When Emily Parker started writing columns about China and the Internet for the Wall Street Journal in 2004, she was skeptical that fledgling social media sites could make much of an impact.
"I wasn't convinced that the Internet was going to be transformative," she said during a recent interview. (An edited transcript of that conversation appears below.) "I thought, 'OK, a little information will get past the censors. But, is that really going to change China?' "
Over the next decade, Parker slowly became a believer, as canny Chinese "netizens" publicized information that the government wanted suppressed. Parker also saw the Internet create political change in such notoriously repressive regimes as Cuba and Russia.
A few weeks ago, Parker published the distillation of her decade-long education into a book titled "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground."
Parker, who speaks Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and French in addition to her native English, lived for several years in China. As a member of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's policy planning staff, she founded what she describes as the first open-government coding marathon between the United States and Russia, which brought together software experts to examine the problem of government transparency. (Parker eventually quit her government job because it was undermining her credibility with her sources for the book.)
The book includes profiles of such intriguing people as He Caitou, who — when he wasn't censoring the words of China's political dissidents for his government job — wrote a blog expressing his politically incorrect opinions. Another sharply etched portrait is that of Alexey Navalny, who rose from being a political gadfly in Russia to become a leader of the opposition party.
Parker, a New York resident in her 30s, will tell the stories of these and other dissident bloggers when she visits Goucher College on Wednesday.
Can you summarize the differences between how people in China, Cuba and Russia use the Internet?
The premise of my book is that most authoritarian regimes would not be able to survive a sustained mass uprising, but most of those uprisings don't come to pass because isolation, fear and apathy help keep these governments in control.
China in particular is very threatened by any gathering of people they distrust. A lot of censorship is not focused on what you say — it's focused on any potential for collective action. It's not, "Oh, this person insulted this official." It's more, "This person tried to get other people to join him in a common cause." The title of my book comes from a conversation I had with Michael Anti, a blogger I met in 2004. He said that the Internet is the one place where critics of the government learn they are not alone. He said, "Now I know who my comrades are." [Michael Anti is the pen name for a man named Zhao Jing.]
In my experience, the paranoia in Cuba is even more palpable than it is in China or Russia, because Cuba has a long tradition of being divided by citizen informers. You really have this feeling that the people sitting at the next table are watching you. Cuba has very limited Internet participation. But even though bloggers don't have a huge audience inside Cuba, they have found an audience outside the country. Those people tell their friends and relatives back in Cuba what the bloggers are saying.
The crux of the Russian story for me is when Alexey Navalny said, "I propose to people the comfortable way of struggle." A few years ago, Russia didn't have any significant Internet censorship, but people weren't using the Internet for activism or opposition. There was a sense of great fatigue. Eighty-five percent of Russians didn't feel they had any effect on the political process. Navalny started just by getting them to fill out [an advocacy] form online. Little by little, those protests — which people here call "slacktivism" — started getting results. It showed ordinary Russians they could make a change, and that helped them overcome their apathy.
Why did you focus on these three governments instead of equally repressive regimes in Africa, South America or the Middle East?
This book was 10 years in the making. There definitely are other great case studies that could be in this book, but I chose three countries where I could go back frequently and where I had existing networks. I really didn't want to write this book from my desk in New York, and I didn't think it was feasible for me to spend a lot of time reporting in Iran. Cuba was by far the most difficult of the countries that I chose. But I still was able to make several trips to Cuba and to follow up with these people over time.
Did you worry that writing about these dissidents by name would get them arrested or killed?
Actually, quite the opposite. In Cuba's case, the people in my book have been protected by publicity. When people in the outside world know their names and faces and stories, it's their greatest weapon. That's why bloggers in Cuba put their photos on their blog pages; anonymity actually is very dangerous for them. For example, the most likely reason that the female blogger [Yaremis Flores] who was arrested was able to get out is because there was so much publicity around her arrest. I was in New York, and I was watching all this happen in practically real time.
Your book makes the point that social media can be a double-edged sword. Can you explain?
These sites can be a powerful tool because social media-fueled revolutions tend to be leaderless. That makes it very difficult for a government to chop off the head of one leader. However, the downside to social media is that once that revolution succeeds, there are no leaders. That's one of the things that social media activists in Russia are aware of. They're trying to be more organized and more methodical.
In China, you see the dark side of social media in this kind of mob justice. People in China don't have a lot of faith in the courts, so they try to get justice online. There's no due process. People will decide that someone is guilty, and they'll all gang up on them. Sometimes, they'll try to find that person, and if that person is not guilty, it's actually quite tragic.
Any predictions about how social media will be used in Ukraine?
Russia is worth watching. I have consistently been surprised by Russia over the past few years. It is very capable of defying expectations. Now we're seeing Russia block Web pages relating to the Ukrainian protests.
We've seen stories of Ukrainian protesters using social media to organize, but we've also seen stories about Ukrainian protesters getting creepy text messages on their cellphones saying, "You are registered as a protester." The messages were warnings that somebody was watching and monitoring the protesters.
Clearly it wasn't effective, though, because it didn't stop people from protesting.
About the book
"Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground" is published by Sarah Crichton Books. 320 pages, $26.
If you go
Emily Parker will discuss her new book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Goucher College's Buchner Hall (in the Alumni House), 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Free. For details, call The Ivy Bookshop at 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.