Internet and Democracy

Does the internet impact democracy? Does is help foster democracy, or does it absolutely have no impact? This debate has been heating up in the last few years with the dramatic impact of Web 2.0 and social media. In this blog, I will try to dig a little deeper into this topic by looking at some examples, assess some of the positive and negative impacts of internet on democracy, and the conclude with my overall assessment on the topic.

A) Positives of Internet…and Some Examples:

1) Access to information:
Information is golden and empowering. Access to information makes the society more educated; which leads to a stable, more healthy, creative and happy society, with a better standard of living. An informed society is more exposed to different viewpoints, ideas, cultures, values, and hence is more aware of its own rights, and the principles of democracy. During the recent revolution in Egypt, a protestor said, “I’m here on the streets not just because I’m so dependent on the internet and I the government decided to shut if off; I’m here because I want to defend my democratic right – whether one uses the internet or not, I have the right to make the decision on whether to access the internet or not. Internet helps inform citizens as to what is going on around the world, exposes them to different ideas, values and discussions, and changes the mind-set of the people just by increasing their general awareness of the world around them.

2) Gives People a Voice:
It gives people an avenue to speak their mind, be heard, to share / discuss ideas, vent their frustrations. Using internet, anyone can be a pundit, a reporter, or a political organizer using tools such as text messages, e-mails, wikis, blogs, video, and websites. It fosters not just one-to-one communications, but a many-to-many communications. For activism that is not centrally organized, for activists who don’t have the resources for organizing events or rallies, the internet provides a great avenue for digital organization or e-activism. For example there groups of airline passengers, church goers, and television show fans that have come together online and changed public policy and private decisions – groups that are too disparate to have been constituted without the Internet. In Colombia, the Facebook group “A Million Voices Against FARC” organized what some called the largest protest in Colombian history when an estimated 4.8 million Colombians participated in 365 marches across the country. The Internet provides a great platform for political discussion, debate and deliberation that leads to an increase in political participation, which also fosters the formation of social capital, and helps democracy.

3) Helps Create Transparency and Government Accountability:
Government accountability, and have checks and balances in a constitutional system, are crucial elements required for the functioning of a real democracy. Internet and concepts like e-governance, help create a transparency between the government and the citizens, helps understand each others problems a little more clearly, and builds and closer relationship between the two. This leads to a more efficient governance, and assists in building trust between the government and the people. The increased political participation, and improved transparency as a result of the internet, have proven to have resulted in rooting out corruption, better monitoring of election results, and hence helping safeguard the democratic principles. Demonstrations, activisms, revolutions, elections, and other processes that may be substantially influenced by digital networking all help is vertical accountability (from the citizens to the government).

Example of Kenya:

Internet can also help a nation externalize its internal conflict, and hold its government accountable by exposing its deeds to the international regime.

For example – On January 1, 2008, as word spread throughout Kenya that incumbent presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki had rigged the recent presidential election, text messages urging violence spread across the country and tribal and politically motivated attacks were perpetrated throughout Kenya. A group of Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora launched Ushahidi, an online campaign to draw local and global attention to the violence taking place in their country. Within weeks they had documented in detail hundreds of incidents of violence that would have otherwise gone unreported, and received hundreds of thousands of site visits from around the world, sparking increased global media attention.

Crowdsourcing in Kenya:
In 2006, when Kenyan lawyer Ory Okolloh teamed up with an anonymous blogger known as ‘M’ to create Mzalendo: Eye on Kenyan Parliament, a Web site dedicated to helping hold Kenyan Members of Parliament accountable for their votes. Another notable example is the blog of Joseph Karoki, who wrote about a young boy who was left crying after his mother was killed in Naivasha. He organized donations for ‘Baby Brian,’ and kept readers of his blog updated on the progress of one family a!ected by the violence in Kenya.

Crowdvoicing in Kenya:
Even though 5% of Kenyans had internet access in 2007, the power and influence of the citizen journalists (the bloggers), is noteworthy. Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the national conversation, starting during the Kenyan Government’s 3-day ban on live broadcasts. The web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof during that 3 day period, and the influence of the internet ballooned even further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach not just 5%, but 95% of the Kenya population.

