Hugo Chávez Gets a Twitter Account

Christian Caryl
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
According to cyberutopians like Clay Shirky, everything from Wikileaks to Twitter is making us better, kinder, gentler human beings. But technology is a tool that can be manipulated by both peaceful protesters and repressive governments.
Foreign Policy
Political Geography
United States
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website (New York: Crown, 2011), 304 pp., $23.00. David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 352 pp., $15.99. Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 432 pp., $27.95. Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 256 pp., $25.95. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age THE UNITED States has always been a nation of technological optimists. From Jefferson to Edison to the 1939 World's Fair, giddiness over gadgetry is as American as apple pie. Benjamin Franklin refused to patent his inventions in the belief that he was creating public goods. Buckminster Fuller leapt from designing radical new structures like the energy-efficient and easy-to-construct Dymaxion House to the conclusion that “selfishness is unnecessary”—and dismissed it as the product of irrational minds. Surely it is no coincidence that our country has also produced generals who pronounced that wars could be won through the sole use of airpower or central bankers who were convinced that they had vanquished risk through fancy mathematical algorithms. Our faith in engineering has a habit of sliding over into our idealism about society. The creation of the Internet produced a vast swath of fertile new territory for those who believe that progress in technology equates with progress, full stop. Visions of direct democracy, power to the people, danced in activists' heads. The technology itself might have been new, but the talk about newness was entirely old hat. When the founder of MIT's Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, declared in his 1995 book Being Digital that “a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices” and that “digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony,” he ended up sounding more like a creaky Wilsonian than a fresh-faced rebel. The dot-com collapse at the end of the 1990s soon derailed some of the more grandiose predictions (especially the ones about the impending dawn of an economy freed from the burden of bricks and mortar). And talk of global harmony suddenly seemed rather outré after al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States. But history must always take another turn, and now revolution is sweeping the Middle East—powerfully abetted, it would appear, by the very same networks that finally seem to be delivering on their radically transformational promise. Not that long ago we were labeling revolutions by color; now we give them the names of Silicon Valley companies. Surely the inevitability-of-human-progress-through-technology skeptics got it wrong? IF YOU believe Clay Shirky, the basic story goes something like this: We human beings are group animals. We are naturally prone to “generous, social, and creative behavior,” so the Internet will bring out the best in us. The rise of social media means that a densely interconnected world must necessarily be a happier one. No longer will we sit passively before our television sets. Now we can engage in active participation with our peers, forging communities without regard to geography or cost. “This increase in our ability to create things together, to pool our free time and particular talents into something useful, is one of the great new opportunities of the age, one that changes the behaviors of people who take advantage of it.” Shirky, an expert on social media at New York University, believes all of this quite firmly. So he decided to indulge in a classic Web 2.0 response: he sat down and wrote a book. But fine, fair enough. There's no reason why books shouldn't have a place in a networked world—even if the only sharing that they offer is a strictly one-way street, imperious author declaiming to mute and worshipful reader. This is but one of several ironies that come to mind as you make your way through Cognitive Surplus, Shirky's new book on the possibilities of social media. The title refers to the enormous social capital that can now be tapped as we push back our recliners and step away from the television set to the computer in the next room. No longer will we be content in our old roles as passive consumers. Now we can band together in all sorts of unexpected ways to create new public projects—from sites where people converge to think up mindless captions for cat pictures to more serious efforts like Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing site in Kenya that aggregates reports about acts of violence committed against critics of the government. Many of their future equivalents, Shirky willingly concedes, will turn out to be pointless, silly or of limited social utility. But we shouldn't be surprised, he says, if some of them end up making remarkable contributions to the global commons. This is where another irony kicks in. Shirky aspires to be one more citizen in a seamlessly connected world, yet his vision of international relations is distinctly American. Dictators are dumb. Underdogs are virtuous. Innovation and transparency are always on the side of justice. We're all only people in the end. “The sensible reason to do things is for money, so doing things for free requires a special explanation,” he intones, and then sets out to explain the rationale for amateurism. I'm so glad we got that out of the way. His book—with