Does The Internet Encourage Democracy?
“In Iran and Moldova and other countries, online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results. And even in established democracies like the United States, we’ve seen the power of these tools to change history.” - Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State (Jan 2010)
Internet – Outreach
In the 21st century, the Internet has become the most potent medium of expression. Internet users have the potential to write their mind or showcase their thoughts and to connect or group with others who share their opinions. It has also become an important medium for the expression of criticism or dissent, especially in socio-political matters. The outreach of the Internet can be gauged by the levels of penetration reached in recent times. In 2012, the world had an estimated population of about 7 billion while the number of active Internet users was estimated at 2.4 billion.
Penetration (% Population)
Latin America / Caribbean
Oceania / Australia
Data from – Internet World Stats
The following are the top 15 countries of the world in terms of the number of Internet users
|Top countries by numbers of Internet users|
|Country||Number of Internet Users|
Data from May 2013 reveals that about 70% of American adults have high speed broadband connections in their homes; however analysts caution that not everyone reveals their real identity online. While the spread of the Internet has certainly promoted free speech, the relationship between democratic thought and the Internet is a subtle and debatable one, given the ease with which rumors could spread online and the levels of Internet censorship in different countries.
“With false names, on the right nets, they could be anybody. Old men, middle-aged women, anybody, as long as they were careful about the way they wrote. All that anyone would see were the words, their ideas. Every citizen started equal, on the nets.” ? Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
Social Media and Free Speech
The rise of Social Media has provided web users powerful tools of expression. Blogs have become the most potent news medium in countries where the freedom of press is curbed. As of 2012 there were about 59.4 million Wordpress sites (3.5 billion web pages) and 87.8 million Tumblr blogs across the World Wide Web. In the US there were about 31 million bloggers as of end 2012. Apart from these, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus have become important media for voicing one’s opinion. As of October 2013, Facebook, the popular social networking site has over 1.5 billion active users - almost a seventh of the world's population and as of February 2013, there were 200 million active users on Twitter. In 2012, Obama’s “Four more years” tweet received 819,000+ retweets - the highest number of reweets received by any tweet that year, testifying to the political consciousness and activity levels on the microblogging platform. Over 123 heads of states had official Twitter accounts as of end-2012. Many of them respond to questions and criticisms directed at them or their administration – enhancing the democratic quotient of the medium. The number of Facebook Pages and the activity in these has also shown an all-time high in recent times. In 2012, there were about 85,962 Facebook Pages posted every month from Brazil alone. As of May 2013, 4.75 billion pieces of content were shared daily, and every 60 seconds 293,000 statuses are updated, 136,000 photos are uploaded, and 510 comments are posted on Facebook. The potential of Social Media to foster free thought and expression and promote democracy is being explored by the youth of many countries across the world.
The Arab Spring – one of the most significant pro-democratic revolutions of our times was certainly spurred by popular opinions voiced on the Internet. The catalyzing effect of the Internet and Social Media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are undeniable.
The Arab Spring is a series of socio-political revolutions that broke out on December 18, 2010 in Tunisia and spread like wildfire to many countries of the Arab world toppling long-standing regimes of dictators in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Jordon, Kuwait, Morocco, and Syria all broke out in protests and the civil war in Syria is far from over. The slogan that has united the demonstrators in all these Arab countries that broke out is Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam ("the people want to bring down the regime").
In the Egyptian Revolution, a Facebook page called We Are All Khaled Said with thousands of members became the rallying point. The page exposed the brutality of the Egyptian police leading to the death of an Alexandria trader. Most protests in the country were believed to have been organized over the popular social network.
According to a survey conducted by Al Jazeera in 2013, about 84% Tunisians, 67% Libyans, 45% Egyptians, and 22% Yemenis believe that Social Media was a key factor in the success of their revolutions.
Quite predictably, the countries that broke out in violent revolution, spurred on by the Internet, also faced the worst censorship during the Arab Spring. While Egypt, Syria, and Libya faced full-fledged Internet blackouts or shutdowns, bloggers and outspoken Internet users were arrested and faced possible execution in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Tunisia, Internet freedom and security became a major concern and the erstwhile government resorted to hacking Facebook users to censor content. Even as the dictators censored news sources, citizen journalists took the lead in these countries and uploaded pictures and videos of the revolution opening up their revolution to a global audience.
