty-Cent Party, with 'Fifty-Cent' referring to what they supposedly earn for each pro-government comment." Citing David Bandurski, a China analyst at Hong Kong University, who has estimated that there may be as many as 280,000 Fifty-Centers, Morozov says these government-sponsored bloggers are "part of a giant propaganda machine" intended to "deliberately engage in online discussions, steering them in ideologically appropriate directions. Morozov writes: "Not only are some of them regularly paid for their online contributions, but various government bodies also organize routine training sessions to hone their argumentative skills." Morozov says some Chinese officials acknowledge the role of the Fifty-Centers, but claim their role in mainly to counter "rumors."

* Many other countries have their own versions of the Spinternet, Morozov says, including Azerbaijan and Iran, which has been training "a new generation of religious bloggers since 2006, when the Bureau of Religious Web Logs was set up at Qom, the center for religious scholarship in the country. "The revolutionary Guards, too, have been aggressive in cyberspace. In late 2008, they even pledged to launch 10,000 blogs under the supervision of the paramilitary Basif forces to counter the secular bloggers."

* In another example, Morozov notes modern propaganda doesn't discriminate between technology platforms, and "in 2009 millions of customers of the state-controlled China Mobile, who perhaps were not feeling patriotic enough on the country's National Day, woke up to discover that the company replaced their usual ringback tone with a patriotic tune sung by the actor Jackie Chan and a female actress." Morozov adds: "China's is the kind of communism that doesn't mind imbibing the worst advertising excesses of its capitalist adversaries; the excesses, in fact, allow it to keep on going."

Morozov concludes, "It appears, then, that the Internet is not going to undermine the propaganda foundations of modern authoritarianism." 

Paid blogger vs. paid blogger?

"It's not hard to discern what it is that governments are trying to achieve by flooding blogs and social networks with artificially engineered content," writes Morozov. "In most cases, the goal is to create an impression that moderate, pro-democracy, pro-Western positions are less popular with 'netizens' than they are in reality, while also trying to convert more 'undecided' citizens to their causes. At a certain point, economies of scale may begin to kick in: The presence of paid commentators may significantly boost the number of genuine supporters of the regime, and the new converts can now do some proselytizing on their own, without ever asking for their fifty cents."

In an interview, Morozov acknowledges that the U.S. and Western European democracies have also tried the idea of funding and training bloggers to encourage speaking up about political freedom, something he learned about firsthand when he worked for the Prague-based non-profit organization Transitions Online.

"It's a bad idea for several reasons, " he says. Though there may be sincerity in what the bloggers choose to write, "it portrays bloggers collectively as agents of the West." In addition, he points out, many of these types of projects end up as self-perpetuating bureaucracies with administrators that also need to get paid. Whether bloggers are being paid to speak up for the status quo or as dissidents for change, the blog process ends up woefully commercialized.

In his book, he notes that when conservative Russian bloggers discovered a foundation organization closely associated with the U.S. government was somehow involved in funding various schools of bloggers, this led to conspiracy theories in the Russian blogosphere, and in 2009 there eventually emerged the "Kremlin's School of Bloggers" from a Kremlin-affiliated think tank.

Morozov casts out a few ideas for "spin-fighting tools" that supporters of democracy in the West might consider, such as the creation of "some kind of ratings site for all Russian and Chinese commentators, where their reputation can be ranked. Alternately, all comments coming from one IP address might be aggregated under a unique online profile, thus exposing the government's propaganda department or even their PR consultants." But just because one could fight spin does not mean that one should, he adds, noting " In most cases, such Western interventions would also erode online anonymity and put dissidents' lives on the line."

When technology gets political

"The Net Delusion" takes a dim view of how technology is being used for political purposes, packed with examples of how governments around the world are mastering use of photo surveillance (Morozov bashes The University of California for accepting funding from the Chinese government 'to work on better surveillance technology"), facial recognition and censorship.

"What's worse, Western companies are always happy to provide authoritarian governments with technology that can make filtering of text messages easier," Morozov writes. "In early 2010, when American senators were busy praising Google for withdrawing from China, another American technology giant, IBM, struck a deal with China Mobile to provide it with technology for tracking social networks (of the human, not virtual variety) and individuals' messaging habits: Who sends what messages to whom and to how many people. (IBM, of course, was quick to point out that such technology is meant for helping Chinese mobile operators cut down on spam, but none can vouch that the same operators won't use it to curb political speech.)"

Morozov also takes a shot at Evgeny Kaspersky, founder of security firm Kaspersky Lab which is based in Russia, for accepting a position in 2009 on Russia's Public Chamber, which Morozov describes as a "quasi-state institution composed of pro-Kremlin celebrities, business men and intellectuals that puts the stamp of civil-society approval on whatever initiative the Kremlin demands of them. On joining the Chamber, Kaspersky began advocating that online anonymity may need to go to keep the Internet working." In an interview, Morozov said he stands by this statement. He also has misgivings about how the Obama Administration is pursing the idea of Internet freedom.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an important address last year about Internet freedom, censorship and security, making "Internet freedom" a priority for American foreign policy. This address followed the news about Google's acknowledgement it had been hacked and had valuable intellectual property stolen, in an attack traced to China.

But in "The Net Delusion," Morozov is inclined to skepticism about how the Obama Administration's actions are playing out so far. And he indicates he thinks it unwise policy when the U.S. takes actions such as one member of the State Department did in 2009 in encouraging Twitter to keep its service up and available during the civil unrest in Iran following disputed elections there, since dissidents were using it as a means of contact. The danger is that U.S. companies end up looking like tools of the U.S. government.

"Silicon Valley is very popular in the world," says Morozov, noting high-tech creativity originating there commands admiration. But if the U.S. government gets too cozy with private industry, it "can backfire" and be "seen as an extension of American foreign policy."

Learn more about this topic

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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