Evgeny Morozov, Clay Shirky [4.11.10]
Introduction by:
Evgeny Morozov, Clay Shirky

The dreams of network utopians vs. the realists. Is the Internet is a medium of emancipation and of revolution — or a tool of control and repression? Did Twitter and Facebook have stoke the flames of rebellion in Iran, or did they help theauthorities unmask the rebels? — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Evgeny Morozov                                                                    Clay Shirky  

There is certainly a lot of excitement within governments — both democratic and authoritarian ones — about using the Internet to advance their political agendas, both at home and abroad. The kind of assumptions that politicians need in order to decide their policies all have to come from somewhere. And much of what has been said about the Internet in the past seems intellectually invalid today.
Evgeny Morozov

The Burmese example of communications use during their political struggle, followed by panicked shutdown, or the Ukrainian example from the Orange Revolution, or the successful Moldovan protests of last year, suggest to me that conditions under which a public that can self-identify and self-synchronize, even among a relatively small elite, is in fact a threat to the state. ... This is one of the things I want to understand about your videos, because while you and I are not polar opposites, we obviously have very different points of view about this. Do you believe that the synchronizing effect among a politically engaged public is (a) possible, and, (b) political, and if it is, what should the U.S. reaction to that be?
Clay Shirky

By John Brockman:

Recently, I invited Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky, both frequent Edge contributors, to sit down for a debate on the subjects of dictators, democracy, Twitter revolutionaries, and the role of the Internet and social software in political lives of people living under authoritarian regimes.

The profound dislocations and disruptions wrought by the Internet are subjects that invite serious thinking. "You very quickly get this kind of vertigo", says Shirky, "where you think you're asking a question about Twitter, and suddenly you realize you're asking a question about, say, Hayek."

What we are exploring here is a very recent phenomena. We have to start somewhere. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem "Life on a Battleship:"

We approach a society
Without a society.

The questions being asked in this conversation are for the most part coming from thinkers who are not situated in traditional academic disciplines and whose authority is not derived from institutional affiliations. This is a crowd of maverick intellectuals. In addition to Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky, participants in the ongoing Edge discussion include David Gelernter, George Dyson, Nicholas Carr,Jaron Lanier, Kevin Kelly, Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff, and Charles Leadbeater. Only Gelernter (Yale), Benkler (Harvard), Shirky (NYU), hold academic positions.

Perhaps one reason there are so few thinkers from the psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy departments of our major universities contributing to this conversation is that communications theory has long been deemed to be a low-prestige discipline among academics. The best people are likely to be found outside academia.

I am glad Morozov and Shirky are on the case. This is important. I challenge others to get involved.

As the contributor of a number of original pieces, Shirky is well known to readers of Edge and needs no introduction. This debate was my first opportunity to meet Morozov, whose writing, in just the past few weeks, has been featured in newspapers around the world, Prospect, to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, to  The Wall Street Journal.

Morozov's readers may be surprised to find out that this powerful new voice grew up in a small salt-mining town in Belarus founded by the Soviets to exploit the rich potassium deposits for export markets. Having won a national scholarship from George Soros's Open Society Institute, Morozov left Belarus for Bulgaria, where he completed a degree at the American University of Bulgaria. After a brief sojourn in Berlin and a few years working for a Prague-based tech non-profit, he is now a fellow at Georgetown and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy Magazine.

Versions of this piece are being published by Edge, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and La Stampa.More foreign language editions to come.


EVGENY MOROZOV, a commentator on the political implications of the Internet, is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and runs the magazine's influential and widely-quoted "Net Effect" blog about the Internet's impact on global politics. He is currently a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University's E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Evgeny Morozov's Edge Bio Page

CLAY SHIRKY, who coined the phrase "social software" in 2002, divides his time between consulting, teaching, and writing on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology — how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody. Clay Shirky's Edge Bio Page

Reality Club: Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff, George Dyson, Nicholas Carr, Rebecca Mackinnon



CLAY SHIRKY: Evgeny, I think this may be a frustrating hour, because I think you and I disagree with each other less than you disagree with a lot of the people you're calling internet utopians. For instance, you recently picked on the John Perry Barlow piece A Declaration of the Rights of Cyberspace, which is so over-the-top Libertarian, and which presents cyberspace as a separate sphere unconnected to the rest of the planet, that it didn't really have much effect on practical matters like foreign policy.

