How can the internet act as a tool that promotes both democracy and authoritarianism? Elizabeth Stoycheff and Erik C. Nisbet explore this topic in their latest piece from The Conversation.
The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.
In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realize television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.
This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.
Not so fast.
In recent years, President Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. President Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.
This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.
The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.
On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.
However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.
And some do.
But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an intimate group of friends. They gain access to an infinite stream of music, movies and television shows. They spend hours playing video games.
However, our recent research shows that tuning out from politics and immersing oneself in online spectacle has political consequences for the health of democracy…
Featured Photo Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic