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Anti-Authoritarianism in the Age of the Internet

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Although I am not an enthusiastic user of the Internet, I recognize that its emergence has notably expanded free expression around the world and inflicted an almost-mortal blow to the censorship regimes that authoritarian governments rely upon to control information and thwart opponents. Emily Parker, a former journalist at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, has convinced me of this in her upcoming book that reviews what the Internet and social media revolutions have meant for China, Cuba and Russia.

Parker’s book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, is a rigorously researched and reported account that reads like a thriller. Parker, who speaks Mandarin and Spanish, knows and has interviewed the majority of influential bloggers in the countries she covers. She gracefully navigates the catacombs these bloggers tend to inhabit, from which they connect with the outside world and from which they are giving their compatriots—formerly paralyzed by apathy, fear and pessimism—a renewed hope in progress and democratic change. It’s been a while since I have read a book that is so entertaining, not to mention one so encouraging for the culture of liberty.

This isn’t to say that Parker excessively romanticizes all the protagonists of her book, presenting them as tireless, disinterested idealists ready to go to jail and give their lives in their struggle against oppression. None of that. Alongside admirable fighters guided by conviction and principle, Parker features plenty of opportunists, adventurists and provocateurs whose loyalties are ambiguous, if they are not outright government spies. But all of them, by doing what they do and regardless of their intentions, have released the brakes and loosened the controls that allowed dictatorships to manipulate information. The gray monotony of these societies is shaken by the possibility of official truths being questioned, corrected and replaced by genuine truths. Silence is being filled by dissident voices and a renovating, hopeful and youthful air mobilizing segments of society that had appeared petrified by their previous conformity.

If Parker’s testimony is accurate, and I believe it is, China is the country, of the three here profiled, where the digital revolution has produced the biggest changes and seemingly unstoppable momentum. Cuba, for its part, is the one where the changes have been the least significant and most vulnerable to reversal. Russia seems to be flailing in a sea of uncertainty in which anything can happen: a violent lurch towards more liberty or a retreat, no less jarring or traumatic, towards traditional authoritarianism.

Among Parker’s heartening takeaways is the fact that the Internet revolution isn’t just a powerful force to combat dictatorships, but also gives voice to ordinary citizens in open societies, where the right to criticism ceases to be the exclusive prerogative of certain institutions and outlets, but rather extends across all of society, and can now scrutinize traditional media as well. A certain informational anarchy flows from all this, along with a framework in which free expression is constantly refined, debated and ultimately perfected.

There is true genius to be found online, on our social networks, and this talent tends to be as extravagant and idiosyncratic as it is with great artists—brimming with mania, style and ambition. One of the merits of Parker’s work is to have captured these characters not just glued to their keyboards, shooting off their notes across the ether to their myriad friends and followers, but also in their intimate reality, in the cafes or pubs where they seek refuge, in their families, in the political rallies they support or in the hiding places they seek out when persecuted. That fills this book with color and life, preventing politics, culture, social and economic problems from appearing as abstract realities, but rather as humanized aspects of our individual experience.

Some of the personalities in Parker’s book stick to memory with the same vivacity and dynamism of a Joseph Conrad or Andre Malraux character. Michael Anti (Zhao Jing) and He Caitou from China; Laritza Diversent, Reinaldo Escobar and Yoani Sanchez from Cuba and the Russian Alexey Navalny all appear on these pages in such notably dramatic fashion that they seem to have been conjured up from fiction, instead of dreary reality. Navalny’s story is particularly well known, given the odyssey which landed him in jail and then sprang him from it to run for mayor of Moscow in an election that gave him three times more votes than polls had predicted (and probably more than were officially awarded him).

It’s a miracle that Alexey Navalny is still alive in a country where journalists highly critical of the regime of the new tsar, Vladimir Putin, tend to die poisoned or, like a brave Anna Politkovskaya, at the hands of thugs.Navalny’s resilience is especially admirable since he started his blogging career denouncing the criminal activities and corruption of great enterprises (public or private) and exhorting followers to take legal action to defend their rights and hold vested interests accountable.  Not only is he alive; after having labeled the ruling party, United Russia, the “party of crooks and thieves,” Navalny has become a real political force in Russia—convening opposition rallies that have brought together tens of thousands of people. He is also a charismatic multilingual international figure who stands out in Parker’s book for his charm and elegance, but also because it is so difficult to ascertain the boundaries between his ambitions, convictions and principles. There is no doubt he is exceptionally courageous and intelligent. But is he also a democrat genuinely guided by a passion for liberty, or an ambitious populist taking risks to slake his thirst for power and riches?

Reading this book it is hard not to feel a great deal of sadness at the backwardness totalitarianism has imposed on China, Russia and Cuba. Any social progress communism may have brought these societies is dwarfed by the civic, cultural and political retardation it caused, and the remaining obstacles standing in the way of these countries taking full advantage of their resources and reaching a modernity that encompasses democratic ideals, the rule of law and liberty. It’s clear that the old communist model is dead and buried, but it is taking these societies plenty of time and sacrifice to shake off its ghost. Parker’s book demonstrates the invaluable service the Internet, the great communications revolution of our time, is playing in this struggle.

Translated by Andrés Martinez. This article originally ran in Spanish in El País.