EVGENY MOROZOV: I guess we're talking about a recent essay of mine that appeared in Wall Street Journal in February. It was published a week after yet another overhyped wave of Iranian protests came to nothing. But this time something was different in how that failure was explained in the media. Suddenly, I could sense some public frustration — even in The New York Times — about how the Internet could have actually thwarted the protests, making them more disorganized. That's something I really wanted to play with in that essay. But since the Wall Street Journal wanted me to offer a critique of techno-utopianianism, I had to venture beyond recent events and see what kind of ideas are guiding governments in this space. Thus, the real objective was not to pick on John Perry Barlow — who in 1996 wrote "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" — which is one of the seminal texts of cyber-libertarianism, or any of the other early thinkers. It was more to reveal that we are currently facing a huge intellectual void with the regards to the Internet's impact on global politics.  

But the lack of a coherent framework does not really prevent us from embracing the power of the Internet. There is certainly a lot of excitement within governments — both democratic and authoritarian ones — about using the Internet to advance their political agendas, both at home and abroad. The kind of assumptions that politicians need in order to decide their policies all have to come from somewhere. And much of what has been said about the Internet in the past seems intellectually invalid today. Still, most of the assumptions made by politicians seem to be rooted in early cyber-libertarian discourses about the Internet and politics. A lot of those early discourses took shape in particular (and very different) contexts. If you look at John Perry Barlow's declaration, it was produced in the context of attempts to regulate the Internet in America, in 1996. It had nothing to do with Iran and only very little with the world outside of the US. We do need a new theory to guide us through all of this, for old theories are no good. 

SHIRKY: Yes, I agree with that, and with regard to Declaration of the Rights of Cyberspace — ten years ago I was teaching that at NYU classes as an example of sloppy political thinking, so I think we've known that those theories were no good for a while now.

You end your Journal essay with a fairly evocative paragraph saying, "The State Department can't abandon ideas of trying to harness the Internet for democracy, but it should come up with a policy that's more in line with what's possible, or what works." If you could give them a piece of advice — and let's put it in an absolutely specific context — if you could give Secretary Clinton, Alec Ross, and Jared Cohen advice about using the Internet to further U.S. foreign policy goals, what would you say? 

MOROZOV: "Do no harm" would be my first operating principle. By building very close and heavily-publicized alliances with Google, Twitter, and any other big technology companies, officials at the US State Department are presenting these companies as if they were some kind of Web2.0 era reincarnation of the Radio Free Europe — "Radio Free Internet" if you will — which they aren't. These companies have their own commercial agendas; they're primarily interested in making money, not in spreading American ideals. Yes, the Internet may help Google to sell more ads AND advance American interests at the same time, but it's not exactly how the State Department operates. At least in theory, we're not promoting Internet freedom because it helps America to sell more books, films and newspapers (buying stuff — like oil — is a whole different story!) We're promoting Internet freedom for freedom's own good. So the real question is how to leverage the undeniable power of these companies without presenting them as extensions of the U.S. foreign policy. 

Thus, when someone from the State Department takes executives from Google or Twitter to tour around the world, to go to Siberia, it just looks ridiculous and plain wrong to me. It makes people question this sudden proximity that exists between politicians and companies, especially when Google is also cooperating with the National Security Agency. If I was working for any government, authoritarian or democratic, I would not be very happy with the majority of my citizens doing their e-mail with a company that has secret dealings with the likes of NSA. That's a legitimate concern. Do we really want Google to be seen as the next Halliburton?

