re:publica 10: techno-scepticism and donor-criticism

Of all the impressions from last week’s re:publica 10, scepticism directed at digital activism by several people I talked to has made me think the most, together with controversy over the role of privacy. All in all, it seemed to me like a huge discussion over the political role of information. A collection of ideas.

Evgeny Morozov, the man who coined the term “Twitter revolution” and, despite that, has often been called a “cyper-pessimist” was one of the first speakers of the event. And while I often find Evgeny’s argumentation to be too polemic, sometimes even Andrew Keen’esque in it’s pessimism, the man has some very valid points.

In the times of the GDR, the Stasi supported a huge network of “inofficial contributors” who were coerced – through threats or monetary rewards – into spying on their peers. Nowadays, this is no longer necessary, says Morozov. Authoritarian regimes can instead discover activists’ networks by looking them up on Facebook. In my eyes, the grandchild of the Stasi is China’s “50 cent party”: An enormous horde of people paid for spreading propaganda on the ‘Net.

There has been a change in the role of access to information. Publishing information has become so cheap that it is the new default, even in environments where this would previously have been a “no-go”. And the regimes react – not by suppressing information, but by discrediting the sender. What does this mean for the importance of freedom of information?

Daniel Schmitt of Wikileaks seems to base his work on the conviction that transparency leads to a better world. It’s some kind of a journalistic determinism. Global Voices’ David Sasaki questions the role of investigative reporting: “Is it really true that traditional journalism minimizes corruption?”

For Jeff Jarvis, that’s not even a question. “We now must defend the public,” he says, “because what is public is owned by the public, and that’s us.” And “if you cut down from the public, you steal from all of us. […] If you don’t share your knowledge, you’re being anti-social.”

The evening before, Christian Heller fought privacy at taz’ MediaTuesday event. Data security, he says, can be used against us. It “doesn’t necessary protect the weak from the powerful”. David Sasaki says that more and more raw data is put out on the ‘Net and it’s up to us to put it in context. Christian Heller wants to free information from its context. He calls this a plea in support of postmodernism.

Sokari Ekine, who talked about mobile activism in Africa, in an interview that we did said that revolutions are made by people, not by technology. Sami ben Gharbia wonders why media attention often focuses more on the technological development than on the issue, taking much-hyped crisis mapping tool Ushahidi as an example.

Iranian women right activist Farnaz Seifi tells me in an interview that the Iranian people “don’t need any other help rather than [free access to information]”. Evgeny Morozov explains to that the power of information is a myth stemming from America’s efforts during the cold war. Americans, he says, still believe that the US won that conflict – because of Radio Free Europe.

But he’s united again with Seifi when it comes to Western donors supporting projects in foreign countries. Their money disengages genuine activists, he claims. “I personally do not agree with lots of the projects inside the country with foreign countries’ budget”, says Seifi. “This is our internal fight. We have to do it ourselves.”

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