its long excurses on the soul-sapping power of Gilligan's Island—is so parochial that it is not surprising that Shirky usually ends up missing big chunks of the picture when he ventures abroad in search of the kind of collaborative behavior that intrigues him. So, for example, he cites the case of the Philippines in 2001, when protesters used cell phones to organize street demonstrations that chased President Joseph Estrada from office. But Shirky doesn't seem to have heard of Filipinos' earlier and much more heroic protest against the rule of an actual dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986—and they managed to do it without any fancy gadgets at all. Shirky is also eager to sing the praises of a grassroots feminist group in India who used the Internet to conduct a sassy campaign against a bunch of dour Hindu fundamentalists a few years ago. But you could easily read his account without realizing that the bad guys actually belong to a marginal and widely maligned group, and that it's the feminists who enjoy the support of the police and the state government. There are similar problems with Shirky's recounting of South Korea's 2008 public-protest movements against American beef imports, a campaign that virtually crippled the nascent presidency of Lee Myung-bak. For Shirky, this is above all the remarkable tale of apathetic teenage girls drawn into their first political demonstration through their shared participation in a popular boy-band website. The real story is much broader and rather less uplifting. The protests were really triggered by a muckraking TV show that claimed that Americans were dying from mad cow disease they had caught from eating infected beef. (The network was later forced to admit that its journalists had made the whole thing up.) The protests were based on a bogus issue, and ultimately they were of minimal consequence. President Lee apologized but remains in office; U.S. beef imports later resumed. But Shirky isn't interested in the details. He just wants to make the point that social media can make things happen. I don't doubt that they sometimes do. I'm sure that Facebook played a vital role in helping Egyptian protesters organize. Yet the more closely we examine any of the cases of political upheaval where social media are said to play a role, the more complex the picture becomes. The same people who got the revolution rolling in Tahrir Square early this year started a Facebook page for a workers' protest back in 2008 that quickly gained seventy thousand followers. But that movement soon fizzled out. And then there's the intriguing fact that the biggest demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere came out only after the Egyptian government had completely switched off the Internet in the country. If you talk to many activists in the Middle East, they'll tell you that the most powerful social medium during the recent turmoil was not the Internet or mobile phones but Al Jazeera, the satellite-TV network that has, for the first time, created an instantaneous public space for the entire Arabic-speaking region—notwithstanding Shirky's contempt for the passivity of television. DOES THAT mean that satellite TV is inherently emancipatory? Of course not. Technologies don't come with built-in values; any innovation offers the potential for evil as well as for good. Yet there is something about the seductive potential of the Internet that makes us unwilling to give it up without a fight. Not long ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a remarkable speech proclaiming “Internet freedom” as an absolute goal of U.S. foreign policy, based on the assumption that the free flow of information in cyberspace will inevitably challenge authoritarian regimes. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom As Evgeny Morozov, the author of the remarkable book The Net Delusion, reminds us, though, the devil is always in the details. Does “Internet freedom” mean absolute freedom for the commercial interests of the corporate behemoths that now control some of the world's most prominent online social media? (After all, companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft were created to make money for their shareholders, not to promote liberty, and Morozov points out cases where all three have been accused of censoring content to accommodate political and cultural sensitivities in their overseas markets.) And won't such freedom also be compromised by explicitly linking it to U.S. government policy—thus tarring opposition movements as American stooges and practically inviting more aggressive scrutiny by the regimes we would hope to undermine? Can you hand out censorship-circumvention tools to online activists without also alerting censors to what you're doing? Shirky and other optimists see the world through the rose-colored filter of the Web. Morozov, currently at Stanford and the New America Foundation, shows us what tends to get left out along the way. One article of faith for the cyberutopians (as Morozov refers to them) is that the Internet automatically favors insurgents over incumbents. The Internet does this primarily by reducing the costs of organization to a minimum; the anonymity and instantaneity help, too. After all, the fact that authoritarian governments are censoring the Web means that they must be afraid of it, right? “Thus, according to this view,” Morozov observes, “the very presence of a vibrant Internet culture greatly increases the odds that such regimes will collapse.” Morozov goes on to expose the fragility of all these assumptions. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, he tells us, is a hyperactive tweeter—which is logical enough when you consider that Twitter can be a great way of getting your message across. (One must hasten to add that its much-ballyhooed role in the “Twitter Revolution” in Iran in 2009 has been grossly exaggerated—if only because the country has far too few Twitter accounts for the service to be of much use. And the mullahs, needless to say, are still in office.) In Russia, meanwhile, the Kremlin does not generally censor the Web. Instead it uses its huge pro-government youth organizations to flood cyberspace with “patriotic” content, usually with a healthy dollop of sex and entertainment added to the mix to keep things interesting. The Chinese have also raised this tactic to a high art, deploying armies of low-paid cyberauxiliaries, the so-called “Fifty Cent Party,” to ensure that the right story gets told. And when you do want to resort to censorship, there are plenty of ways you can use the Web to smother thinking you'd rather not allow. The Internet may well promote the flow of information, but it can also greatly simplify the work of government surveillance. The right software will lead you straight to the opposition's commentary or to Facebook pages of protesters. Sophisticated face-recognition software will soon let governments hunt down these insurgents even more easily by mining videos of demonstrations. Just to make matters worse, the Web also allows for relatively low-tech solutions. The Iranian government has been known to post photos of demonstrators online so that they can be identified by helpful netizens. Come to think of it, isn't grassroots vigilantism a great example of the sort of public and creative behavior boosted by social media? And can't that work in favor of the government, producing collaborators ready to curry goodwill from The Man? Censorship doesn't always have to be a top-down affair. In Saudi Arabia, Morozov points out, the government encourages Web users to tip it off to any websites they find offensive—and they are happy to oblige at the rate of some one thousand two hundred per day. In Thailand, where the king is protected from criticism by some of the world's strictest lèse-majesté laws, the authorities called upon netizens in 2009 to scour the Internet for any signs of disrespect toward the monarch. Within the first twenty-four hours they submitted links to some three thousand sites—which were all immediately shut down. Crowdsourcing can be a wonderfully effective tool for tyrants and autocrats. All too often cyberutopians of the Shirky variety seem to assume that participation and collective creation are automatically good things. Indeed, the notion that selfless cooperation automatically leads to positive outcomes flies in the face of human experience. Homicidal religious fanatics and ethnic cleansers don't see themselves as bad guys but as heroes, nobly sacrificing themselves for the cause. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have both perfected the art of sowing their messages across dispersed networks of autonomous online sympathizers. Sure, the Web helps insurgents—but not necessarily the ones that Shirky had in mind. And yes, evildoers often prefer to keep their sins in the dark—but there are also times when they opt to bask in publicity. The jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely send videos of their goriest executions to randomly selected mobile phones to stress the risks of collaboration with foreign troops. ALL THOSE traits we love about the Web—its relative anarchy, its capacity for anonymity, its decentralization—are the same ones that help al-Qaeda to evade Saudi government censorship. Some of the antidotes now being contemplated by the counterterrorism crowd are not exactly calculated to warm the hearts of libertarians. The Pentagon is developing software that will enable a single user to create multiple fake personalities (“sock puppets”) in order to undermine discussions in jihadi chat rooms. This, of course, is just the sort of tool that authoritarian rulers will be happy to deploy against critics in their own countries. Be careful what you wish for. If you're Hillary Clinton, you might give a speech on the need for absolute Internet freedom—only to find yourself striking a dramatically different tone when the subject turns to WikiLeaks just a few months later. Ah, yes, WikiLeaks. It is so easy to forget that it has only been a year since Julian Assange's quixotic campaign for information freedom entered the public awareness. WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy WikiLeaks's first big coup came in early 2010, when the group revealed video from a U.S. Army helicopter that documented the killing of a group of Iraqis who turned out to include two Reuters cameramen—complete with chillingly callous commentary from the soldiers doing the shooting. (Two children were also wounded in the incident.) Reuters had been trying to get the U.S. military to fork over the video for months in vain, but it was Julian Assange, the scruffy upstart, who pulled it off. Indeed, as the Guardian's David Leigh and Luke Harding note in their instant history WikiLeaks, the story quickly turned into headlines about WikiLeaks rather than the shooting incident itself. There was little question that Assange had achieved a remarkable scoop using means that might revolutionize the very business of news. Now, a year and thousands of leaked U.S. government documents later, Assange is under investigation by Swedish prosecutors for alleged sex crimes. WikiLeaks collaborators are jumping ship and denouncing him as a mercurial dictator. Besieged by angry American politicians, the site is having trouble maintaining the flow of donations. The