SHIRKY: To that commercial question, I'm struck by the parallel with the U.S. pavilion in Moscow in 1959 in Moscow where the government built, among other things, the U.S. Kitchen (the site of the "Kitchen Debate" between Khrushchev and Nixon), add that was an explicitly commercial projection of American identity. From my point of view the Kitchen Debate was a seminal moment in shifting the terms of the debate. I'd ask what's the difference between Jared Cohen of the State Department taking Eric Schmidt of Google or Jack Dorsey of Twitter to North Africa, or Siberia, or what have you, and the U.S. helping General Electric get into Moscow in 1959?

MOROZOV: At that time no one was expecting that people would start using kitchen appliances to overthrow their government, right? 

SHIRKY: You mean "the toaster revolution"... 

MOROZOV: Something like the "toaster revolution" actually did happen in Iran last summer — only without the commercial elements. There was a viral offline campaign asking people to turn on all their electronic appliances at a set time in order to shut down the power grid. This was a human "denial of service" attack. 

But let's not get carried away with the Khrushchev analogy. There is definitely a greater level of politicization attached to the use of Twitter, Google, and Facebook in authoritarian conditions. People who are now using Twitter in Iran are marked as potential enemies of the state, much like those who are using proxy servers in order to access banned content. You may be using it to download pornography, but as far as the state is concerned, you'll be seen as a potential political enemy anyway. 

SHIRKY: The Facebook example is interesting, because unlike a lot of the conversation about Twitter, mobile phones, proxy servers, and so forth, the Iranian government blocked Facebook before the election, they blocked it on June 8th or 9th, and the election happened on June 12th. So nobody knew what was coming after the election, and Iran still shut Facebook down.

Do you think the Iranian government overreacted to Facebook? Is your thesis that Facebook or Twitter are not, in fact, not terribly effective political tools, and the Iranian government overreacted? Or do you believe those tools effective last June, but the Iranian government has since responded in such a way that they are no longer effective?

MOROZOV: Facebook is a very particular example when it comes to Iran because there were blockages and unblockages throughout the election campaign. If you closely study it from January 2009 to June 2009, there have been multiple instances where it was blocked, and then unblocked, and then blocked again. But, to me, the fact that they blocked Facebook doesn't mean anything. All it means is that they could block Facebook — and they did. The fact that they are blocking does not necessarily endow Facebook with some special political meaning. Look at other countries such as Cambodia in 2007 when they had elections and imposed the so-called "tranquility period" whereby all mobile operators agreed to turn off all text messaging services for three days during the election period. Were they expecting a text message rebellion? I don't think so. The point here is that they could do it and they did. 

SHIRKY: As did Singapore with respect to blogs. But this seems to be an indication of real political fear. Singapore and Cambodia framed this censorship as connected to a positive set of political values, where the political rationale was that the citizens will be better off with this tranquil period to reflect on who the better leader should be rather than, God forbid, talking to their friends and neighbors. Now, I don't buy these rationales, but even if you do frame censorship that way, the censorship seems to me to be an explicitly political act. 

When I see Cambodia, or Singapore, or Iran, shutting down a service that increases social coordination, my response is essentially the one Habermas proposed in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which is that those regimes are trying, quite specifically, to dampen the public sphere. If that's a political judgment those governments are making, the question I am asking myself is: Are those regimes right in fearing better social coordination among the public? 

I think the answer is yes. The Burmese example of communications use during their political struggle, followed by panicked shutdown, or the Ukrainian example from the Orange Revolution, or the successful Moldovan protests of last year, suggest to me that conditions under which a public that can self-identify and self-synchronize, even among a relatively small elite, is in fact a threat to the state. 

This is one of the things I want to understand about your videos, because while you and I are not polar opposites, we obviously have very different points of view about this. Do you believe that the synchronizing effect among a politically engaged public is (a) possible, and, (b) political, and if it is, what should the U.S. reaction to that be?

