Internet Interrogation

Internet Interrogation

By Marlon Cornelio[1]

An interesting article, entitled “Facebook ‘pushing Filipino rebels into oblivion’” [2] written by Agense France –Presse (AFP), came out of the Inquirer today (7 April 2011). Government peace negotiating panel (GRP) Chief Negotiator Alex Padilla was quoted saying that the internet helped steer away university students from the rebels. Rebellious youth vent online, in Facebook for example, rather than take up arms against the state. Padilla noted that most rebel leaders are over 70 as “there has been a lack of, or dearth of youthful ideologues actually being brought up.”

While the article clearly refers only to leftist rebel groups – the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), the issue on the effect of internet on activism, in its different shades and forms, has steered much debate.

But before going into the debate, there are just some points that need to be clarified: (1) the left, and/or the activist, in the Philippines do not refer to a single entity; (2) while activism is usually associated with the different groups in the left movement, the left does not have the monopoly on activism; (3) the left movement, in broad terms, can be classified into the democratic (or ‘moderate’) and the undemocratic (or the ‘extreme’); and (4) the difference between the broad division is hardly recognized by some people in the media, the armed forces, including the police, as well as the public. Rigoberto Tiglao, for example, mistakenly interchanged Akbayan from Bayan Muna[3].  Though the democratic left is fast gaining support from the public, still, in general, being left or an activist is projected and perceived negatively. By this perception alone, fewer and fewer young people are interested into being an activist, more so a leftist. Possibly, similarities in activism among young people in other countries can be seen.

With this context, the contending side of the debate, whether or not the internet (or the web) is advantageous or disadvantageous to activists and activism, particularly on the process of democratization, is better framed. However, the case of CPP-NPA can also be a different issue all together. I could be that with or without the internet, young people, even wanting change or being an activist, do not see that taking up arms as a reasonable form of struggle or of activism.

This paper explores this debate by characterizing the internet, more specifically Web 2.0 and its impact on democracy and authoritarianism, most of which are discussed in Evgeny Morozov’s “Net Delusion.”[4] The paper also presents a challenge to internet/web users – citizens and activists, to interrogate the value of the web in advancing democratic and progressive agenda.

Web 2.0: the User-Friendly Version

From a user’s perspective, the main difference between the web in its earlier form, web 1.0, and what is now called web 2.0, is the end-users active participation in developing the platform as well as creating content.

Tim O’Reilly[5], one notable pioneer on web 2.0, notes of seven core competencies or features of web 2.0:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models

(emphasis supplied)

In these core competencies, the role that the end-user is assuming is highly notable. Another pioneer in the web 2.0 discussion, Paul Graham[6] , on the other hand, accounts for 3 components of Web 2.0:

1.       Ajax (refers to a broad group of web technologies that can be used to implement a web application that communicates with a server in the background, without interfering with the current state of the page)

2.       Democracy (or the users ability to select and produce content, i.e. wikipedia)

3.       Do not maltreat users (or user-friendliness)

Graham echoes Reilly while focusing more of the importance of the end-user and the web’s democratization value. For Graham, Web 2.0 signaled the revival of the web and the realization of its intent to be a collaborative and democratic medium.

Web 2.0, in this sense, empowers the users to create and manage web content. It makes users both consumers and producers. It changed the position of users from passive receivers to active participants.

photo credit: http://www.salon.com

Democracy 2.0

With web 2.0, applications like google, wikipedia, social networking site like facebook, and blogs, users or people/citizens have also be empowered in their socio-political life through access to information, knowledge production, expression of opinion or dissent, networking, collaboration and mobilization. In turn, this leads to heightened awareness, greater participation, or overall democratization. This is evidenced by the central role of the web and ICT in the expression in dissent in authoritarian states and the successive uprisings in the Middle East which allegedly was mostly organized through social networking platform and through texting (SMS). This was also observed in the second people power uprising in the Philippines.

The web, particularly 2.0, in these instances, has accelerated the end of authoritarianism and facilitated the process of democratization. Web 2.0 has become a powerful tool for democratization. It has become a potent weapon against authoritarian rule. Following the same analyses, the United States State Department espouses an ‘internet freedom agenda[7]’ which includes promotion of democracy through the internet or the web. This agenda capitalizes on the successful web-facilitated uprising and hopes to spread it like a wild fire in other authoritarian states.

