Evgeny Morozov’s latest skeptical article (of many) about the liberatory potential of communication technology describes a new trend in internet censorship: in addition to building national firewalls and knocking websites offline, some governments are trying to win the war of words on the internet by engaging their citizens in debate.
The Chinese government’s practice of paying citizens — the so-called “50 cent party” — to make pro-government points in online debates is well documented, and the propaganda department reported last year that “we have used the Internet to vigorously organize and launch positive propaganda, and actively strengthen our abilities to guide public opinion.” In Russia, Morozov claims that the Kremlin is engaging in “comment warfare” with its opponents. Yet what’s rarely asked in Western criticisms of such developments is how they compare to the operation of media power in our own
societies. To the extent that authoritarian governments are engaging in public debate about their policies, rather than trying to silence such debate, are they not in fact moving towards a different form of governance — one in which winning the argument, rather than preventing the argument, is the foundation of legitimacy?
I’m not of course trying to claim that the internet in Russia or China is some kind of ideal Habermasian public sphere — but neither is the internet in Britain. “Public relations” and “spin” are accepted facts of life in Western politics, though few are honest enough to call them “propaganda”. We accept that a few hands control the news agenda, and that while anyone is in principle free to speak their mind, most will not be heard — yet we regard our society as essentially democratic, and Chinese or Russian society as essentially authoritarian.
I want to argue that such essentialism is mistaken, and that the mode of governance towards which China is rapidly moving — described by Rebecca MacKinnon as networked authoritarianism, and by Min Jiang as authoritarian deliberation — resembles in many ways the society in which we already live. That is not, of course, to say that they are identical; only that in both systems, winning the war of words is of paramount political importance.
This raises a difficult question for those who would like to quantify the democratising influence of communication technology: can we distinguish between propaganda and spin, between “comment warfare” and genuine debate — and if not, what does that mean for our understanding of democracy?