“Are they the “digital renegades,” ready to leverage the power of social networking and text messaging to topple their undemocratic governments? Or are they “digital captives,” whose political and social dissent has been significantly neutered by the Internet, turning them into happy consumers of Hollywood’s digital marginalia?”

Evgeny Morozov has a thought-provoking editorial in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune entitled, “Digital renegades, or captives?” While we have been celebrating Obama’s victory as a symbol of Digital Natives’ influence on American politics, Morozov urges us to look beyond our borders to examine the Internet’s role in politics outside of Western democracies. The picture he paints is not so optimistic.

We have to be aware of the fact that the Internet has given the youth living in controlled societies infinite venues for digital entertainment – without any religious or social censorship – that may not necessarily be enhancing their digital sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Risking the comfort of their bedrooms – with their hard-drives full of digital goodies – for the gloom of a prison cell does not appeal to many of them. The governments are all too happy to promote this new cult of “cyber-hedonism.” Whatever keeps these troubled youths from the streets is inherently a good thing. Digital captives are, after all, cheaper to sustain than the real ones.

What Morozov argues – that the Internet provides infinite venues of entertainment – is essentially true for American teens as well. The Internet is primarily a social and entertainment space, and civic engagement is only a very small niche that exists within that. So why should it be more troublesome under authoritative regimes? The difference is in the stakes – political protest in an undemocratic country can result in jail time or worse. But this is true regardless of whether teens are going online or not, so how does the other side of the equation – this opening up of the entertainment world – change the balance?

There’s an interesting line of argument here that authoritative governments are encouraging this consumption of digital entertainment. These same regimes are also likely to be blocking websites and censoring their own entertainment industries, but for the web-savvy, the Internet is a space for taboos to be broken and censorship to be circumvented. Morozov cites a 2007 survey where 32 percent of Chinese youth said that the Internet broadens their sex life (compared to only 11 percent of Americans). Isn’t this consumption of Western media already a form of protest – if not expressly political? Or is this consumption of illicit content just rebellious enough to satisfy youth without bringing about real change? It seems like government using this method to keep their Digital Natives “captive” have to walk a fine line on censorship.

Morozoc concludes with some thoughts on what could motivate Digital Natives into political action:

In the absence of the local Obama in Russia, China or Iran, young people would continue worshiping Jerry Seinfeld and Paris Hilton (or their local alternatives), leaving the local democratic forces to themselves.

Implicit in his argument is the fact that we, America, needed our Obama too. Political change doesn’t come about in a vacuum. A year ago, there was still rampant skepticism about the Obama’s campaign and whether the mobilization of Internet-savvy youth can be effectively translated into votes. Books such as The Dumbest Generation argued that this generation was increasingly narcissistic and self-centered. In the afterglow of Obama’s victory, it’s easy to celebrate the power of the Internet, but it wasn’t always so clear.

Of course it’s naive to map the trajectory of American politics onto the world, but Digital Natives will surely have a role to play in world politics. It seems unfair to claim that these youth living under authoritative governments are any more easily distracted by Hollywood than American teens. The Internet alone of course cannot be a driving force of political change, but it is a platform that can be utilized for political protest.

Morozov does acknowledge the success of Facebook and other social networking sites in organizing protests in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. Just last week, anti-government protests in Croatia emerged from a couple Facebook groups against Prime Minister Ivo Sanader on Facebook: “I bet I can find 5,000 people that hate the Prime Minister” and “Tighten your own belt, you gang of knaves.” Niksa Klecak, the creator of the first group, was actually taken captive for real The protest (photos here) drew roughly 3500 people last Friday. Certainly these protesters were not too busy distracted by Hollywood to protest.

I have one last idea to ponder that emerges from Morozov’s question, “Is the Tiananmen Square even possible in the age of Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace?” I don’t think this is the original intent of the question, but it got me wondering how widely distributed photos and videos of protesters online make it easy for governments identify and possibly prosecute protesters. Should protesters worry about this before leaving their homes? The identity of the man standing defiant in front on the tanks at Tiananmen Square is a still a mystery, but if the same thing happened today, wouldn’t someone snapped another photo of him on a camera phone?
-Sarah Zhang