What contribution does the Internet make to democracy?

In this essay I will be looking at what contribution the internet makes to democracy if any, and relate it in particular to the events around the Arab Spring. First of all we need to see that the internet itself it only a proving ground, which means that it is up to the people using it to fill it with good or bad things. The internet may not directly bring about democracy but rather can be used as a tool by democratic movements and act as a platform for them to express their ideas or to raise awareness through posting information that is available for people to chose to view. However, crediting the internet with contributing to making the world a more democratic place means that we are expecting that the people involved in this are acting responsibly and also that people are actually wanting to be involved in making the world a better and fairer place.

However, I think it would be interesting to take a step back to 2002 when the internet was 3000 days old and James Crabtree wrote an article on opendemocracy.net entitled The Internet is bad for Democracy (https://www.opendemocracy.net/media-edemocracy/article_822.jsp 5 December 2002). In his article Crabtree writes the following:

“In the language of 1066 and All That, we have come to believe that the Internet will be a Good Thing for democracy. The consensus is caring in intent and unthinking in execution. In intent, it recognises that western democracy is hobbled by disengagement, falling turnout, and disconnection with citizens. But it assumes without thinking that while the Internet might not revolutionise the world, its sum effect will make life a little better. There are good reasons to believe this might not be the case.”

Crabtree argues that in his opinion using technology to promote democracy could be “disruptive” to existing organisations. He starts by stating that the internet has changed people’s expectations and uses the example of sending an email to a bank. We look for an immediate response to our query or complaint. This then leads people to expect that the same will happen with everything on the internet regardless of the size or complexity of the issue. Therefore when people start targeting big organisations, whether they be governmental or corporate, there is the expectation that these institutions will come back with a rapid response. Crabtree points out that the problem is that these types of institutions do not work in the same way that the internet does and states that “pluralist politics functions by slowly filtering individual preference through groups. Yet, the Netizens still want their answers, in hours not weeks. If they don’t get them, because representative democracy doesn’t work that way, democratic frustration will surely follow.” (Opendemocracy, December 2002) He also points out that the level that these organisations work at does not allow for dealing with individuals or small groups but that they function best through dealing with organisations of equal size, therefore, because the internet works through small groups coming together to protest or fight for change their voices never get heard by these organisations – “At base, traditional democracies work best when dealing with big groups, such as the British Confederation of British Industries (CBI) or Trades Union Congress (TUC). They don’t have the resources to deal with tiny voices.” (Crabtree, Opendemocracy, December 2002)

“In less than a generation, the Internet has altered the daily lives of individuals in ways few would have conceived in its nascent stages. Initially a playground for the computer savvy, the world of blogs and tweets has given equal voice to anyone with a computer and a web connection.” Miller Center . Internet and Democracy. Available: http://millercenter.org/debates/internet. Last accessed 20th April 2015 . What the internet offers is the dissemination of information and I argue that is information that creates a democracy. As Albert Einstein famously said “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved through understanding.”

To show how much the internet has changed the way we react to situations that we wish to redress, I would like to look at the story of Edward Snowden. In June 2013, Edward Snowden an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) began to leak files to the press that exposed world wide Government snooping at the hands of American agency the NSA and British intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).

“The British spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), taps fiber optic cables all over the world to intercept data flowing through the global Internet, we learned. The GCHQ works closely with the NSA, sharing data and intelligence in a program that’s codenamed Tempora.Tempora is one of the key NSA/GCHQ programs, allowing the spy agencies to collect vast troves of data, but for some reason, it has sometimes been overlooked. After a couple of months from the Tempora revelation, a German newspaper revealed the names of the companies that collaborate with the GCHQ in the Tempora program: Verizon Business, British Telecommunications, Vodafone Cable, Global Crossing, Level 3, Viatel and Interoute.” orenzo-franceschi-bicchierai. (2014). The 10 Biggest Revelations From Edward Snowden’s Leaks. Available: http://mashable.com/2014/06/05/edward-snowden-revelations/. Last accessed 30th April.

While in Snowden’s leak XkeyScore 32-page NSA presentation dated 25 February 2008, he gives details of Xkeyscore, which allows agents to access unfiltered and unlimited web traffic all without a warrant. This acts as a monitoring tool that can piece to together details of a user by intercepting web traffic from around the world. However, in Laura Poitras 2014 documentary about Snowden and his interactions with Guardian journalist and writer Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong we witness Snowden and Greenwald communicate via encrypted internet chat. This example opens up the debate over the usage of the internet by individuals and governments. The internet gives us ability to instantly connect from anywhere to anyone in the world, granting us the power send videos and media to thousands of devices. However, on one hand we see Snowden communicating and leaking his information via the internet while on the other hand, as shown by many governments, are own included, the internet is just another tool of the surveillance industry which is being used to invade and control populations.