MOROZOV: First of all, there is symbolic value attached to censorship: it does help the Iranian government to signal to the rest of the world that they are still in charge. What the authorities would love to do is for everyone to believe that they are succeeding in their attempts to block Facebook (even if this is not strictly speaking the case). They would even love to issue a press release to that effect: "Yes, we're blocking Facebook because we are still in charge; we can do that, and we'll do that." 

But if we look beyond just symbolic benefits that governments can derive from propaganda, I would argue that one of the reasons why the Iranian authorities have been so seemingly ineffective at blocking the Web is that they — correctly in my view — also see tremendous value in watching anti-government Iranians coordinate their actions — publicly, mind you — on Facebook and Twitter. For example, they might be learning about the kind of groups and threats that are emerging. This intelligence value is something that we often tend to forget. 

Second, I'm not sure that the synchronicity that Habermas talked about was measured in days, hours, and tweets as opposed to decades, centuries, and books. But that aside, was this new hyper-synchronicity actually present in the Iranian online campaigning and how did it influence the actual protests? Yes, it was a very vibrant, online campaign, but I didn't see it extending into real world coordination all that much. How many completely uninitiated protests have actually engaged with the real world because of something they had read on Twitter or Facebook? While there was synchronicity of online actions, I'm not sure that it translated well into coordinated protests in the streets. 

SHIRKY: I don't think it could translate well into coordinated protests. To my eye, those Tehrani protests didn't look strongly directed. They more like effusions than planned events. But if I wanted to pick a maximum case for online coordination online coordiantion changing real-world politics, it would be in the role of women. 

To take one example, the South Korean protests of 2008, following the importing American beef after our Mad Cow contamination, hinged on the ability of women to come forward rhetorically, particularly in a political environment where they're quite restricted physically and publicly. Then there's Neda, the famous martyr of the early events in Iran — that again strikes me as something that probably wouldn't have happened without these tools. Again, there's a small number of such political events to reason from, but it seems to me unlikely that that the presence of the women in the protest movement would have happened without the social media having a coordinating effect.

MOROZOV: I'm not an expert on Iranian women, but from what I understand they have been experimenting with social media for at least a decade. So again, why was there so much activity on social media sites in Iran? Well, because so many people had access to it. From this perspective, most social media activity is just epiphenomenal: it happens because everyone has a mobile phone. But still: despite millions of angry tweets and cellphone cameras pointed at their faces, the Iranian government still cracked down on the protesters. Just look at what happened in Iran over the last nine months: the fading protests, the growing division in the country. A lot of people had to emigrate, a lot of people were imprisoned, a lot of people were killed. As far as the political situation on the ground is concerned, it's quite grim: if there are some big positive developments, I don't see any. 

I just don't see where very positive stuff that I'm missing. The brutal people would be there without social media.

SHIRKY: Concerning our debate in Prospect in December, I admitted to being a rhetorical bad actor in this conversation up until now. Since my area of concentration is social coordination among otherwise uncoordinated groups, I wasn't offering accounting for the full political sphere, I was only offering accounting for those groups, and you rightly pointed out that hierarchically-managed groups have access to decisive action the way that uncoordinated groups don't.

With that caveat, there do still seem to be effects that previously uncoordinated members of social sphere are now having. I believe that the Green Uprising altered the balance between the theocracy and the military aspects of the Iranian government. Iranian political power moved the direction of the military in the 2005 election, after the scare from Khatami's moderate government, and it seems to me that one of the effects, paradoxical and sad, of the Green Uprising, is that it has pushed Iran into being an essentially military power. 

The theocracy as a moderating force over popular passions was broken under the weight of the regime's inability to do anything in public without rekindling the Uprising. They couldn't even keep the anniversary of the revolution from turning into anti-government protest, and that the way that they finally held down the Green Movement in February was to amass an unbelievable amount of brutally-minded cops.

One of the ways that I might be wrong about the moderating effects of the political sphere is if digital coordination does, indeed, create a movement of these states, where those that have some kind of political sphere emerging become more like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge than like South Korea under the military dictatorship in the 1980s. Again, a small number of cases to reason from — Iran is just one example, and the uprising has been going on less than a year — - but one of the open questions is whether or not the presence of a more engaged public will actually make governments more brutal rather than more open to change.

