Why ‘the Internet’ Can’t End Poverty or Defeat Putin

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com

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 Gdansk, 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?”

(Image via Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.