Democratization and the Internet

When the first demonstrations began in Tunisia, people were surprised. When the popular protest continued and spread out to neighbouring countries, people here in the West simply couldn't believe their eyes. Was this actually happening? Were those people, that we, here in the West, only associate with radicalism, oppression and violence, actually protesting for reforms, democracy and freedom?


People were baffled. They never would have guessed. I must admit, I never expected Tunisia to be the first country to topple its dictator, but I knew there was unrest. I knew there were very exciting developments going in the Arab region. Not because I'm a clairvoyant or because I saw it in my crystal ball, but simply because I had been following the developments in that region. Small developments. Little newsworthy happenings -that didn't make it to the news, discussions between people, programs on television and much more. You see, I believe that if you want to understand the present and anticipate the future, you have to zoom in. Leave the bigger picture aside for a moment and focus on the details, on the smaller movements and sentiments that can be found on the ground, among the people and focus on technical developments.


In Holland people still have the tendency to dismiss sentiments and views expressed on the Internet: they don't take it seriously and think that the radical right wing ideas that can be found on the Internet are a marginal phenomenon. Recent Dutch history proves them wrong: right-wing party PVV entered Parliament with a staggering 24 seats out of 150. And that's not all: the ideas, theories, and typical expressions that are vented on particular right-wing websites, were echoed by that same PVV in Parliament. The crazy proposals and ideas launched by the party's leader Geert Wilders were first put forward on peripheral websites no one took seriously. The influence of so called marginal websites is much bigger than many people would like to believe.


I don't think the Dutch example is an exception. I think this goes for other countries as well. Social Media and the Internet have brought about a democratization of the media and they have become a means for people to communicate directly with politicians and prominent people, and to express their views honestly and relatively safely. Very often a bit too honest and vulgar, which is quite depressing, but honest none the less. If you observe people, you see that those who operate anonymously really let themselves go. This is one reason why people tend to not take them seriously, the views are so absurd at times, like caricatures. But beware. They're real or at the very least a reflection of real sentiments and often the start of radicalization which can spread out. And thanks to the new media, these sentiments are shared instantly and massively.


I firmly believe that this is a global development: the power of civilians will grow and the power of governments will no longer be self-evident. There will be political and social fragmentation and the role of the new media will be increasingly influential. Take for instance Egypt where the outcome of democratic pre-elections angered one group in society that went out and expressed its anger in a violent way by burning the headquarters of a presidential candidate. Everybody wants matters to go his way. Consensus at times seems almost a taboo. International coalitions will be forged (they are already), albeit virtually and the new world order may not be as unambiguous. Interesting and restless times are ahead, that will challenge powers, truths and prejudices. If you want to stay ahead of the game: focus, zoom in and be prepared for unsettling observations.


This lecture was presented at the Facing Forward Symposium 2012.


© Hassnae Bouazza, 2013