MOROZOV: One of the reasons I've been so unhappy with how the media have been covering the role of the Internet in Iran — and this I guess also has to do with them reading certain things into your book that you did not intend to say there — is the almost exclusive focus on analyzing what the Internet has done to protest movements, at the expense of thinking about its impact on everything else. But if we focus only on how people coordinate themselves with the help of social media before, during, or after the elections, we miss many other effects that the Internet is having in public, social, and political life in authoritarian states, especially in the long term. 

Shouldn't we also be asking whether it's making people more receptive to nationalism? Or whether it might be promoting a certain (hedonism-based) ideology that may actually push them further away from any meaningful engagement in politics? Does it actually empower certain non-state forces within authoritarian states that may not necessarily be conductive to democracy and freedom? Those are all big questions which we cannot answer if we just focus on who gets empowered during the protests, the state or the protesters, because some countries, well, don't have that many protests. Or elections. China doesn't have national elections.  

SHIRKY: Well, they do at the local level, and that's where we're seeing more protest. Sichuan is a great danger to the Chinese Central Party because that's where — to your point about modernizing — they're desperate to modernize local and regional political representation of economies. If the dead hand of the state isn't removed at the level of productive factories, they can't continue to generate the growth they need. However, that requires the kind of engagement that has historically been connected to greater political demands made of the state.

MOROZOV: It's all a matter of questions that we want to ask. If the question we are asking is "How does the Internet impact the chances for democratization in a country like China?", we have to look beyond what it does to citizens' ability to communicate with each other or their supporters in the West. I recently found a very fascinating piece of statistics: apparently, the Chinese government spent $120 billion by 2003 on e-government and something like $70 million on the Golden Shield, the censorship project. You compare those two numbers — $120 billion on e-government and $70 million on censorship — and you can sense that the Chinese are really excited by e-government. No surprises here: it can make their government more efficient, making it seem more transparent and resistant to corruption. This would only strengthen the government's legitimacy. Will it modernize the Chinese Communist Party? It will. Will it result in the establishment of democratic institutions that we expect in liberal democracies? It may not. If we want to know whether China is moving closer to embracing fully functioning democratic institutions and what kind of role the Internet would play in this process, there are no easy clear cut answers here. 

SHIRKY: This is one of the really interesting things about these questions, which is that you very quickly get a kind of philosophic vertigo. You think you're asking a question about Twitter, and suddenly you realize you're asking a question about, say, Hayek and markets. My bias is that non-democratic governments are lousy at managing market economies over the long haul. That's a baseline assumption, and it affects the context of digital publics.

With that assumption as background, one of the questions you could ask is how much is political sensitivity of the regime titrated to the price of oil? If oil goes back above $100 a barrel, the Iranian regime can do anything they like. They could destroy the intelligentsia in all of Tehran and still rule the country because they'd have so much cash from oil. If it goes under $50 and stays under $50, on the other hand, their ability to hold down populist uprising will be severely compromised.

MOROZOV: Whatever the bias, the truth is that we did have revolutions before Twitter. 

SHIRKY: Yes, of course. 

MOROZOV: And we did support those forces somehow, whether it was by smuggling technology, which did happen in Poland smuggling in those Xerox machines, or just by making sure that the Polish political dissidents could link up with the Catholic Church. 

SHIRKY: But smuggling the Xerox machines! That's exactly about driving the communications piece into the equation.

MOROZOV: Yes. But if you look at some emerging intellectual discussions that are now happening in "transition studies" — particularly among academics who study the causes of the 1989 revolution — you'll see quite a lot of disagreement about the reasons for why communism collapsed. There are more and more revisionist voices- people like Stephen Kotkin, for example — who argue that the reason why communism collapsed was because its elites badly mismanaged the situation and the governments simply imploded from within. That's Kotkin's "Uncivil Society" thesis: communist government just ran out of money and resources and couldn't support themselves, so whatever was happening at the grassroots level — with or without Xerox machines — didn't matter all that much. This, of course, overstates the case but I think Kotkin is asking some important questions. You probably see the implications of his argument to the role of the smuggled Xerox machines: they may not have been all that important, for it was the fundamental economic unsustainability of communism that precipitated its collapse. So how many tweets are now being smuggled into Iran may not really matter in the long run. 