With camera phones and the ability to live stream there is no denying the change the internet and technology on a whole has had on the press, a key tool for any full functioning society. We also have the rise of citizen journalism, with the public being able to capture hours of footage from mobile devices and simultaneously upload it to the web for millions of views as they witness events unfold. We also have the ability to blog and live tweet reports. The internet has also allowed the open dialogue between the press and the public with comment sections on websites. However, it is still important to understand that this does not guarantee a democratic process. For example, if we take a look at places like China or Bahrain, we can note that China uses what has been nicknamed the ‘great firewall of China’, a massive online snooping tool that monitors and censors the web. “China has Internet companies worth billions of dollars and more web users than the population of the United States — all while still being able to block information it deems counter to its interests. And now, some fear, the model is going global.” (Kristie Lu Stout. (2015). China’s Great Firewall: Fortune at the expense of freedom?. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/25/asia/china-internet-censorship-kristie-lu-stout/. Last accessed 30th April 2015.) Amnesty international criticized China in 2008 saying it “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world” China is one of the most dangerous places in the world for netzians with many offences ranging from communicating with groups abroad, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption. According to Reporters Without Boarders in 2012 and in 2014: “The Chinese government’s increasing efforts to influence global cyberspace rules is a further sign that internet freedom is under a sustained attack, said Amnesty International, ahead of China’s first World Internet Conference.” Amnestey International Blog . (2014). Internet freedom faces new attack as China seeks to shape global web rules. Available: https://www.amnesty.org/en/articles/news/2014/11/internet-freedom-faces-new-attack-china-seeks-shape-global-web-rules/. Last accessed 30th April 2015. If we now move on to our second example, Bahrain, where on 14 February 2011 thousands of pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Bahrain to demand political and social reform. While such demonstrations were not new, the scale of this particular demonstration was unprecedented as was the brutal crackdown carried out by the Bahraini government. According to figures released by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR,2011) and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report (BICI, 2011:409) as of 16 April 2012, the protests have led to 76 deaths and 2929 people being incarcerated. Marc Owen Jones, from the University of Durham writes the following in his paper entitled Social Media, Surveillance and Social Control in the Bahrain Uprising, which appeared in the Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Volume 9/Issue 2/April 2013: “…..both government supporters and activists alike turned to social media and the internet to follow unfolding events. The number of Twitter users in Bahrain shot up (Al-Wasat, 2011), and dozens of Facebook groups materialized, the majority of which were posting updates, information, photos and events related to the revolution. Indeed, media coverage of the Arab spring tended to popularize the social media aspect of the struggle, with many news outlets focusing on the role of Twitter and Facebook in the revolutions. Much of their discourse subscribed to the ‘technological utopian’ position, which views social media and the internet as a positive force that democratizes information, reinvigorates citizens’ political engagement, encourages freedom of expression and brings people together (Castells, 1996; Grossman, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Saco, 2002).

Others were somewhat cynical, arguing that social media were merely a tool, and not necessarily integral to the efficacy of the revolutions as whole.”

What is becoming increasingly clear as we look at this question is that the internet can be used as a tool to bring about a democratic change and increased freedom, but it can also be used as a tool to control and bring down any protests for change in the regime. Four years down the line and there has been no change in the regime in Bahrain. What you do have is two very polarised sides – one which is pro-government and one which is anti-government. Both sides continue to use social media as a means of attacking one another and gaining supporters. Rebecca MacKinnon (2012: 27) states:

People, governments, companies, and all kinds of groups are using the Internet to achieve all kinds of ends, including political ones.… Pitched battles are currently under way over not only who controls its [the internet’s] future, but also over its very nature, which in turn will determine whom it most empowers in the long run – and who will be shut out.” Mackinnon R (2012) Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books (Kindle version).

In Bahrain, it would seem that it is the activists who are ‘shut out’ and the government which is in a position of power. For activists in Bahrain, using social media as a means of going against the government or getting representation is fraught with danger. The tactics adopted by the government and secret police have brought about a climate of distrust, one that has disrupted the place occupied by social media by assimilating as part of the regime’s surveillance apparatus.

However, if we look at another country involved in the Arab Spring, we can see that the internet was successfully used as a tool by activists who wanted to bring about the change that the majority of the population wanted. In December 2010, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ageing autocrat celebrated victory as his National Democratic Party (NDP) was re-elected into heading up the government in elections that were marred by widespread vote-rigging and repression. On February 11, 2011 the Vice-President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned his post as President. What had happened during these three months? Well, a remarkable thing had happened – first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually over a million Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s removal. Through the use of technology, in particular social media, these events were brought into the homes of people across the world, allowing them to witness events as they happened. Tim Eaton, BBC Media Action, in his article Internet Activism and the Egyptian Uprisings: Transforming Online Dissent into the Offline World writes the following: “It is suggested here that the significance of internet-based information and communication technologies (ICT) in this period is twofold: first, in their utility as a tool for activists to mobilize, organize and inspire Egyptians to take to the streets on 25 January 2011; and, second, in their use as a medium to document events in Egypt beyond the reach of the authorities. Indeed, this ability to get people to the streets –

rather than its ability to keep them there – was the primary success of internet activism

in this period, and its significance was reduced once the momentum of events had

reached the mainstream. However, without the initial call to arms online and Facebook’s

ability to get thousands – though not millions – into the streets, then the demonstrations

might never have reached the mainstream majority of Egyptians, and Mubarak might

have survived. At the very least, it is difficult to disagree with Ahdaf Soueif in positing

that without internet activism the fledgling Egyptian revolution could not have happened

in the way that it did, nor for that matter at such speed (Idle and Nunns, 2011).” (Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Volume 9/Issue 2/April 2013)

