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Drezner's Guide to Thinking About Civil Society 2.0

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 9 2010

Tufts international relations professor and master blogger Dan Drezner has a paper in the latest issue of the Brown Journal of World Affairs that lays out constructive ways for us to start thinking about the impact of the Internet on the relationship between the "state" and civil society around the globe. Weighing what modern connective technologies mean for what the U.S. State Department* calls, in the context of its so-called Civil Society 2.0 initiative, "social good" organizations against what the mean for the ability of totalitarian regimes to control their people, Drezner suggests that they often mean more of the same, whatever that same might be:

It would seem, therefore, that the internet merely re-inforces the pre-existing dynamics between states and non-state actors. In societies that value liberal norms -- democracies -- the internet clearly empowers non-state actors to influence the government. In arenas where liberal norms are not widely accepted -- interstate negotiations and totalitarian governments -- the internet has no appreciable effect.

Actually, more than having "no appreciable effect," Drezner concludes a bit later in the piece that networked technologies might actually have a deleterious impact in oppressed lands once things have moved past a sort of magic window of the first round of protests, something we saw in Iran where the regime in Tehran started using tools like Twitter and blogs to track down dissidents and start to turn the wave of public opinion back their way. Things look a bit different in places where, like China, an regime that has restrictive tendencies also would really like to use the Internet and mobile and all the rest to boost their country's economic activity; there, there's a bit more of an opening, because it's nearly impossible for a country that wants to exploit the web to impose a perfect regime of censorship at the same time. To boil it all down, the Internet might seem like a global organism, but its meaning and potential differs tremendously depending on the real-world relationship that already exists between human creatures and the governments under which they live.

Seems obvious. But Drezner thinks that Hillary Clinton's very Civil Society 2.0 initiative lacks such an awareness. Drezner calls them "misperceptions," and puts them as an unwarranted assumptions that, first, all these social tools primarily benefit "'good' groups" and, second, that the most major thing standing in the way of "digital liberalism" is that bad governments keep their people from the Internet.

On that first point, though, at least this FAQ sheet (pdf) from State's Tech@State project implies that they're busy picking winners. The very idea is to equip NGOs and other civil society groups with better tools and practices to better balance out the power dynamic between them and the state. The risk of doing that, it seems, is that it ups the odds that repressive regimes are going to simply up their game, doing whatever it takes get better at doing the web and all its affiliated technologies. But that ship has likely sailed already. The trend is towards networking the world, and it seems to make sense to consider who benefits from that wiring as its own distinct question. That approach still very much requires an understanding that dialing up Twitter in the context of Iran is very different than setting up people with mobile phones in Mexico -- or that meddling in Mexico City is different than doing it in Juarez, Mexico. Drezner, for his part, seems worried that this whole new "civil society 2.0" approach to diplomacy and development is a bit undermature when it comes to appreciating the multitudinous variations of life as it's lived across the planet.

Alas, Drezner's illuminating piece is available only to subscribers to the Brown Journal of World Affairs, or you might get lucky picking up a copy in your local bookstore. Or, should you have access to a university journal database, there's that route too.

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