For anyone who ever doubted the saintliness of new technology, here is grisly proof:
“Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.”
That was one of the text messages that fueled interreligious violence in central Nigeria earlier this month. Mosques and churches were torched; hundreds were killed, their bodies burned and dumped in wells and sewage canals.
This is a grim reminder that while greater connectivity and the spread of Internet access can be hugely beneficial to the spread of democracy, there is also a flip side – extremist groups and authoritarian regimes will increasingly co-opt and manipulate new technology for their own end.
Take Rwanda. Speaking in June last year about how foreign policy had been changed by the democratization of the Internet, British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown said referring to the genocide, “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”
By the looks of texts and the violence that ensued recently in Nigeria, Mr. Brown was wrong.
Violence would have spread quicker than it did in 1994, when it was fueled by word of mouth and state-run Hutu radio. These days, hate speech would spread virally through text messages and social networks. Back then few video clips of Tutsi atrocities against Hutus – unspeakable violence against worshipers in a church, for instance – spread virally by mobile phones could have inflamed hatred more effectively than traditional media ever could.
Since the Enlightenment, technology has often been equated with social progress and the spread of democracy. And to an extent, this is true.
But the Internet has spawned its fair share of techno-utopianists, confident that new technologies have the power to fundamentally change the way humans behave and interact. They argue that the Internet gives people the opportunity to expand their personal freedoms in the face of meddlesome or authoritarian governments.
Indeed, in brutal regimes around the world, the Internet – more than any other medium – has become the meeting place for dissidents and pro-democracy activists.
In Iran, a combination of cellphone cameras and social networking has sustained the opposition Green Movement. In Colombia in 2008, three people used Facebook to mobilize 1 million people to demonstrate against the guerrilla group FARC.
But where the techno-utopianists are limited in their vision is that in this great mass of Internet users all capable of great things in the name of democracy, they see only a mirror image of themselves: progressive, philanthropic, cosmopolitan. They don’t see the neo-Nazis, pedophiles, or genocidal maniacs who have networked, grown, and prospered on the Internet.
The combination of the cellphone camera and the Internet has been crucial in the globalization of the jihadist movement in the past decade. A generation of young men has been galvanized by grainy footage of “atrocities” committed by Western forces, “martyrdom operations,” or grisly execution videos.
What’s the solution? The history of technological innovation shows that tyrants and authoritarian governments have found that co-opting technology is often better than banning it.
As the blogger and author Yevgeny Morozov argued, “The Soviets did not ban radio; they jammed certain Western stations, cracked down on dissenting broadcasters at home, and exploited the medium to promote their ideology. The Nazis took a similar approach to cinema, which became a preferred propaganda tool in the Third Reich.”
The tendency during periods of technological change is to overemphasize the role new technology plays: thus, instead of revolutions we have “Twitter revolutions,” and instead of plain old bullying we have “cyberbullying.”
Both utopians and Luddites give too much credence to the idea that technology can fundamentally change human behavior and nature. In most cases, new technologies just help us to do in different ways what we have always done – hate, love, kill, bully, have sex, campaign, network. Rather than dictating our actions, technologies merely enable them.
We don’t blame the radio for what happened in Rwanda, even though it had a crucial role in fanning ethnic hatred. Nor do we reduce the significance of Thomas Paine’s ideas to the pamphlet they were written on.
It is not technology per se that has the power to change the world, but rather the motivations (both good and evil) of the people using it.
Luke Allnutt is the editor in chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s English website.
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