Authoritarianism 2.0

While the US State Department and other actors see the events in the Middle East as a case of democracy facilitated by the web and internet, others, like Evgeny Morozov[8] views it as net delusions: cyber-utopianism and internet-centrism.

“Cyber-utopianism” is the belief that technological innovations would spread democracy to oppressed peoples of the world. Specifically, it is the belief that the culture and use of the internet is inherently emancipatory. “Internet-centrism”, meanwhile, is the belief that every question or problem in our modern society and politics can be framed in terms of the internet. Consequently, answers and solutions can be found or achieved using the internet.

Evgeny Morozov refers to these two as net delusions in his new book “The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the World” (2011). Morozov argues that the west’s reckless promotion of technological tools as pro-democratic agents caused provocation of authoritarian regimes to crack down on online activities, using different approaches: not just closing down or blocking websites, but using social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters, seeding their own propaganda online, and generally out-resourcing and out-smarting their beleaguered citizenry. Morozov further argues that the internet/web, rather than enhancing democracy and the fight against authoritarian regimes, creates tolerance and cripples dissent among citizens through the provision of ‘convenient’ activism, entertainment and ‘noise’. Morozov calls this as ‘spinternet’ or using internet in propagating and institutionalizing authoritarian regimes’ ‘spins’; and ‘slacktivism’ or providing a compromised and compromising internet activism, to subliminally discouraging activism and dissent.

With specific examples from Iran, China, Cuba, Russia, Belarus, among others, Morozov comes strong in destroying the myth of world liberation through the internet and the illusion of ‘internet freedom’. He puts the blame on the aggressive campaign of the west that have resulted to crackdown and subversion of the internet by authoritarian regimes. Morozov also pities the ‘helpless’ media, development organizations, and netizens (citizens using the internet) in their ill-informed usage of the internet and the web.

Morozov, towards the end of his book, provides a counter proposal for cyber-utopianism and internet-centrism. This he calls cyber-realism: review of the existing pillars of internet; decentralization in regional internet policy making; localized approaches to internet, among others. Unfortunately, Morozov had very limited space in his book left for this. However, the message is clear: while the web can be used as a tool to promote democracy, it can also be used to suppress it.

Activism 2.0

Clearly, the internet and web 2.0 can be utilized for both democratization and authoritarianism. While ordinary users and activists are slowly discovering the potentials presented by the online platform in advancing their progressive agenda, authoritarian governments with the aide of multinational companies have sped up, full-throttle, in subverting the developing online systems in propagating their regimes and crushing dissidents with more precision and accuracy, thanks to all the information that users gladly provided.

Web users – citizens and activists must not fall into this technological trap.

Activists in particular must (re)assess the value, as well as the potential peril, in utilizing the internet and the web as tools in their work. Activists must interrogate that web at all the different levels; (1) the system or the tool; (2) the content or the message; and (3) the impact on the citizenry. In analyzing the system and the tool the following questions can be asked:

1.       In a programmed environment, as the web, who is really the one in control?

2.       How much information is the user giving away in his/her participation or collaboration in these online platforms?

3.       What safety nets, if these are possible, should be put in place to protect the user?

In analyzing the content or the message, activists can outwit the ‘spinternet’ by questioning:

1.       What propaganda are passed off by the regime as that of an ordinary user?

2.       What lies are being established as facts?

3.       What content are being censored or dominant in the new media?

The validity of ‘slacktivism’ can be tested by questioning:

1.       Who has access to the web and the internet?

2.       How is the web being perceived by users?

3.       How is net-activism contributing to the advancement of progressive and democratic agenda?

The actual cases presented by Morozov provide sufficient guide for a continuous interrogation of the internet and the web. Activists must step up as well.


[1] Marlon Cornelio is a youth activist in the Philippines. He is currently the Vice President of Akbayan Youth, a democratic socialist formation, the youth wing of Citizen’s Action Party (AKBAYAN).

[2] Agence France-Presse(AFP) . Facebook ‘pushing filipino rebels into oblivion’. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 04/07/2011. Available Online: http://technology.inquirer.net/infotech/infotech/view/20110407-329906/Facebook-pushing-Filipino-rebels-into-oblivion

[3] Tiglao, Rigoberto. Outlook:Frency Against Merci-Eyes on the Senate. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 03/16/2011. Available Online: http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20110316-325845/Frenzy-against-Merci-eyes-on-the-Senate

[4] Morozov, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the world.

[7] cited in Morozov, 2011.

[8] Ibid.

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