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The Internet and Fascism

Andrew Keen has penned a provocative editorial criticizing Obama’s plans for the democratization of broadband internet access (for more on the plan itself, see my summary of Obama’s technology platform). Keen’s chief worry seems to be that universal technological empowerment, particularly of the internet, does not correlate to a more enlightened citizenry.

Even more than that, he suggests that under significant economic stress (a reality towards which, the economists murmur, we’re rapidly hurtling), the technologically literate but hopeless ranks of the unemployed could find themselves more attracted to dangerous mass movements like fascism. Social networking and mass media venues like YouTube could become the Hitler youth rallies of the past.

Superficially at least, the viral Obama/Muslim conspiracy theories may seem modest proof that free information does not a reflective citizenry make. The “Obama is a Muslim” myth was amplified with alarming speed by the conservative blogosphere and Obama’s Conservapedia page, eventually making its way into the mouth of that “He’s an Arab” women at the McCain rally. Keen is right to think that on a mass scale this could threaten representative democracy. The Framers (Hamilton comes to mind) were openly distrustful of the mob’s judgment; it was too often hasty and irrational.

On the other hand, part of the success of Obama’s PR camp was in reaching out to thinking voters with immediate corrections, frequently through information technology. The subsequent and obsessive media/internet conversation sparked by the controversy proved to be an open forum which Muslim-baiting bigots simply could not win. As far as I can tell, that is democracy in action.

(Along similar lines, James Glassman over at the State Department has suggested that engaging jihadists in online debates, instead of lecturing them from the West’s “city on the hill,” often wins public support for liberals in the Middle East by exposing Islamic fundamentalism to be precisely that.)

This doesn’t mean that the Internet is a democratic panacea. The new frontier of astro-turfing, propaganda tools and internet media censorship are troubling developments for a medium that has otherwise liberalized expression and encouraged revolutions, if not always successful ones. Robert Faris and Bruce Etling have written some great analysis for Berkman on the effects, both postive and negative, of digital networking on democracy.

Returning to Keen, his position seems to me not only overstated, but also fundamentally flawed in at least one respect. His connection between Nazi fascism and the present financial crisis is that the Nazi propaganda masters utilized cutting-edge technologies like film to control and inflame a mass movement predicated on violence and racism.

The comparison suffers, however, by failing to distinguish the qualitative difference between propaganda films passively received and Web 2.0 technologies where users anywhere (often even in repressive censorship regimes) can dissent, criticize, correct and contest the claims of power. The internet has decentralized precisely what made fascism so ideologically powerful: unitary control over the information world of its citizens.

As such, it seems ironically undemocratic to deny the internet to citizens simply because they are poor or jobless. As the Times reported, this is precisely what the Chinese government does, tightening its grip on the internet whenever there is a spike in unemployment. As members of a liberal democracy, we ought to find the suggestion repugnant.

It seems to me that Obama’s hope of turning rural broadband into his version of the Tennesee Valley Authority could be a clarion call for a more enlightened, inter-connected and cacophonous American democracy, one in which democratic discourse grows as information flows more freely. That, at least, is the hope.

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