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I can haz DEMOCRACY?

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Last month a 1994 clip of The Today Show went viral. The scene opens with three intrigued hosts discussing an email address, wondering what to call “that little mark, with the ‘a’ and the ring around it.” Eventually a puzzled Katie Couric asks her co-hosts, “What is Internet?”

A few years later, people gazed at the potential of the “information superhighway.” With a phone line, a modem, and a few hundred dollars, you could read news from across the world, and it only took half an hour to download.

The World Wide Web hype persisted. As the speed, availability, and cost of Internet rapidly evolved, buzzwords like “global village” and “inter-connectivity” conveyed a borderless world where every human would be connected to the other. Bright-eyed professors spoke of the inevitable world peace and solidarity resulting from the realization of our common humanity.

The academic term for this thinking is media determinism. The theory asserts a cause-and-effect relationship between new forms of media and societal change. This idea was touted most prominently by twentieth century U of T scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.

The Internet is unlike all other mediums because it allows massive amounts of information to be transmitted beyond the typical confines of time and space. Media determinists believe that the web ultimately creates more transparency, opens up closed societies, and allows previously disparate groups to encounter one another — thus generating a collective consciousness that demands democracy.

Belarus-born journalist Evgeny Morozov thinks otherwise. In his book, The Net Delusion, he argues against what he calls “cyber-utopianism: a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication” that fails to recognize the implications of online propaganda, surveillance, and censorship.

In a chapter titled “Orwell’s favorite Lolcat,” Morozov explores Russian Internet policy, a rather successful policy of distraction over censorship.

While dozens of websites stream movies and sitcoms for free, many surfers recognize the Russian as a top source for a wide selection of fast-streaming videos. The site seldom crashes and offers many copyrighted works that almost never get taken down.

Although some sites promoting terrorism or child pornography are censored in Russia, little is done to combat piracy. But it’s not just lax copyright enforcement that allows RuTube to thrive. The site is funded by Gazprom, a state-owned energy corporation.

Another popular site adds to this culture of distraction. is a website produced by Kremlin associates. It contains some news — mostly propaganda with a heavy spin — but is known for its high-quality entertainment reporting, profiling Moscow’s bustling club scene with liberal amounts of booze, drugs, and bare skin.

Russia doesn’t censor much online — it doesn’t have to. The theory is that entertainment deters disenchanted citizens from taking to the streets; and it seems to be working. Bountiful access to a variety of entertainment and pornography are small but effective comforts for those living in what some describe as a mafia state.
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In a New Yorker article published last October, Malcolm Gladwell played down the role of social media in creating political change. He touched on the plethora of online campaigns, mostly Facebook groups and online petitions, that require no commitment and thus no results.

This phenomenon has been dubbed “slacktivism,” a portmanteau for those who’d rather sit in front of a computer than perform an actual sit-in.

Gladwell opined that most online activist movements are, at best, forums that propagate groupthink. He believes social media is ineffective for activism, unless participants engage in causes through traditional means of protest that existed before the Internet.

But the Internet allows an exchange of ideas that can lead to mobilization. When Stephen Harper decided to prorogue Parliament for a second time at the end of 2009, tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets for the first time in recent memory.

A Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament mobilized angry and concerned citizens across the country. While these marches in the streets were organized using traditional means of mobilization, it’s undeniable that Facebook played a role in sparking the protests. CAPP provided a forum for Canadians across the country to voice their frustration, and to co-ordinate their tactics.

A similar case can be made for North Africa: While causes of recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere are multi-faceted, one definite cause is cute cats.

The dictator’s dilemma is a political science theory advanced ten years ago suggesting that the Internet poses a double threat for repressive governments. Websites open the door to mobilization and free speech, but blocking the net results in severe economic consequences. The theory can be stretched to fuzzy kittens on Facebook.

Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, developed his self-described “cute cat theory” in 2008. He encourages activists to use social media and blogging platforms for a variety of purposes, rather than just activism.

By diversifying content on these sites, users make it harder for their governments to block access. A dictator has little reservation to shut off Tumblr if ninety per cent of content posted is activism. But if a country’s Facebook usage is mostly pictures of cute cats and only a small percentage is mobilization, governments would face a huge public outcry by blocking the site — the antithesis of the RuTube effect. Thus, the more people use Facebook for mundane entertainment, the harder it is for activists to be censored.

Many originally associated the Internet with transparency, community building, and the its potential for fostering world peace. Two decades later it’s become dominated by entertainment, and the repercussions on civic life remain undetermined. Will the proliferation of fun content harness active citizen voices, or divert our attention? Cute cat videos, porn, and illegal movies could be the end of democracy, or perhaps its saving grace.