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8 January 2011

Internet activism: for and against

Evgeny Morozov versus Netroots UK.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

In this week’s New Statesman, Bryan Appleyard reviews Evgeny’s Morozov’s new book, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. Morozov, a native of Belarus who now works as a policy wonk in Washington, DC, is an apostate from the cult of cyber-utopianism. Once an advocate of the “Google Doctrine” – the belief that, in Appleyard’s words, “unlimited and uncensorable flows of information would spread democracy and undermine tyranny” – Morozov is now a sceptic. The “Twitter Revolution” in Iran in June 2009, for instance, was snuffed out by the mullahs, and fevered western visions of regime change in 140 characters were shown to be based not in fact, but rather on “wild fantasy”.

Morozov is not just sceptical about what the US state department calls the “Internet Freedom Agenda”, the attempt to use the internet to promote the virtues of liberal democracy around the globe. He is also unpersuaded by another tenet of the cyber-utopian creed: that the net can revitalise the public sphere at home. Appleyard writes in his review:

[T]he net boosters are right to point out that the web makes activism easier. Millions become involved through a single click. Here Morozov wheels out a surprising witness, the great theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He witnessed the expansion of public debate in the early 19th century with dismay. Kierkegaard thought it would destroy social cohesion and produce shallow involvement rather than deep thought. In the internet age, this becomes “slacktivism” – easy clicks produce big numbers but very little commitment.

But at an event being held in London today, activists from around Britain will gather to attempt to show that pessimism of the Morozov variety about the prospects for internet activism is misplaced. Netroots UK seeks to emulate the web-based campaign that helped Barack Obama to win the US presidency in 2008.

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Several of the participants, including the New Statesman columnist and blogger Laurie Penny, make the case for Netroots UK on the Guardian‘s Comment is Free site today. These remarks from Daniel Elton, managing director of the blog Left Foot Forward, are a perfect specimen of the sort of thing Morozov skewers (pretty effectively, if you believe Appleyard) in his book:

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The internet, as we only truly discovered with the rise of social networking, is an interactive [medium]. In social media, the line between content provider and consumer is made fuzzy – as newspapers crowdsource and comment sections are opened up. It is an incubator for activists, not a membrane between elite and passive mass. It is a vital part of the “long campaign” but also can lead to long-term changes to public opinion and the political calculus, shifting the centre ground and proscribing the limits within which politicians can operate.

Whether the long-term changes Elton envisages will occur remains to be seen, but the debate between cyber-utopians and sceptics is an important one. The Staggers will carry a report from the Netroots UK conference this afternoon.