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Point of view: The Internet as a New International Public Sphere: How can the Internet soften international conflicts and help human rights?

In this post we hear from Armenian BIN ‘18 member, Davit Musaelyan, on the power of the Internet as a tool for development.

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The Internet as a new variable

It is evident that the creation and popularisation of the Internet has changed a lot in politics. It has created an unprecedented environment in which information can travel around the globe in a matter of seconds. The social power of the Internet doesn’t come solely from its technological abilities alone. It gains its power from its accessibility and inclusiveness. The political and social situation of the past was very different from today’s, since there was no widespread access to the Internet, and its popularity is only a rather recent thing. While in 1995 around 1% of the world population had access to the Internet, today more than 50% of the world has almost all the knowledge of mankind at their disposal. It means that any socio-political event of the 21st century is historically unique because of the new circumstances that were never prevalent before.

What did the Internet change in the socio-political arena?

There are several ways that access to the Internet has shifted the socio-political arena. First and foremost, the most significant global change is that events in any state are very difficult to hide. While before it took months for the news of major events to spread, today it can be streamed live to millions of viewers all over the planet. If, for example, the government does something unlawful, it can no longer hide it as it could do only a few decades ago. It has created more incentives for states to be lawful and avoid human right violations.

Because of the numerous social websites, people from all over the world can come together into their own small communitiess for people with similar interests. Not only can they find people with the same ideology from the other side of the globe, but they can also find people who disagree with them over everything; both of which are equally useful. This creates a platform where people exchange ideas, which makes social beliefs evolve. At first, this seems somewhat whimsical and ideological, but in the long run, this is extremely useful and practical if we remember how big the role and the influence of propaganda was half-century ago. From the historical point of view, we can look at the second half of the 20th century as the “golden age of propaganda”, if we remember the situations in Nazi Germany, the USSR, and basically the whole world during the Cold War. It is reasonable to assume that it would be really hard to achieve such effective propaganda if the Internet had been a thing back then. It could have created freedom of expression, information, and ideas, which can ensure that people are able to think for themselves. It makes it harder for the government to spread hatred towards a minority, ethnicity, religion, or nation if people can easily interact with those people from their homes.

How can access to the Internet help human rights?

But what can people do with all the information that they have at the tip of their fingers? Having access to data is only one step, which doesn’t do much to influence political dynamics by itself.

At this point, it is important to mention another variable that significantly reduced violence and conflicts around the world. That variable is the spread of democracy. To begin with, history shows that democratic states rarely fight against each other. In combination with the freedom of information that the Internet provides, it can reduce violence even more.

Democracy does not reduce the number of wars because it is such a divine thing or because democratically elected leaders are saints from above that came down to earth to save us from war and sin. Democracy is more peaceful because democratically elected leaders understand that war is unpopular and decreases their chances of re-election. The Internet, in this case, makes sure that the warmongering democratic politician thinks before acting, as their reputation could be destroyed in a matter of seconds. It would not be easy for them to convince people through propaganda that this war is just and that it is for the greater good. People would have more access to the facts and, in addition to that, they would be on average better educated due to the access to the internet.

That would mean that democratic leaders will have to consider what people think about their policies. The Internet serves as a worldwide discussion platform for the citizens to gather data and talk about what they think and feel. While democracy in itself might enforce more peaceful international relations and improve human rights, access to the Internet makes it all the more effective.

Some might argue that according to these statements, the Internet doesn’t improve the pace of development in non-democratic states, and it only works as a booster for the already established democracies. That would not be entirely true. Even in non-democratic and dictatorial states, wide, free access to the Internet can greatly accelerate the peaceful transformation of the state, as well as it can quickly reduce the state’s toleration to violence.

The reason for this is that basically no state can survive on its own. All states have to trade with other states in order to function. And since most of the states of the world are democracies, any authoritarian state will have to respect their opinions to a certain degree. If the population of the authoritarian state has access to the Internet, all the human right violations in that country can be instantly known to the world. That will likely provoke the democratic states to use measures (sanctions and/or political means) to enforce the authoritative government to respect human rights.

Again, democratic states don’t help because their leaders are so kind and benevolent, but because their democratic population (constituency) might demand it, and doing what people want is a great PR move for the democratic government members.

In the very long term, the population of the authoritarian government is going to benefit from access to the internet by becoming more educated and informed, which would make the population more self-reliant and able to fight for themselves.

From the point of view of international relations, the Internet can provide great long-term benefits as well. Even though this is a somewhat vague statement, it is not unreasonable to believe that access to the Internet can reduce racism and chauvinism. The Internet is a platform, a public sphere, a “place” where people interact with other people of all types. People who have constant access to the Internet are used to seeing and hearing people with diverse ideas. That makes it difficult for such people to become xenophobic in any way.

Nobody can order anyone to dislike a certain group of people. It happens only via propaganda, or the person himself comes to that conclusion. If he has the access to the World Wide Web, propaganda almost falls out of the equation.

Conclusion

Ever since the end of WW2, the world is steadily walking towards a more peaceful future. It is undeniable that there are many problems left to be resolved, but still, the world today is more peaceful and safer than it ever was. We need to look back and understand what did we do that worked so well.

For many years we tried to spread democracy in order to make the world peaceful and it worked well. For even a longer time, we have tried to endorse education because it also helps human rights to flourish. Today we need to work on spreading information since it is the new cornerstone of progress. If we focus on spreading access to the internet in places like the Middle East and Africa, we are sure to promote the spread of democracy and the development of human rights. Not only is it the most efficient way to make many authoritative states less dictatorial, but it also has relatively few downsides. Technology has given humanity uncountable ways to make war, and now we must use its powers to spread peace and prosperity.

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