Second Life

Emily Parker
Now I Know Who My Comrades Are
(Sarah Crichton Books, 2014)

Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon in which one dog, sitting at a computer, says to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” addresses the anonymity the Internet affords and the identities one can perform. There is an implicit dishonesty in the act—and yet, for the Chinese, Cuban, and Russian “netizens” (Internet citizens) of Emily Parker’s Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, the Internet is the only space where they can be honest about their politics, their fears, their selves. To continue the analogy, it is in real life that they are humans and on the Internet that they can be dogs.

Parker begins this work on the Internet underground by offering an explanation. She suggests that the authoritarian governments in China, Cuba, and Russia haven’t been overthrown—though they are outnumbered by the populations they control—because they are protected by powerful forces: isolation, fear, and apathy. For Parker, China exemplifies isolation, Cuba fear, and Russia apathy, and she sets out to demonstrate the ways in which Internet activists combat and dissipate these ills. In each country, she focuses on two to three influential personalities representative of larger trends among dissidents. At the heart of their efforts are social media sites, discussion forums, and blogs, where netizens recognize like-minded people interested in detailing the realities of their everyday existences, which are consistently ignored or obfuscated by their respective government-controlled media. The fight is simply to portray life as it is: therein lies liberation.

In Cuba, blogger Laritza Diversent “was attempting, in her own modest way, to rewrite the story of her nation,” Parker explains.

Words like ‘Cuba’ and ‘Revolution’ had become propagandistic abstractions that had little to do with the actual people of the country. Laritza described blogs as ‘the place where we give life to our land, where it stops being Cuba and starts being the Cuban people.’

In China, liberation is also a matter of rendering, in this case, the historical record. Parker tells the story of the Chinese government’s attempts to relegate sometime-leader Zhao Ziyang to a historical footnote in the aftermath of the June 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Following Zhao’s show of sympathy with the students—he appeared before them at the protest and asked forgiveness—the former General Secretary was never seen again. In 2005, Ziyang died under house arrest. Although the state media announced his death, referring to him merely as Comrade Zhao Ziyang, questions regarding his identity appeared online in Chinese discussion forums; those questions were answered by other Chinese netizens.

Indeed, one of the book’s implicit messages is that meaningful action does not always have the traditional trappings of revolution. Activist efforts are not necessarily designed to upend; they are merely demands to uphold existing laws and granted rights. In Cuba, Laritiza and another blogger, Yaremis Flores, both trained lawyers, have founded Cubalex, an organization devoted to offering free legal advice to Cubans. Russian blogger Alexey Navalny “propos[es] to people the comfortable way of struggle.” Through his blog, Navalny alerts people to potentially corrupt government dealings and urges them to send in complaints. Over the course of the book, he goes on to found such websites as Rosyama and RosPil. On Rosyama, Russians can post pictures of potholes, with complaints sent directly to appropriate authorities. RosPil gathers suspect government tenders—governmentally requested materials or services that are open for bidding—information that is made available online by the government itself. If, following discussion among users and experts, the proposal seems suspicious, RosPil lawyers send a complaint to corresponding authorities. Navalny’s efforts have not stamped out corruption completely, but in a country mired in resignation, this kind of Internet activism is nonetheless significant. Describing the outcome of his campaign against embezzlement at a state-owned bank, he says, “They probably steal 40 percent instead of 70 percent. They continue to steal but at least they are afraid to do it openly.”

In the U.S., filling out Internet petitions easily reads as slacktivism. Postsecret can be seen as an analog to Chinese blogger He Caitou’s site Shudong, on which users air stories about “economic pressures, suicide, and homosexuality.” And yet, just as with Internet petitioning in Russia, Caitou’s site carries a different meaning than it would in the U.S. The book, of course, is concerned with how the Internet can lead to democracy, but it also inadvertently demonstrates how online activities can have radically different functions depending on their contexts. To send a postcard to Postsecret is to express oneself, but to post on Caitou’s site is to trust others and thereby rebuild a fragmented society.

Parker’s book is clearly written, well researched, and contextualized. Her long-lasting relationships—she meets Chinese dissident Michael Anti for the first time in 2004, for example—allow her to create a narrative history of these bloggers’ personal evolution as potential reformers, of Internet activism as a whole as seen through their experiences, and of government responses to it. Early on in the book, Anti is unfazed by invitations to tea from government Public Security Bureau agents; seven years later, in 2011, Parker can see he is shaken when he receives a decidedly less friendly invitation to tea from the National Security Bureau following a government crackdown on journalists, activists, and dissidents. By contrast, Russia’s Rustem Adagamov tells Parker in 2010 that, “there was no point engaging in politics.” But by the time Parker sees him in March 2012, he has been disillusioned by Medvedev handing back power to Putin and energized by the December 2011 protests. Moreover, Parker’s visits to the three countries give her  first-hand experience with some of the stresses under which the activists operate, particularly in Cuba, where she is infected with the same paranoia and fear that permeate and paralyze society at large.

Although the designation of problems—China’s isolation, Cuba’s fear, and Russia’s apathy—seems mildly arbitrary, since it’s hard to know where fear ends and isolation begins, for example, this is a minor quibble. A larger issue, one over which Parker has no control, is that the book is very current, and thus, almost immediately outdated. As she herself says, “reality looks static until it’s not.” But although the book opens with the Egyptian uprising’s Facebook beginnings, Parker’s intent is not to anticipate revolution. It is to describe the ways in which the Internet enables a radically shifted perception of one’s country and of one’s place within it.

Contributor

Katharina Smundak

KATHARINA SMUNDAK teaches English and has a newsletter, tinyletter.com/smundak, which you should sign up for in case you don't have enough tabs open in your browser at any given time.

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