SHIRKY: So I'll make an argument for why it is going to matter, which relates to the Iranian governments announced plan to ban Google's mail service and replace it with a "national email service." I don't believe that the Iranian government will be able to run a good replacement for Gmail, not because of the censorship, but because I don't think they have talented enough system administrators. I don't think they can keep the technology up. If they suddenly become tech support for their own country, that actually shifts the economy to a less productive mode. 

Now, you can afford to give up half a percent a year GDP from your market economy if oil goes above $100 a barrel, but if oil stays at $70 and below, they can't afford to shave off that kind of growth. This is the idea of Iran becoming "temporary Burma" that you and I have been arguing about. I think Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, has pushed Iran into a serious compromise where they're willing to weaken their own communications infrastructure, aka, shave tenths of a percentage point off GDP, to try to control the insurrection. That's understandable from their point of view, but still seems to me like a dangerous move in the longer term.

MOROZOV: But you are not proposing that lest they ban Gmail, they are going to crumble? 

SHIRKY: No, no, no. I'm saying that their ban on Gmail indicates a fear of their own citizens communicating freely with one another, and I think that fear is justified.

MOROZOV: I think one problem with your analysis is that it takes almost everything that Iranian authorities say at face value. But it can all be interpreted differently: what if they just wanted to score propaganda points? To that effect, they announced a plan which they knew would never be executed. I lived in Belarus and saw enough crazy but completely meaningless threats and announcements by the state; usually they went nowhere — they were meant as exercises in propaganda. If you look at China or Russia, much of their publicity is now run by Western PR firms who know how Western media works and know how to make it produce the coveted coverage. Why do we worry about American firms selling China technology that can then be used for censorship purposes rather than about say the PR and lobbying firms who cater to the publicity needs of authoritarian governments? I guess what I am trying to say is that these governments' media strategies are much more sophisticated and media-conscious than we take them to be. When we in the West are trying to second-guess what the Iranians actually meant, it does remind me of Kremlinology. 

SHIRKY: It's a lot like Kremlinology, yes. So let me pose the question as a hypothetical rather than arguing about the face value statements. You and I had a discussion in December, before the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and before the Gmail announcement, in which I posited that Iran was acquiring a kind of technological auto-immune disease. They are attacking their own communications infrastructure as the only way to root out the coordination among the insurrectionists. 

You replied that kind of communications blackout can be geographically limited and temporary, you can turn it on and turn it off. The announcement of the Gmail ban seemed to me to be a national and non-temporary attempt to do the same thing to their communication infrastructure. So, were Iran to shut down parts of that infrastructure, do you believe that that starts to ramify in the economy in a way that mattered more than the Polish Xerox machines?

MOROZOV: No. You know, again, it depends on what exactly they'll be blocking.  I don't think their ban on all email exchanges– except those facilitated by a national provider— is ever going to happen. You have to carefully study the geopolitical context in which that threat had been made public. The Iranian authorities made the statement a week after Google had announced that they were talking with NSA. That was a very propitious propaganda moment for the Iranian government to jump in and say "We absolutely want to make sure that our citizens are not being watched by NSA". Bingo: that's what they did. Masterful domestic propaganda once again. 

SHIRKY: Changing the subject, one of the places I think the debate has gone awry is in overestimating the importance of the value of the access to information, and we've underestimated the importance of the access of value to people. This is a mistake that dates from the dawn of the Internet. 