I-Voting in Democracies
The outreach of the Internet and online voting systems have encouraged and strengthened democracies worldwide. In Estonia, online voting has been in place since 2005 (local elections; parliamentary elections 2007 onwards) and people have successfully voted without any security lapses. The Estonian model has been a highly successful one and has received appreciation from all quarters of the world. “Estonia was leapfrogging, going from a Soviet republic in 1989 to one of the most advanced democratic systems, in terms of the way they handle votes, in only 16 years” - Professor Alexander H Trechsel, e-voting researcher for the European Union. Online voting commenced in Canada in the year 2003 and since then all Canadian towns allow for Internet voting in the municipal elections. According to a private study, the turnout rose by about 300% the first year Internet voting was allowed. Other countries that have tested online voting systems include Latvia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
While the US does not yet allow citizens to cast their ballots through any Internet medium, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, displaced New Jersey Governor Chris Christie allowed residents to vote via e-mail. This was the first time civilians in a US state were allowed to vote remotely. Citizens living abroad and military personnel in many US states are allowed to vote via e-mail.
Critics of I-voting, however, have a number of reasons to oppose its introduction in democratic nations. These include -
Secrecy of ballot, a mandatory feature of democracy, difficult to maintain
Likelihood of errors and manipulation of votes high failing the purpose
Ballots and votes are unverifiable, making the system incompatible with democracy
I-Voting is for rich people and will not work in poor democracies
Online activism or Internet activism is another change brought about by the penetration of the Internet in most nations of the world. Founded by Ben Rattray in 2007, Change.org is an online petition website that allows a number of activist organizations (such as Amnesty International) and individuals to host online petitions. Operating in 18 countries with over 35 million users, Change.org has been an immense success in connecting people and voicing their opinions the world over. Similarly, Avaaz.org is an online network that promotes anti-corruption, human rights, political, and social activism. In its own words, the network works to "close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want." Operating in over 194 countries, with over 20 million members, Avaaz organizes activists in about 15 languages. According to The Guardian, Avaaz is “the globe's largest and most powerful online activist network". Online activism, however, suffers from its share of shortcomings. Online activism, critics say, tends to become armchair activism with a lack of proper action to back it up.
“Technology Doesn’t Guarantee Revolution”
A number of political activists and analysts are of the opinion that the use of Internet does not have any direct correlation to the spread of democracy. In the book The Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity, and Rights, author Gillian Young is of the opinion that the mere presence of technology or Internet connectivity in a country does not open up gateways to democracy. Poverty is a great impediment when it comes to access to such technological tools that may promote democratic thought. Young also believes that the Internet is an excellent tool to facilitate repression too. Democracy or democratic thought is fostered through the Internet only when specific conducive conditions exist in a nation.
In India, Social Media played a major role in garnering anti-corruption revolutionists and supporters through 2011. Despite the great success of the movement on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and having many thousands of blogs written in support, the revolution itself was deemed a failure due to the lack of legislations to eliminate corruption in the country. Similarly, an anti-rape and women’s protection revolution advocating a series of women’s safety legislations took off on Social Media in December 2012 and raged through early 2013. The legislation that was passed, however, was deemed a failure according to a UN specialist team.
Internet Censorship and Democracy
Many countries censor or restrict access to the Internet. Their citizens are unable to use the freedom of expression the Internet provides.
China's Internet censorship program – often referred to by the nickname "Great Firewall” – is a national gateway that blocks most foreign sites including Google Plus, Facebook, Wordpress, Blogspot, and Twitter. This may appall many from the west, where freedom of speech and expression on the Internet is more or less taken for granted. News censorship, and banning and deleting any views or even mentions of democratic thought, and any thought contrary to the communist regime is common. Till date all mentions of pro-democratic protests such as the Tiananmen Square protests are removed from the Internet in China prompting bloggers to use codes.
Some other nations which have adopted extreme forms of Internet censorship include Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Syria, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia – countries where pro-democratic thought finds very little or no support.
Astonishingly, according to a 2012 report by Freedom House, democratic governments of the world have shown an increasing tendency towards Internet censorship in the recent years. In India, the IT Rules 2011 law made it mandatory for objectionable content to be taken down by website operators. Google has revealed a high volume of requests from central and state government to take down websites and content that could be deemed offensive to individuals or political institutions. Instances of web censorship in Pakistan have also been increasing multifold over the recent years. The country plans to implement an automated url blocking system. Internet censorship is also on the rise in countries such as the UK and Australia, though these governments claim that only adult content shall be targeted. Apart from the attempts to implement the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the PIPA (Protect IP Act), the web censorship programs of the US government have attracted much criticism. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a technical assistant with the CIA exposed a major government-led mass surveillance program to intercept electronic communication of the people. Snowden faces criminal charges and prosecution and has been provided temporary asylum by Russia. The US government is also reported to be running a number of cyber surveillance programs of Islamic student groups in the country.
The Internet and various social media platforms have certainly given many people the opportunity to express their views. But does this promote democracy? It's still an open question.