As in Bahrain, anti-government activity through the use of social media was not new in Egypt. As far back as 2005, the country had a set of dedicated, committed and insightful political commentators who had begun to challenge the state-run media, and were uncovering stories that the state controlled sector would not or were not allowed to publish. Eaton T (2011a) Internet activism and revolution in Egypt: the growth of online dissent in Egypt and its role in the January 25th protests. MA thesis, University of Exeter. This first generation of internet activists were an integral part of the Kefaya movement which used many of the strategies prior to the 2005 presidential elections that woulod be used in the lead up to the January 25, 200 protests. The activists patterns of online behaviour shifted with the developments in technology. When social media hit the scene in 2007 a new generation of activists came to the fore. These activists were not particularly interested on the long arguments on political developments that the blogger community had created but were more interested in acting quickly and exploiting the capability of social media for a call to mobilisation. In 2008, protests partly organised through Facebook were a sign of things to come and in 2010 internet activists took up the cause of 28-year old Khaled Said who was brutally murdered at the hands of Egyptian police in June of that year. The official line from the authorities was that he had died while choking on a bag of drugs, however, pictures published by a blogger named Zeinobia showed Said’s badly beaten body with clear fractures to his skull and jaw. One thousand people attended the funeral in Said’s home town of Alexandria while other protested outside the Ministry of Interior’s offices in Cairo. Following on from this, an Egyptian Google executive named Wael Ghonim established a Facebook ‘group’ open for all Facebook members to join in order to campaign against police brutality. The group was called Kulina Khalid Said (We are all Khalid Said – WAAKS ) which was an expression which was soon taken up by supporters of the group. By doing this Ghonim sparked an online mobilisation that ultimately led to the January 2011 demonstrations in Cairo.

The role that the internet played in getting the people of Egypt onto the streets in January 2011 is quite remarkable given the cost of opposing the government as well as the fact that the internet was only available to approximately 50% of the population. WAAKS had hundreds of thousands of supporters, but it is not known how many of them took part in the January 25 demonstrations. Nevertheless, this was by far the biggest demonstration that had ever taken place in Egypt and as the protesters started gathering in various locations around the city they picked up people as they went along. The people that they picked up came from all different walks of life, working class and middle class, educated and uneducated. To quote Tom Eaton (2013): “This success highlights the pitfalls of much of the criticism surrounding the impact of internet activism in effecting political change; for once internet activism managed to begin to mobilize society on the streets in combination with more established political opposition movements, it achieved the popular base necessary for the conduct of communication power. The fact that organization may have been started by a somewhat elitist set of activists with access to computer-mediated communication (CMC) through the internet does not mean that the impact of internet activism was restricted to the online world.” (Tim Eaton, BBC Media Action, Internet Activism and the Egyptian Uprisings: Transforming Online Dissent into the Offline World . Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Volume 9/Issue 2/April 2013)

The reaction of the Egyptian government is witness to the gravity with which they took these internet activists. On January 28, the government took the decision to cut off the internet. The objective behind this was to presumably to quash the activists who would no longer have a means to communicate with each other. However, it had the opposite affect. When people discovered they could no longer use their mobile phones they resorted to the more traditional method of communication – word of mouth. This seems in fact to have enticed more people out onto the streets to see for themselves what was going on. Despite the blackout, many activists were able to find proxies and get back on line while others sent their updates to friends and relatives outside of the country to upload online. Some critics have argued that internet activity played little part in Mubarak’s resignation as they argue that demonstrations continued throughout the blackout. They however missed the point as, as Tom Eaton states: “the damage had already been done”.

(April 2013)

In conclusion, it can be stated that revolutions do not come out of thin air, nor do they come out of cyberspace. In Egypt as in Bahrain there had to be a common cause that bound the protesters together. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, the role of organized labour and the urban poor needs to be taken into consideration as well as the fact that they country had an established opposition movement. To say that the events were caused by a Facebook or Twitter revolution would be to oversimplify things and ignore other important factors. Tom Eaton puts it very succinctly: “Through the spread of information online, internet activists were able to establish networks of resistance within Egyptian political society. And, despite the relative weakness of the ties between members of these networks, CMC emerged as an effective tool to facilitate collective action. Perpetual connectivity of activists enabled them to have access to an infinite number of networks of trust and multiply the impact of social protest through the creation of an insurgent community. Internet activism made political action easier, faster and more universal in Egypt.” (Tim Eaton, BBC Media Action, Internet Activism and the Egyptian Uprisings: Transforming Online Dissent into the Offline World . Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Volume 9/Issue 2/April 2013).

Therefore, does the internet make a contribution to democracy? The answer is yes it does, but it is only one of many different aspects that need to come together successfully in order to make a positive change.

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