In fact, if we could lower the censorship barriers between the West and China, could just remove the Golden Shield altogether, while the Chinese retain the same degree of control over citizens and citizen communication, not much would change. If the Golden Shield stays up in its full form, but the citizen communication and coordination gets better, a lot will change. You could see evidence of this after the Shanghai earthquake.

MOROZOV: But my question is: in what direction — good or bad — would all of this change? 

SHIRKY: Well, right. As Robert Putnam has pointed out, social capital creates value for people inside the network while exporting harms to people outside the network.

I don't believe that freedom to communicate automatically brings in pro-Western governments, which is to say I am pro-democracy full stop, even if they are Zakaria-like illiberal democracies. I accept that there will be national movements whose goals are inimical to the foreign policy objectives of the West, but as long as those countries are democracies, I am less worried, frankly.

MOROZOV: Yes, but what comes first, democracy or Internet-based contention? It's not like once you have a new democracy, it's guaranteed to stay that way forever. If only democratization was that simple. Newly formed democracies are at their most vulnerable during the transition period. That's when they need a strong state to carry out the painful economic development and a broader program of liberalization. If you have a weak state entering a transition period — and it's fair to say the Internet would mobilize the groups that would make a weak state even weaker — chances are you would not end up with a democracy in the end. That's more or less what happened in Russia in the '90s. 

SHIRKY: Let's get back to China. Here is what I think it looks like in China. They had the '08 quake in Sichuan, the BBC finds out about it on Twitter, and the Chinese government finds out about it from QQ. The last time there was a quake of that magnitude, it took the Chinese three months to admit that it had happened. Here they don't even have a choice because the world is already reporting on it as they're kind of mobilizing. 

This happened when they were having one of their "happy, happy, joy, joy" moments with the press, and they let the press report this whole thing, and then the mothers in Sichuan, a pretty sympathetic group who have lost their children because the school buildings collapsed in the quake, realize that shoddy construction has caused the building to collapse. And all of a sudden they're protesting in public daily, and documenting those protests, and putting it up on QQ, and that's the first time the Chinese government has faced a radicalized population who had no preexisting coordination.

The only commonality to those women protesting was that they were mothers of school-aged children killed by an earthquake that brought the government-bulit buildings down. The degree, the sharpness of the eventual government crackdown on those protesters was so extraordinary that it suggested to me, (a) that the government was not just worried but terrified, and (b) that they were right to be terrified. And that's where the threat comes from in China — - local politics, not national politics. There is going to be some break-away internal province that's going to freak them out, and that is going to be the axis of change.

MOROZOV: I do agree that the ability of the Chinese government to control information flows has been somewhat — in some particular cases, quite significantly — eroded. But will they be able to adapt to this environment by engaging in new ways of propaganda? By selectively manipulating who gets to cover which story? Maybe. We do see evidence that this is what's happening. Last year we saw it in China's Yunnan Province, where a young man died in police custody. Instead of censoring thousands of comments that were gathering on sites like QQ, they let "netizens" blow their steam off. They solicited applications from them to become "netizen investigators" and eventually chose 15 people who were then dispatched to examine the prison in question. They couldn't find anything, and wrote a very inconclusive report. That diffused the growing tensions — mind you without need for any formal censorship (only later did "netizens" find out virtually all 15 "investigators" were actually current or former employees of the state media). The moral of the story is that we tend to underestimate the government's ability to react to some of these news stories in ways that would not undermine their legitimacy and authority to an extent that we expect those two to be undermined. 

SHIRKY: Let's talk about Belarus because you're a Belarusian, and I linked the Susanne Lohmann work on information cascades to the Flash Mob kids in Minsk in 2006, and that was a protest that failed. And you said something evocative in Prospect about that failure: the fence-sitters saw what was going on, and sensibly climbed higher on the fence. What do you think caused them to fail? What happened there? Because that's a real-world example of a protest movement that used social tools to coalesce, created a public stir, and then vanished.