Crowdsourcing and Crowdvoicing are powerful tools when it comes to creating transparency, protection human rights, and holding a government accountable.

4) The 2011 Revolution in Egypt:
The recent revolution in Egypt, was the first major “social-media led” revolution, and it clearly brought to light, the power of internet in promoting democracy, and holding the government accountable. After 30 years of living in a “fake democratic system” under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people had had enough. After the rigged elections held in late 2010, the digital active Egyptian youth decided to take matters into their own hands, and force a change. There was no freedom of assembly in Egypt, and protests or political activism was banned. Hence began this online revolution using social media, namely Facebook and Twitter, to vent frustrations, discuss ideas, and organize events/protests. The fall of the government in the neighbouring Tunisia, acted as a spark which led to the Egyptian revolution that lasted 18 days and led to the fall of the undemocratic Egyptian government. During the revolution, videos recorded using mobile-phones and cameras were posted on sites like YouTube and seen all over the world. In an unprecedented move, the Egyptian government fearing the impact of technology, shut down the Internet and the phone networks for 5 days. The move backfired! Lack of internet access fueled the anger amongst the people, who now left the confines of their homes and took the revolutions onto the streets.

Although there were many other factors and reasons that led to the start of the Egyptian revolution, social-media and the internet played a crucial role in its organization, and ultimately the success.

5) Spreading Democracy Beyond Borders:
Internet also helps spread the democratic values beyond the borders of a nation. This is clearly evident in the recent events in the middle-east. During the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, the Tunisian people (who just had a successful revolution of their own), were giving advice and tips to the Egyptian people via blogging sites, emails and social media tools, on how to organize protests, and what to watch out for. Internet is also helping spread the news and discussions about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions among the neighbouring undemocratic countries in the middle-east. The media in most of these nations is heavily censored and pro-government. Hence, internet is becoming the only way the people in these countries can access the truth, to learn about the revolutions in their neighbouring countries, and to be aware of their rights and potential to lead their own revolution for democracy. We are already seeing evidence of that in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen.

B) Negatives Aspects/Examples of Internet:

1) Internet Can Favor Authoritarian Governments:
The internet unleashes processes that strengthen and weaken democracy simultaneously. It can sometimes favour dictators or authoritarian regimes, who use it for propaganda of anti-democratic / pro-government values, and surveillance on their citizens. A strong authoritarian government that enjoys fast economic growth and domestic legitimacy would not be affected by the prospects of internet-enabled civic mobilisation to the same extent as a government that is weak. Likewise, a strong authoritarian government would be in a much better position to profit from online surveillance and propaganda than a weak one.

For example: Russian government has hired hidden bloggers who debate to anti-government views online, and promote pro-government values. China’s censorship of the internet, its human rights abuses and its anti-democratic values are well documented. But online community has not been able to successfully challenge the government, or bring the online fight for democracy onto the streets. The economic growth that the Chinese government is able to provide to its citizens, is able to mask or subdue the human rights issues.

2) Can be Used for Promoting Violence/Terrorism:
Internet can also be used for the wrong reasons – for spreading hatred and fueling violence. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have been using internet for spreading extremist and anti-American view; and now the drug cartels of Acapulco and the ultra-violent online world of the Mexican drug cartels, have taken their blood-soaked rivalry to the internet. Dozens of gang-related videos are posted on YouTube and on several Mexican sites for propaganda and to recruit members and intimidate rivals.

While many violent videos are blocked by YouTube monitors, some horrendous images (like beheading videos) manage to slip through and are watched by thousands of people before they are removed.

3) Example of Iran…Revolution Did Not Work:
The green revolution that took place in Iran, after the rigged elections of 2009, was not effective. The internet played a major role during that revolution, but it was not successful. The Iranian government was prepared, took swift and immediate action, censored the media / internet, and used its military power to crush the revolution.

