Just because people are online doesn’t mean they engage in civil public discourse. This simple idea has emerged as one thread of conventional wisdom in recent years, especially in the context of the People’s Republic of China. In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, Rebecca MacKinnon reinforces the idea:
Back in 2001 a U.S. spyplane made an emergency landing on Hainan island after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet which crashed into the sea. If people in the Chinese Internet chatrooms had gotten their way, the U.S. crew would be in a Chinese jail today. In a recent interview with The Atlantic’s James Fallows, the President of the China Investment Corporation Gao Xiqing pointed out that his P.R. department is inundated with public comments calling for him to sell U.S. dollar assets.
This sort of argument, parallel to the idea that the United States might not like what it sees if some states hold truly democratic elections, has become so common that I wonder whether MacKinnon can still reasonably say, as she does in the letter, “Americans tend to think of the Internet as the medium that will inevitably free the Chinese people of authoritarian rule.” Maybe my reading diet has become more isolated, but I don’t hear that argument anymore except as a foil. Is the narrative of a liberalizing Internet medium becoming a straw man?