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Has the Internet hurt democracy?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 10, 2011 04:02 PM

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to the Persian Gulf to drum up support for sanctions against Iran underscores how hopes for change in the nation have been dashed since the 2009 pro-democracy movement.

Many saw those protests, organized largely on Twitter and Facebook, as the beginning of the end for the Iranian regime and a vindication of the potential of the Internet to topple repressive governments.

But almost two years later, little has changed.

Two articles in Sunday's Globe Books section take a skeptical look at the impact of the Internet on politics, arguing that despite high hopes, the Net's record of fostering democracy remains mixed at best.

Indeed, Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom, makes the case that the Internet has actually ended up empowering the authoritarian governments like Iran's that it was supposed to threaten. As Hiawatha Bray writes in his review, "the world's autocrats have learned to love the Internet."

Nations like Iran, China, and Venezuela now embrace it as a tool of propaganda and public surveillance. They’ve even learned to use the Internet as a social safety valve, where disgruntled citizens can blow off steam without posing a serious threat to the establishment.

In a very different vein, Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear chronicles the growing number of parents who refuse to give their children vaccinations, a movement based largely on a 1998 journal article linking the measles vaccine to autism that has since been discredited.

As reviewer David M. Shribman writes, anti-vaccine parents were able to come together in part thanks to the Internet, which has spread a stream of vaccine conspiracy theories:

Mnookin’s book is an unsparing brief against the vaccine skeptics. But in a larger sense, this volume is less about the insurrection against inoculations than it is about the democratization of information. It is less about the movement to battle the medical establishment than it is about the ability of social networks to mobilize for what Mnookin and most mainstream scientists and doctors believe is a bad cause. It is less about reasoned debate than about the free flow of information through the Internet. It is less about the contagion of ideas than about the contagion of misinformation and mistrust that metastasizes in the new technology.


Both Mnookin and Morozov paint the Internet's influence on politics in a harsh light, depicting how the Internet's very openness can make it a conduit for misinformation. In its defense, though, while online activism may have failed in Iran, it succeeded in Ukraine. And, as for public health conspiracy theories, they were already getting plenty of traction long before the Internet:

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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