4) Government Can Censor, or Even Shut Off The Internet:
Due to the open architecture of the internet, and the heavy reliance of a national economy on it, no one thought that it was ever possible for a government to cut off the internet….or the need for a government to have an Internet Kill Switch. But as we saw int he case of Egypt, when there is a centralized power, and only a handle of Internet Service Providers, the government has the power to shut down the internet. The most of the internet network in Egypt is owned by only a handful of telecom companies. Hence the Egyptian government was able to shut down the internet and the phone networks, by just making a few threatening phone calls, and ordering the telecom companies to shut down their respective networks.

5) The Power of Google:
In March 2007, a Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to YouTube (the site is owned by Google) in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law. Google responded by using a technique called I.P. blocking, that prevented access to videos that clearly violated Turkish law, but only in Turkey. But the Turkish government demanded that Google block access to the offending videos throughout the world, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside the country. Google refused, arguing that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to set the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. Unmoved, the Turkish government continued to block access to YouTube in Turkey. This example tells us that the governments can influence the decisions of internet providers and companies, and thus impacting our access to free speech.

There are also fears of violations of privacy that could chill free speech. For example In China in 2004, Yahoo turned over to the Chinese government important account information connected to the e-mail address of a Chinese dissident who was imprisoned as a result. Isolating or purging data is the best way of protecting privacy and free expression in the Internet age: it’s the only way of guaranteeing that government officials can’t force companies like Google and Yahoo to turn over information that allows individuals to be identified.

As for Google, one has to realize that it is not just a neutral platform for users; it is also a company in the advertising and media business. And so, in the future, it might slant its search results to favor its own media applications or to bury its competitors. Google has enormous control over a platform of all the world’s data. And the bottom line is that every company’s goal is to increase market share. And so, in order to meet those goals, it will be increasingly hard for Google to be good, and to gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.

Conclusions:

Personally I think access to information is key for citizens to gain knowledge, be aware of their rights, think on their own and make rational decisions. The internet provides a fast and easy for access to information from around the world, and hence, is key in promoting the democratic principles. But it cannot overthrow authoritarian regimes or bring democracy to a nation, by itself. Technology alone cannot get people to the streets to start a revolution. But with the right social, political and cultural structure in place, it can definitely assist and play a crucial role in bringing democracy. Also, the internet penetration, its adoption, and digital literacy are the key factors in deciding how big of an impact internet can make in bringing democracy.

For a democracy to function in its full strength, it needs its horizontal processes of checks and balances to work along with its vertical accountability. Internet’s role of providing vertical accountability is clear – in the form of e-activism, e-governance, creating transparency and reducing corruption, election monitoring etc. But its impact on the horizontal accountability is still untapped. For example in Brazil, a journalist for the country’s largest newspaper, created the website to publish online the income and asset disclosure forms that are required of all Brazilian politicians running for office. This site now has the disclosures of more than 25,000 politicians. The Brazilian public’s desire for this kind of information was so great that the site had more than one million unique visitors on its first day. This shows us that when governments are either unable or unwilling to share information publicly, the public and the media can now pick up that information and make it meaningful. This creates a horizontal, or somewhat diagonal accountability check, which further enhances and strengthens the democratic process.

Internet is a tool to be cherished. And if used correctly, and under the right circumstances, it can be very powerful, and instrumental in promoting the principle of democracy and freedom.

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About pritamkabe

Originally from Bombay, India. Relocated to the United States in 1997 for attending graduate school at The University of Texas. Completed my Masters in Electrical Engineering in 1999 and then worked in the Hi-Tech industry for the next 11 years in Austin, Texas. I have a passion for travelling, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures...and i've been very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to travel quite a bit. Sports and food are my other big passions in life. Some life-changing experiences in my life a years ago changed my perspective of life, after which, just have an engineering job was not meaningful to me anymore. Hence i quit my engineering career, and I'm now motivated to give back to society and make a positive impact in some way. To get started on that journey, i went back in graduate school, and recently graduated as a "Mid-Career Fellow in Foreign Service", from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Currently in New Delhi, India, on a research fellowship, to learn about the educational issues in India, and brainstorm my ideas about technological interventions for resolving those issues.
This entry was posted in ICT for Development, International Affairs, International Development. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Internet and Democracy

  1. Woo Young, Chang says:

    Thanks!! I really appreciate your analysis, I’ve always wanted to get a grab on this issue and you’ve been a great help 🙂

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