China, AstroTurf, and the Internet

I guess it’s natural that the war of words between China and the U.S. would quickly degenerate into a cyberwar.

According to Wired News, teams of Chinese hackers are planning on going after U.S. sites following this month’s round of attacks on Chinese sites by an American group.

The whole mess got me thinking about what we assumed the Internet could do and what the Internet, in fact, has done. My thoughts weren’t all happy ones.

Ever since I came online in the mid ’80s, we have taken it on faith that the medium forces changes from the bottom-up. Little people, or ordinary people, can communicate directly with one another and come to a new understanding of their common humanity. This shared perception will force the big boys to change and turn swords into plowshares.

It’s time to admit that doesn’t work, or at least not completely. The big boys still have the big bullhorns. It’s still easier for them to manipulate us than the other way around. Self-delusion can become a mass psychosis, one no mere discussion medium can break through.

Leaders manipulate their people into a cult of victimhood. It wasn’t your fault. Never mind the present power arrangements. Forget that we’ve pointed you toward terrified women and children, that you’ve got huge weapons and they have none. You’re the victim, and you’re just defending yourself. Ready, aim, fire.

Leaders in both the U.S. and China have used the downing of a spy plane to deflect people from their mistakes. Both sides are at fault, yet the hackers are following the propaganda and marching off to cyberwar.

But as Joe Klein points out this week in The New Yorker, it doesn’t have to be that way. Just a few weeks ago, Chinese leaders were apparently forced by pressure from the Internet to acknowledge mistakes they would never have admitted to before. The apology wasn’t complete, and it wasn’t entirely honest; but it was real, and it was necessary.

Politicians have a word for pressure exerted through manipulation as opposed to real grassroots activism. They call it “AstroTurf.”

Drug companies or cigarette companies (or software companies) want policymakers to do what they want. So they get people they can manipulate to flood Washington with identical demands reflecting their desires. It’s a top-down approach to creating bottom-up pressure. It’s expensive, but it works. Once the policymakers have moved, moreover, victory can be declared (no matter the result), and the Internet pressure can be shut off like a faucet.

There’s a natural tendency among all of us — even when we’re online — to believe our leaders (and our perceived betters). We’re just as easy to manipulate online as off, and a virtual “March on Washington” can be created quickly, with dramatic effect, by marketing people with cynical motives.

We can also be forced into cyberwar through manipulation of other media. We can be forced in quickly and completely. But the March 15 apology of Zhu Rongji offers a different lesson. We don’t have to be fooled. By listening to the Internet, not just speaking through it, we can break down any wall.

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