Swedish Aid to Web Activists? Beware the Haystack Syndrome

Swedish Aid to Web Activists? Beware the Haystack Syndrome

by Christian Christensen

As announced to a broader population in an article in Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish; English summary can be read here), the Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson has spearheaded a move to channel Swedish foreign aid to web activists and bloggers in an effort to foster democratic debate and break down social and political barriers to web use.

Outlined in an opinion piece published on the Swedish government website (in Swedish), Carlsson, who has roughly $20 million at her disposal this year for aid in relation to freedom of speech and democracy, made note of the importance of the role social media such as Facebook and Twitter had played in spurring hopes for democratic change in Tunisia. Carlsson is inviting groups and individuals to submit proposals for projects to the government website, from which the most innovative and promising will be selected and discussed at a meeting in March.

It remains to be seen what will come out of this plan, but the Swedish government must exercise a degree of caution and forethought before delving into this area. For a classic example of what can go wrong when broad ideas about internet “freedom” are molded into concrete plans supported by governments, see the case of Haystack in the United States, where efforts to generate censorship-bypassing software aimed at Iran failed miserably. Similarly, questions must surely be raised regarding foreign aid to support the use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (both referred to by name by Gunilla Carlsson in her opinion piece). There is a disturbing tendency amongst pundits and politicians alike to use these corporate names as if they have been drained of all of their surveillance and profit-making motives and become altruistic vessels for democratic speech. Would we be as willing to accept the use of corporation names such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi in a government press release discussing an end to dehydration? I understand the difference in this case, but when governments get into bed with major global media players, alarm bells should sound.

Finally, a thought should be spared for the question of the type of democracy that might be fostered as a result of increased social media use, and to whom we are giving money (and why). As with the early days of television and radio, a great deal of ink has been spilled both warning users of the atomizing, individualistic nature of social media use, as well as praising the educational, democratic potential inherent in the technology. The actual “effects” of social media use upon users and political structures are famously hard to prove — consider, for example, all of the discussion on Twitter and in the blogosphere around the term “Twitter Revolutions” — and so caution might be in order before too many Swedish kroner are earmarked for web activism in the name of democratic change. Techno-utopianism is usually attractive in theory but is often weighed down by material realities of everyday life, even for citizens of supposedly “developed” countries.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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