Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground

April 29, 2014

EMILY PARKER: My book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, is about people who live in countries where the media is controlled by the government. People who were taught that if you don't agree with those in power, it's better to keep your mouth shut. People who used to feel scared, powerless and alone. Authoritarian regimes try to isolate critics from one another. But in the Internet age, critics of the government can find like-minded individuals online.

Isolation, fear, and apathy have long been the most effective weapons of authoritarian regimes. Now the Internet is helping ordinary people transcend these paralyzing feelings. The question is, what's next?

Revolution is not necessarily the answer. Revolutions need a spark, such as a political or economic crisis. Social media alone will not light that spark. Nor do revolutions always yield clean results. As we saw in Egypt, mass uprisings that are organized online tend to be leaderless and decentralized. They often have neither a plan nor unity of vision. This can be key to a revolution's success, as it makes it much more difficult for governments to target the leaders of a protest movement. But leaderless revolutions can yield a great deal of chaos if a revolution succeeds.

The good news is that the Internet can transform a country even without a revolution. The Internet has already changed China, for example, by providing a previously unimaginable forum for speech, information and citizen demands. Now I Know Who My Comrades Are describes the efforts of Internet activists like Michael Anti, Laritza Diversent, and Alexei Navalny.

And yes, there are very serious obstacles to Internet freedom. Authorities censor and monitor the Internet, they harass and arrest Internet activists. In some cases, things seem to get worse, not better. In Russia, the Internet is now considerably less free than it was even three years ago. Nor is the Internet an unequivocal force for good. As in the real world, the Internet is home to racism, sexism, ultra-nationalism, and all kinds of unpleasant stuff.

But there are brighter stories as well. Even in the most repressive environments the Internet helps create a new kind of citizen. These citizens are bold, networked, and action-oriented. And they can transform their countries whether a revolution takes place or not.

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