Associated Press, which once filed a legal brief on Assange's behalf, now refuses to comment on his case. And Assange's erstwhile allies in the lamestream media, the very same editors at the Guardian who helped stir the online publication of purloined U.S. government documents into a global media frenzy, are now outing him as “callous.” At one point in the book, the journalists express concern for the safety of Afghans who are shown, in leaked classified documents, to have been sharing information with the Americans. Shouldn't their names be blacked out? David broached the problem again with Julian. The response floored me. “Well, they're informants,” he said. “So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it.” There was, for a moment, silence around the table. Revealing indeed. Assange depends on the establishment journalists for credibility and reach, and they depend on him for the sensational source material. But the culture gap between the two remains vast throughout. Despite their enthusiasm for the hot stories provided by their odd new friend, the reporters at the Guardian and other news organizations find themselves pressed to argue the case for hoary, old journalistic values. Assange, the product of a counterculture upbringing in Australia's hippie outback, has a hacker's ingrained belief that any limits on the flow of information inherently equate to censorship. Assange's original plan for WikiLeaks was to set up a site that would allow whistle-blowers to self-publish without the fear that governments or companies would be able to track them down. Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website But it soon became clear that this thoroughly hackerish approach wasn't practicable. Official documents, left to themselves, explain little to a broader public. You still need someone who can penetrate the jargon, supply the context, and illuminate the complex social and political relationships that bring dry bureaucratese to life. As former–Assange associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg puts it in his own WikiLeaks chronicle, “No matter how explosive our revelations were, if no one presented them to the general public, they would languish, neglected, on our website.” Leigh and Harding describe the journalists' struggle to convert a dump of 92,201 Afghanistan War logs into meaningful stories on human life and death—an effort that highlighted “the inescapable limitations of the purist WikiLeaks ideology. The material that resided in leaked documents, no matter how voluminous, was not 'the truth.' It was often just a signpost pointing to some of the truth, requiring careful interpretation.” NO MATTER how voluminous. That, in fact, is the key phrase that any chronicler of WikiLeaks must confront. As fascinating or repellant as Julian Assange may be, his person is peripheral. The overriding issue is the power of the technology itself. It is easy to forget that the documents that have made WikiLeaks a source of global controversy—the Iraq helicopter video, the Afghanistan War logs, the nearly four hundred thousand Iraq War documents and the quarter of a million State Department diplomatic cables—were all leaked by a single source, a disgruntled U.S. Army private by the name of Bradley Manning. (He was arrested by the U.S. Army and is now in solitary confinement in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia.) This was possible only because all the secrets resided in a single U.S. government information network that was accessible to Manning during his army service in Iraq. He spirited them away on music CDs and uploaded them to WikiLeaks at the push of a button. Some three-quarters of a million classified documents: this is disclosure on a scale that stretches to the limit the complex ethical and moral calculations that traditional journalists would have once applied to such material. Many of these documents are yet to be published—a tacit acknowledgement by the WikiLeakers that some redactions might be required. The freedom of information we see is not unlimited. Of the cables and logs that WikiLeaks has dropped into the public realm so far, some have ended careers, revealed intrigues, bedeviled important relationships between states, perhaps even inspired a revolution (by revealing the vastness of official corruption in Tunisia). The extent to which the documents have inflicted physical harm on individuals remains unknown—though I do not share the self-righteous belief of the Guardian editors that this is because the documents are inherently harmless. The journalists and WikiLeaks staffers may have taken pains to black out names, but in most cases the locales, circumstances and personal particulars of the sources can be figured out easily enough. These are, after all, original documents, with all the indiscriminate wealth of detail this implies. “Freedom of information” is a wonderful phrase. Just to be clear, I am in favor. And I don't, for example, see any reasonable grounds for the prosecution of Julian Assange. But we should put one thing very plainly: the Internet and its attendant products are revolutionizing the scope, quality and velocity of the information available to all of us, and our accustomed ideas about freedom will be affected. These new technologies do not automatically enhance our freedom; they complicate it. The role of the traditional media has been irrevocably altered; that's probably a good thing. But let us not succumb to naïveté. By all means, let us celebrate the Web when it is a force for good. But in the end, we, as its creators, are responsible for technology's dark side. Debates over how to manage our accomplishments are only now beginning.