Twitter Isn't Spreading Democracy—Democracy Is Spreading Twitter

James Madison, known Tweetdeck addict (Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca J. Rosen)

Last month I wrote about Chinese Internet censors, who seem less concerned about eliminating criticism of the government, and more concerned with preventing grassroots collective action. What the Communist Party most fears is organized protests and activities, even when they’re not political in nature.

In America, the right to assembly is guaranteed, so there’s no censoring of tweeted incitements to mass action, political or otherwise. But thanks to Edward Snowden, we now see how far the government goes to spy on our digital communications in the name of national security. Arguably, what the U.S. government fears most is threats to its citizens’ physical safety.

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Considering these revelations together allows us to see more clearly the relationship between the Internet and politics.

Until now the dominant story has been that the Internet democratizes. For many, any mention of the Arab Spring immediately calls to mind a “Facebook revolution.” For similar reasons, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State promoted a foreign policy of Internet freedom. And, the mantra that the Internet democratizes everything is repeated over and over in the media. Just in the last few days, for example, here, here, and here.

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But what both Chinese censorship and American surveillance show is that there is nothing inherently democratizing about digital networks, at least not in the political sense. Far-reaching communication tools only make it easier to impose constraints on the freedom of expression or the right to privacy. Never before have Chinese censors had it so easy in identifying subversive voices, and never before has the NSA been able to eavesdrop on the private communications of so many people.

Silicon Valley feeds us a myth of technology trumping politics, but if anything, it’s the other way around. How else would the NSA have been able to strong-arm nine tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft into cooperating with its PRISM program? What’s telling was the embarrassed semi-apology that these firms issued to the public – their excuse came down to, “We didn’t want to. What we did wasn’t so bad. They made us do it.” Meanwhile in China, Internet companies are a seamless extension of the government’s censorship machine. Social media firms self-censor content known to be offensive to the government, and they work quickly to erase trending content that government censors want quashed.

Of course, many of us take advantage of online government services, and electronic voting machines can streamline elections. So, the digital can support democracy. But, the reason why the Internet seems “democratizing” in America is exactly because America is a democracy. We have free speech online because we have free speech offline, not the other way around. The fact that technology can be used either to buttress or erode democracy means that technology itself doesn’t carry democratizing power—what it does instead is to amplify the underlying political forces already in play.

What does this mean for anyone working to spread or strengthen democracy? It means that focusing on new technological tools is far less important than focusing on the underlying politics. In her speech on Internet freedom, Hillary Clinton called on American foreign policy “to synchronize our technological progress with our principles.” But this is a call for redundant, possibly distracting, effort. Technology cannot but align with expressed principles. What matters more is that the right principles are held more deeply by more people and by more powerful people.

Will China ever ease up on censorship, and will America ever stop snooping on its citizens and allies? Maybe, but if these things come to pass, it won’t be because of new technologies or the spread of existing technologies; it’ll be because of protests, lobbies, and changes in mass values, leadership, or balances of power—in other words, because of age-old politics.