NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Rise Of Blogger-Activists, And The Regimes That Rule By Fear


Emily Parker has written about how the Internet is changing activism. Her new book is called "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Underground."

Emily Parker, thanks for coming in to our New York bureau.

EMILY PARKER: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: So your research comes in part from interviews with bloggers and online activists in countries like Russia. Give us a sense, what are some of the advantages that they have today compared to a generation or two ago?

PARKER: Well, my book focuses on the psychological impact of the Internet in countries like China, Cuba and Russia. And in particular, how online activists can use the Internet to overcome isolation, fear and apathy. Because isolation, fear and apathy are among the most effective weapons of authoritarian regimes. So, for example, I talk about ordinary bloggers in Cuba who start writing blogs and, for the first time, they feel that they can express themselves freely.

Or, for example, I talk about the famous Russian blogger Alexei Navalny, who launched anti-corruption campaigns on the Internet and helped ordinary Russians show that they could make a difference.

CORNISH: So let's break this down further. As you said, isolation, fear and apathy. In the book, I think you call them the lifeblood of authoritarian regimes.

PARKER: That's right.

CORNISH: So the first, isolation. This seems fairly obvious but talk about how it plays out for people under these regimes.

PARKER: In a country like China, for example, we talk a lot about Chinese censorship. And people tend to think that Chinese authorities censor words that are critical of the government. The truth is the Chinese government is far more concerned about collective action. They're concerned about assembly. And ever since the 1989 demonstrations that swept across the country and led to the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, the Communist Party has been extremely nervous about any kind of physical gathering. And it's very dangerous for critics of the party to gather in the real world.

So, for critics of the Chinese government, the Internet is the one place where they find that they are not alone.

CORNISH: The other issue is fear. And when you look at the way that regimes around the world have been only too happy to crack down on dissent, how has this really made a difference?

PARKER: So I don't want to downplay how tough authoritarian regimes can be on Internet activists. This is a serious and real threat. But I've also seen Internet activists overcome their fears. And I talk about this in particular in Cuba. I talk about, for example, a blogger named Loritza who, you know, early on in her life was afraid to express herself freely. And when she started writing her blog, she felt that she found her voice. She felt that she could express herself. She felt that she had a network of international readers that afforded her some degree of protection.

So even as she maneuvered this web of surveillance and intimidation and harassment, Loritza described herself as free.

CORNISH: Another issue you talk about is the idea of apathy. And I would think that this seems like the hardest to overcome, right, to kind of make a really foundational shift in a society? Give us an example where you've seen this shift, where you think it makes a difference.

PARKER: So I think in a country like Russia, for example, there was an off-cited survey in which 85 percent of Russians felt that they had no impact on their political system. And the Internet alone is not going to change that reality. But what Internet activists can do is show ordinary citizens that they can make a difference. And that's why someone like the prominent opposition blogger Alexei Navalny is so effective. He told me years ago, I propose to people the comfortable way of struggle.

And what he meant was he wasn't calling Russians out into the streets. He was saying: Please, fill out this online form. He would try to show ordinary Russians that they could protest corruption from the convenience of their living rooms and that sometimes they could win.

CORNISH: But, you know, since the book was published, President Putin signed a law requiring popular bloggers to register with the government. You've also told a story in the book about a popular Russian blogger was actually invited to the Kremlin and sort of had a change of point of view.

Does this indicate a kind of savviness by the government? And does this indicate that the Russian government perceives a growing threat?

PARKER: It absolutely indicates that the Russian government perceives a growing threat. And it indicates that the Internet finally matters in Russia. I mean, just a few years ago, the Internet, again, it was sort of seen as this virtual playground. It's like, you can say whatever you want online because the Internet doesn't really matter. And in 2011 and 2012, there were these large anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia and some of these were organized online.

And I think that alerted Kremlin to the fact that the Internet could actually be a political threat. So the reason they're cracking down on the Internet now is because they take the Internet a lot more seriously.

CORNISH: Emily Parker, her new book is "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From The Internet Underground." She joined us from our New York bureau.

Emily Parker, thank you.

PARKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.