MOROZOV: Not sure there was any kind of "public stir" in Belarus in 2006.One of the reasons why protests happened in the first place had to do with the fact that, yes, there were presidential elections, and one of the candidates in those elections was actually imprisoned shortly after the elections,. It had nothing to do with social media. You know, if people had no Internet, they would still show up in the Square in the numbers that they did, probably. So, to me, the case of Belarus is even more unambiguous than the case of Iran: social media didn't really play any role whatsoever in generating protests in the streets. And most people actually didn't show up. It was a relatively small protest, in part because the government is relatively popular. 

But back to your question: my biggest problem with these flashmobbing kids in Belarus was that they had erroneously thought that the Internet presents an entirely new way of doing politics. They thought that they would build up and operate a fully virtual movement, that they would not need to bother with the dirty and bloody business of opposing a dictator, a business that often entails harassments of all kinds, as well as bloodshed, intimidation, expulsion from universities. Let's not kid ourselves: that's what being in an opposition in authoritarian country entails. It's never a pretty picture. So I do fear that some of these kids thought that the Internet offered a nice shortcut that would allow them to meaningfully challenge the dictator without having to go through any of that unpleasant stuff. They thought they could just blog the dictatorship away. I even know why some of them had such high hopes for virtual politics: it promised a viable alternative to the otherwise moribund oppositional politics of the country. In the particular case of Belarus, the country simply has a terrible, disorganized, always squabbling and extremely unappealing opposition. No wonder so many smart young people do not want to be part of it. But the Internet presents them with a false choice; the reality is that they don't have any alternatives — they can either join and reshape this opposition from within, perhaps even using the Internet — or stay on the sidelines and get lost in free and abundant online entertainment. 

SHIRKY: It seems to me that one of the things that the Lukashenko government, the Belarusian government, enjoys now is that nobody in the West really cares anymore what happens to the remaining authoritarian states because it's no longer the salient geo-political question. Now it's just a little corner of the world that may have an additional spot of oil. Do you think those two things are correlated, which is to say increased interest in electronic communications has decreased particularly the U.S.'s willingness to exert pressure on Lukashenko, or do you think those two things just happened at the same time?

MOROZOV: Again, I think Belarus is not a good example because the regime does enjoy popular support. But you look at Iran, you look at China, those are very focal points of interest for the U.S. government, And yet the Iranian police were still cracking down on protestors, killing people despite the fact that everyone was armed with mobile phones. Could they have killed more? Probably. But I didn't see technology as a very effective deterrent. Neda was still killed despite the fact that there were people taking those videos.  

But my concerns also have to do with how the Internet is changing the nature of political opposition under authoritarianism. I don't know if you've read Kierkegaard, but there are quite a few subtle undertones of Kierkegaard in my critique of Twitter-based activism. Kierkegaard happened to live during the very times that were celebrated by Habermas: cafes and newspapers were on the rise all over Europe, a new democratized public sphere was emerging. But Kiergeaard was growing increasingly concerned that there were too many opinions flowing around, that it was too easy to rally people behind an infinite number of shallow causes, that no one had strong commitment to anything. There was nothing that people could die for. Ironically, this is also one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice. 

SHIRKY: One of the funny things that Habermas says in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere(from a not-long list of funny things) is that newspapers were best at supporting the public sphere was when freedom of speech was illegal, so that to run a newspaper was an act of public defiance. Similarly, a protest which is relatively easy to coordinate at relatively low risk is not only less of a protest, but potentially draws off some of the energy that could go elsewhere.

MOROZOV: I am also not sure that bloggers make for great symbols of anti-government campaigns. The kind of ordinary apolitical people that we are talking about — those who eventually muster up the courage to go and defy authorities in the streets — they need to be led by people who are ready to take a brave stand, to sacrifice themselves, to go to prison, and become the next Havels, Sakharovs, or Solzhenitsyns. 

SHIRKY: The question of does a movement need a martyr, does it need an intellectual focal point that's willing to take a hit in order to make the point? And the second question is does that have to be one person? You know, the martyrization of Neda happened after the fact. We had no idea what she thought or meant to do. She could have been out on the street with her friends becaus