The Trouble With Sweeping Questions About the Internet

Pundits and scholars too often phrase queries that miss the point: The transformative power of any technology relies first on underlying human forces.

“Can the cellphone help end global poverty?”
“Can Facebook promote world peace?”
“Can the Internet defeat Putin?”
Those are headlines from some recent articles, and the questions they pose are loaded and misleading. You can tell by a close reading of the pieces that follow—inevitably, they either fail to answer their headline questions, or end up answering a different question altogether.
The latest case provides a perfect illustration. “Can the Internet defeat Putin?” is the title The New York Times gave to an op-ed by Emily Parker, author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground.
Parker begins with news that anti-Putin dissident Aleksei Navalny was convicted of criminal fraud. Navalny went on to violate house arrest and protested in the streets along with thousands of other Russians. Parker calls him “Russia’s top opposition blogger.”
And since he blogs, it’s tempting to focus on the Internet, which is what Parker does. First, she says that Navalny “presents a new kind of threat to the Putin regime” because he was “the first Russian activist to have used the Internet as an effective tool of political resistance.” She claims that there was no Internet activism prior to Navalny, and that in any case the Kremlin didn’t used to take it seriously. Pre-Navalny, “The Internet just reflected online realities” of citizen powerlessness. (This is not quite true, since there was plenty of Internet activism prior to Navalny’s blog posts. The Kremlin took it all seriously enough to dispatch age-old propaganda techniques such as a “web brigade” to post government-friendly opinions online.) Navalny gained a following by convincing his readers to file civic complaints online. A few potholes were fixed, and that momentum helped rally supporters to the street protests of 2011 and 2012. Parker says that thanks to social media, protesters “would know that if they went out on the streets, they wouldn’t be alone… The Internet had provided an alternative to the official narrative on television.”
The protests withered, though, and Parker blames that on too much public apathy: “The Internet alone is not enough to overcome it.”
So, what ultimately does Parker say about the Internet? If you lay out her statements one after the other, you find that the Internet is alternatively “an effective tool of political resistance”; a place that “just reflected offline realities”; “an alternative to the official narrative on television”; an entity whose “power is not just ‘virtual’”; and something that is “not enough to overcome [public apathy].” To summarize, her answer to the question, “Can the Internet defeat Putin?” is “Yes! No! Maybe! Maybe not!”
Confused? The problem, as Parker herself acknowledges, is that the genuine cause of real change in Russia won’t come from the Internet. She says it would come instead from “the flailing Russian economy.” This is a wholly satisfying answer, but if so, why does the story focus on the Internet? She concludes, “thanks to the Internet, Mr. Navalny and his supporters will have the tools to take advantage of a revolutionary situation if it does arise.”
In other words, the Internet will not be the cause of democratic change, but it will be a convenient tool when the Russian people feel sufficiently badly to revolt. Of course, if Russians ever felt that way en masse, does anyone believe a lack of Internet connectivity would hold them back? (It didn’t stop rebel Syrians two years ago.)
I don’t mean to pick on Parker—confusion about the Internet’s role is endemic in today’s public sphere. And that’s in part because we keep asking the wrong questions. Questions of the form Can the Internet do X? come in two categories. One kind makes good sense to ask: These questions ask what the Internet can do from a technological standpoint. Can the Internet provide a flexible, multipurpose, nearly real-time communication channel between Boise, Idaho, and Omsk, Russia? Yes. Can it beam physical matter from Point X to Point Y? No.
The wrong kind of question asks whether the Internet can cause positive social change. Can the Internet encourage world peace? Can the Internet end poverty? Can the Internet defeat Putin? At the most basic level, the answer is obviously no. It’s people who would cause world peace, or end poverty, or bring true democracy to Russia. Unless you define “the Internet” as the technology together with everyone who uses it, the Internet is an inanimate tool, just a communication channel.
That doesn’t give the people who ask these types of questions enough credit, though, because they are obviously asking something deeper, which I believe is: Can increased penetration and use of the Internet change the balance of human forces such that it systematically leads to more peace, less poverty, or more democracy? And the answer to that class of questions is invariably, It depends!
It depends on the underlying human forces. It depends on who has control over what technology. It depends on the balance of other forms of power—economic and military, to name two important ones. And so on. But if “it depends” is the answer, that’s an admission that the Internet isn’t the primary cause one way or the other. Russia’s political balance shifts not based on the Internet, but on Putin’s popularity, on his ruthlessness, on the economy, on the people’s expectations, and on many other factors, most of which have nothing to do with the available channels of communication. The Internet is not, nor will ever be, the primary, systematic cause of real political change any more than lanterns—“one if by land, two if by sea”—were the primary cause of the American revolution. (See also: Facebook and the Arab Spring.)
A loaded question is one that contains a bad assumption that you can’t sidestep if you answer directly. “Have you stopped beating your spouse?” Answer “yes” and you’re a former spouse-beater; answer “no” and you’re still whacking away. “Can the Internet defeat Putin?” or more generally, “Can technology X cause social change Y?” Answer “yes” and you’ve granted technology more agency than it has; answer “no” and you’re denying that technology has any role to play.
These questions are loaded, because the key issue isn’t about technology at all but, as Parker realized with Russia, “What social, economic, and political conditions would change people en masse?”